Thursday, December 31, 2009

Chinese Love Lyrics: Moon, Bird, & River

Continuing the exploration of my poetry shelves, the next book I come to is Chinese Love Lyrics, one of those slim verse volumes produced by Peter Pauper Press back in the day. Books from this press were inexpensive ("prices even a pauper could afford") yet at once decorative and, most importantly, often full of classic and unique translations of Asian literature, frequently from Japan and Asia.

Chinese Love Lyrics is subtitled "From Most Ancient To Modern Times," concentrating mostly on the older poems from the time of the Tang Dynasty. The very first in the book is probably the very best:

If I were a tree or a plant
I would feel the soft influence of spring.
Since I'm a man ...
Do not be astonished at my joy.
Anonymous (1005 A.D.)
translated by Gertrude L. Joerissen

In this surprising little four-line lyric, how far we have become removed from nature is simply and powerful captured. The first three lines imply that people are not affected by "the soft influence of spring," but line 4 quickly pirouettes, revealing undifferentiated joy as just such an affect. Here is another four-line lyric, a poem that in one essential image captures love in all its beauty and transformative power:

Watching the Moon
My beloved knows
that I watch thee, O moon,
And when thy beams caress her,
Our separation is less cruel.
Chiang Che-Kin
translated by Gertrude L. Joerissen

In Chinese poetry, as well as Japanese that was so heavily influenced by it, the moon was a ubiquitous presence, often shining down on lovers separated by great distances, as in this poem. That ubiquitousness is an important spiritual element, grounding humans in the very transitoriness of life and directly connecting us to nature. That it is used in love poetry as a lyrical, romantic facet adds a depth that is is at once essential and resonant.

In fact, this connectedness can be further illustrated by two more of my favorite poems from this particular collection, one using bird song and the other a river as the moon is used in Chiang Che-Kin's poem.

Birds Singing at Dusk
The cool wind of evening
Blows bird-song to the window
Where a maiden sits.
She is embrodiering bright flowers
On a piece of silk.

Her head is raised;
Her work falls through her fingers;
Her thoughts have flown to him
Who is away.

"A bird can easily find its mate
Among the leaves,
But all a maiden's tears,
Falling like rain from Heaven,
Will not bring back
Her distant lover."

She bends again to her embroidery:
"I will weave a little verse
Among these flowers of his robe ...
Perhaps he will read it
And come back again."
Li Po
translated by Peter Rudolph

A River of Love
I live at the upper end of the River,
And at the lower end live you;
Every day I long to see you but cannot ...
Though from the same River we drink.

When will the River go dry?
When can my sorrow come to an end?
Only may your heart be like mine ...
My love for you will not be in vain.
Li Chih-Yi translated by Ch'u Ta Kao

Li Po's poem has the young woman hearing bird song and, with it, her thoughts take flight to her distant lover. Embroidering a little verse, perhaps this very one into her lover's robe is a nice touch by the poet (and his persona), giving one pause over our parochial use of the term post-modern in recent times, as if "modern" culture was the first and only culture to reflect upon itself and its own creations with artistic distance, be it ironic or no.

As the moon's light and the bird in flight connect the lovers in the two previous poems, so the river connects a separated pair. I love the fact that they take life from the same source, as life has always centered around the sources of water. The juxtaposition of the questions of when the River will dry and when will the lover's sorrow end is particularly poignant, equating as it does death with the end of love. Simple a lyric as it is, it returns us to the source of all things, a touching reminder of our implicit involvement with nature which today we push so far from whom we are and what we do.

Finally, one last poem from this lovely collection that may remind you of something a bit more modern than classic Chinese poetry, if a tad short of a ramble in the field of post-modernism.

The Separation
Daylight! And I must leave.
Beloved friend, do not rise!
Give me the little lamp
That I may look at thee again,
That I may pull all of thee into my heart
And into my soul ...

Now, thy lips! I hear the gong
Of the night watchman sounding.
Work leads to evening, and
Each evening brings me to
Thy arms, which are my recompense.

Look! The leaves are covered with pearls.
Of dew....A blackbird is whistling.
Until this evening, adiew
Ma Huang-Chung
translated by Gertrude L. Joerissen

Here we have the lovers, a morning bird, a coming separation, one of the lovers holding back the other ... of course, I'm thinking of one of Shakespeare's greatest scenes:

Act 3, Scene 5

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale. Look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east.
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.

Yon light is not daylight, I know it, I:
It is some meteor that the sun exhal'd,
To be to thee this night a torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua.
Therefore stay yet; thou need'st not to be gone.

Let me be ta'en, let me be put to death;
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I'll say yon grey is not the morning's eye,
'Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia's brow;
Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads.
I have more care to stay than will to go:
Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.
How is't, my soul? let's talk; it is not day.

It is, it is: hie hence, be gone, away!
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division;
This doth not so, for she divideth us.
Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes,
O, now I would they had changed voices too!
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt's-up to the day.
O, now be gone; more light and light it grows.

More light and light; more dark and dark our woes!

This delightful little volume can be found on Amazon, which I don't link to, and there are some slightly more reasonable (and descriptively more reliable) copies at abebooks. Chances are that if you head off to a local used bookstore, if you are lucky enough to have one, and are patient and persistent, a reasonably priced copy will come your way.

And you'll have gone outside! There's a bunch of nature out there, for sure, and more than a few potential poems, both literal and figurative, awaiting your particular attention.


A couple of quick items: the November/December Small Press Review has selected issue #170 as a featured "Mag Pick" for that issue - as always, back issues are available for a measly $1 or, if it's a tight month, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I'll send a copy so you can see what they are on about. For those with a subscription to SPR, you can see their Nov/Dec issue here in pdf form.

In addition, Longhouse Publishers and Booksellers has selected Ed Markowski's broadside "15 Poems" as one of their "Prime Picks" of the last few months. You may see their fine list of choices at their blog, A Longhouse Birdhouse.

Finally, Norbert Blei has highlighted the Ed Markowski broadside on his excellent blog, Bashō's Road: for a taste of the broadside, click here. The broadside is issue #172 (which is still in the process of shipping to subscribers) - if you'd like a copy, the terms are the same as in the previous paragraph.

And congrats, Ed, for all the much deserved attention


For those not tuned in last week, the new feature I'll be highlighting in these weekly posts will be the Lilliput broadside issues, which have been published throughout the full 20 year run. Broadsides feature the work of one particular poet; the idea is to let the poet stretch out a bit, so there is no ten-line restriction as in regular issues. They are available for $1 or 3 for $2: here's a full list of those published to date. This week's poem is from Mark Hartenbach's excellent broadside, "Butterfly, Corkboard," which was issue #158, published in August 2007. Hope you like it.

exploitation poem
why do we insist on testing one another
without so much as a single warning shot
an episodic glance, an indifferent shrug

we demand a dent in memory
build or rebuild our ego
with scraps of others

we feign the blues
& forgetting
depend on an element of surprise

we fine tune our desires
knowing when to surrender to surface
& when to sink teeth deep

when to conjure up names
that promise dead flowers
& stale perfume

when to take another
to the edge of the water
& when to pull back at the last moment

when to translate
the firmament
into inevitable embrace

& when
to casually mention
that every star is dying
Mark Hartenbach

And Issa, an old time stargazer with many poems on the topic:

in cold water
sipping the stars...
Milky Way
translated by David G. Lanoue



Ed Baker said...


notice the title of this collection

poems for and from a voice..

just imagine IMAGINE

then do (sing/play)

with an instrument like this

now add your own voice...

maybe even take up a brush and move

India ink around on a page too?


Charles Gramlich said...

I'd probably be highly embarrassed to compare my poetry shelves to yours. But I do

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


Thanks for this ... the beautiful composition on guzheng ... indeed, wonder full to compose to, w/word, image, mind ...


Well, being such an old fart, things accrue, as they say ... I imagine your electronic poetry shelf is larger ...