Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Collected Poems of Li He

The Collected Poems of Li He, translated by J. D. Frodsham (Calligrams Series, The Chinese University Press/New York Review of Books, 2016)

This collection of the works of the lesser-known Tang-era poet Li He (790-816) was long-awaited.  It is a republication of Frodsham’s original translation that first appeared in 1970, then again in 1983, now further updated and with a new preface by Paul Rouzer.  Li He is described in the introductory material as a kind of doomed Romantic or an ancient Chinese Rimbaud.  He did die young, apparently of tuberculosis, and his poems are often littered with images of death and otherwordly figures.  His work was left out of the standard Tang anthology, for being supposedly too weird.  Yet, it seems a tiny bit of a stretch to me to compare him to Kurt Cobain or to a contemporary teenage Goth, as Rouzer does in his preface.  These Western analogues make for good selling points, but in reading the whole of Li He’s oeuvre, not just the wilder pieces that the introductions and back cover focus on, it becomes clear that he was more often than not working within the conventions of Chinese poetry than breaking them.

Though the more well-known Tang poet Li Po (701-62) is mentioned by Frodsham only once (and then only in passing), Li He’s corpus often follows contours close to his predecessor’s — he overarchingly utilizes the same metres and line-lengths, and similarly there are poems about drinking wine, of sad farewells to friends, there are court poems (often dense with allusion and allegory), songs of singing women, “harmonizing” poems, travel poems, and imagistic nature poems.  A nice example of the latter is Li He’s “Walking through the South Mountain Fields,” which reads in part,

Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
Cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
That the red moss “weeps” dew is a nice touch here, personifying the natural scene and lending the poem a slight hint of melancholy.

Both Lis also dabble in mysticism from time to time, writing ecstatically of gods, goddesses, and immortal beings who inhabit heavenly realms beyond ordinary human experience.  Li He was greatly influenced by the early (c. 200 BCE) shamanistic series of poems titled the Chu Ci, and in his own “Song of the Magic Strings,” one of his most remarkable poems, he writes,

Blue raccoons are weeping blood
As shivering foxes die.
On the ancient wall, a painted dragon,
Tail inlaid with gold,
The Rain God is riding it away
To an autumn tarn.
Owls that have lived a hundred years,
Turned forest demons,
Laugh wildly as an emerald fire
Leaps from their nests.
Here, it seems to me, the Western analogue is not the Romantics or even the Symbolists, but the Surrealism of André Breton.  This is also an ekphrastic poem in part, with certain lines responding to a temple fresco (“On the ancient wall. . .”).  It is stunning imagery, and though not all of his work is quite as intense, this volume is more than worth it for having poems like these.

A similarly arresting poem is “Song of an Arrowhead from Chang-ping,” where Li He visits an ancient battlefield and feels the presence of ghosts:

Desolate stars,
Black banners of damp clouds
Hung in void-night.
Souls to the left, spirits to the right,
Gaunt with hunger, wailing.
Not only can we say that Li He was, at times, haunted, but that the poem itself is haunting, still today some further 1200 years on.

One point of divergence between Li He and the slightly earlier Li Po is that where Li Po was decidedly Taoist in philosophy and religion, Li He bends toward Buddhist thought — a cherished text for him being the Lankāvatāra Sūtra.  Yet, I am not sure even these differences are really all that great.  The Lankāvatāra Sūtra, in its discussion of the emptiness of form and self is not so far from Taoist texts such as the (admittedly Buddhist-influenced) Qingjing jing (Scripture on Clarity and Tranquility).  And, for that matter, the Chu Ci poems are often seen as iterating an early or proto-Taoist perspective.  While Li He frequently satirizes Taoist external alchemy (the misguided attempt to create and ingest an elixir of life), he nonetheless seems to delight in religious ritual of all sorts.

A further poem that I found interesting is “The Caves of the Yellow Clan,” which depicts aboriginal natives of southern Guanxi/western Guangdong, who were in the process of being colonized by the Chinese imperial government.  Li He describes them as “Treading like sparrows, they kick up the sand / With sibilant feet,” . . . “High-pitched voices shrilling like apes. . . .”  Li is clearly taken by these people and the spectacle of their massed ranks: “Coloured cloth around their hanks, half-slanting, / On river banks their war-bands muster / Gorgeous as arrowroot. . . .”  He seems sympathetic to them, despite their otherness (for him), and goes on to critique his own government for their unnecessary slaughter.  But the poem is also noteworthy as an early example of primitivism, in a way similar to early depictions of Native Americans, or Caesar’s descriptions of Gaulish culture, alternating between fascination and disgust.  With more awareness of such a dynamic, we in the West might even sometimes question our approach to reading Asian poetry, so it is another odd twist to remember that China, ancient and modern, is also an imperialist society that has engaged and does engage in the same kind of primitivizing, colonialism, and exploitation that the West has also often been guilty of.

Frodsham’s translations in this book are exceedingly well-wrought, following a pattern of their own: Li He’s five-character lines retain their single lines in English, rendered in quatrains or octets, while the seven-character lines spill over into two (broken after the fourth character).  This roughly brings across the feel of the original classical Chinese forms, and while Frodsham dispenses with the strict rhyme and tone-patterns, his English verse is rich with alliteration, slant-, and internal rhyme.

A final note, which should not discourage anyone from acquiring this volume, but nonetheless it needs to be said: There are far too many typos here than one would expect from any professionally published book, much less from a university press.  Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a trend as of late.  Presses absolutely must retain (or, apparently, hire) full-time proofreaders, or risk losing credibility.  Perhaps it is a symptom of disappearing funding and slashed budgets, but it is nonetheless unacceptable that typographical standards are getting so low in the publishing world.  One is able to muddle through, as here the mistakes are, in the scheme of things, infrequent.  But taken as a whole, they add up to too much.

Once again, though, this book is well worth the time spent and includes Frodsham’s copious notes for context and explanation.

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