The latest of these is the work of Li Shangyin (813-858), translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (New York Review Books, 2018). This volume includes not only Roberts’s translation of approximately 50 pages of Li’s poetry (with facing original Chinese), but also the versions by Graham and some by Lucas Klein (most of which are duplicate poems, making for interesting comparisons). Li’s style is at times naturalistic and imagistic, but more often allusive, metaphorical, and, like Li He’s, surreal. His work has historically been considered extremely obscure or, as Roberts puts it in her introduction, “unknowable and elusive . . . almost baroque, opulently layered with distinct mythological, historical, personal, and symbolist imagery” (xi). This, of course, makes him difficult to translate.
Thankfully, Roberts has chosen to take an almost literal approach, leaving intact the weird accretion of incongruous shifts and juxtapositions. Graham, on the other hand, took certain liberties in order to make Li’s poems make sense. In reality, their versions are not that far apart, but, if we are going to use a Western analogy, Graham’s sometimes come across as pleasant if melancholy lyrics, while Roberts’s tend toward a slightly more staccato rhythm, with brighter diction. For example, here’s Graham in 1965 rendering lines from “The Patterned Lute”: “The moon is full on the vast sea, a tear on the pearl. / On Blue Mountain the sun warms, a smoke issues from the jade” (in Roberts 145). And here is Roberts in 2018:
Seablue, moonbeam,Klein’s recent version falls somewhere in between but is perhaps closer to the syntax of Graham: “When the moon shines by the green sea there are tears on pearls, / and when the sun is warm on Mount Bluefield steam rises off jade” (116). Each has their merits, but speaking subjectively, the clipped, at times paratactic, versions that Roberts creates resonate with me more, and at least visually seem closer to the Chinese form. But it is a funny thing about translation; the more versions you read, the better the picture you seem to get.
Pearls hold tears.
Indigo fields, sun-warmth,
Jade begets smoke. (39)
Whatever the case, there is the sheer beauty of Li Shangyin’s poetry itself, if you can tune in through language and time. Perhaps of use is an ars poetica, which begins,
At dawn, use cloudsThe poem “Spring Wind” is emotional in a way that differs from the work of other Tang poets (it seems to me, though others may be more expert). Often in Tang poetry, there is an evocation of emotion through the image, like Li Po going to visit a Taoist monk only to find him gone, nothing but pine trees, and the scene or the season usually accords with the speaker’s feelings. In Li Shangyin’s “Spring Wind,” there is a reversal of this. First, there is a brief meditation on the coming of spring and the exuberance of it. Then, there is this odd and unexpected move where Li imagines spring as a sentient or even bodily creature:
To conceive the lines.
In winter, hold snow
To divine the poem. (33)
If I could force springHuh? This seems to say that if spring were indeed human it would lack the exuberance it emits in its guise as a natural force, further suggesting Li’s real mood is not so lush and energetic. In the third part of the poem, Li suddenly reveals that, actually, “my own sentiments differ / From the sentiments of spring” because “When spring begins, / I am already broken inside” (47). It is almost a kind of “meta-” use of the season, a commentary on common poetic tropes, punctuated by the bizarre image of spring’s “single fragrant branch,” set up to create a contrast with and to emphasize a sense of inner crisis.
It would only send forth
A single fragrant branch. (47)
“Chamber Music” is a poem of loss, a lament for the ephemerality of human connection. With the person to whom the poem is addressed now gone, and their “tender skin” now absent from the jade mattress, “All I see, / Silken emerald surface” (73) and not the person who would have lain upon it, and certainly this is intended to seem tyrannical. Likewise, if not its music, then still “The brocade zither / Outlasts the person” (73). Even in the otherworld (or when, say, we return to the state of primordial energy) there is little hope for a reunion, for without bodily form,
Agony: when heaven, earth,This is purely abstract, and not concrete or imagistic, but there is a poignancy here that rivals anything Li Po ever produced (please note that I love Li Po).
We will see each other,
We will not know each other. (75)
There are many other poems here that elucidate a sadness imparted by death and loss, and even the realization, “I know while the body exists / Emotion profoundly persists” (101) — that is, perhaps the realization is something like the Taoist and Chan understanding of the emotions as an inextricable part of life, which we can begin to see in context as one of the many parts of being human as we increasingly understand the way the mind and its complexes work. At the same time, as in Li Po there are indeed many moments of joy. Some are sparked by poetry itself:
On good daysPerhaps the message here is that the poet ought not to wait on the “spontaneous overflow of emotion” in pursuit of their work. Other times, as in Li Shangyin’s “Spring Night, Cheering Myself Up,” where we see him delighting in the wind in the bamboo, the moonglow on the flowers, and the “rampant moss,” there is also the knowledge that “My happiness and contentment / Depend only on music and wine” (105). There are so many other great poems and lines here, and I personally don’t care if (in fact I like that) it doesn’t always all make sense — though it usually more or less does. Incidentally, there is a wonderfully minimalist cover design (by Emily Singer) with smart use of color for this volume (somewhat bolder in real life than the jpeg included above). It is of a piece with the NYRB Poets series, but it especially complements Roberts’s excellent work.
The self is often moved.
Though it’s impossible
The writer could always be so. (31)