In these sequences, Meng has decided to foreground the “strange and surprising,” verging into what we might now call surrealism, marshaling intense images of the natural world, often of winter, ice, frozen streams, moonlight like sword-blades, ephemeral blossoms. These long sequences allow for repetition of the images, with certain differences or variations on the theme, building up layers of meaning in the process of writing (and reading) them. Hinton points out that such larger sequences were rare in Chinese poetry at this time, and that Meng’s “innovations anticipated landmark developments in the modern western tradition by a millennium” (xv). In Hinton’s translation, they do read rather like avant-garde, twentieth-century American poetry, a bit like William Carlos Williams or George Oppen perhaps. Without facing originals or some discussion of the translation process, it’s hard to tell how much of this effect comes from Hinton himself (for example, I suspect Meng’s original Chinese lines were end-stopped, whereas Hinton frequently enjambs them), but in any case the images and repetition come through to give a quite stunning sense of what Meng was doing here.
Though informed by Taoism and its affirmation of change and the cyclic nature of life, Meng’s worldview is somewhat harsh, at times pessimistic: “The Way of heaven / warns against fullness: it just empties away” (70). Of poetic “fame,” he writes in his elegy for Lu Yin, “after a long illness, your body lies waiting // among all those prize books hungry mice / shredded and scattered through the house” (5). The keynote, throughout, though, is winter’s ice and cold, or, as in these lines from “Autumn Thoughts,” the foreboding of coming winter:
Bitter winds sob among thorn-date branches,
wu-t’ung leaves now faces of frost on high,
and as old insects cry parched-iron cries,
a startled animal howls lone, jade-pure howls. (74)