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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Monday, February 26, 2018

Moscow Don is Trending Lately

Hey what's new on the Rialto?
Moscow Don is trending lately it seems
In the year of the Dog finally
Becoming his very own meme
The Congressman is smirking
Not so benignly
And it's the henchman's turn
To spin his own scheme

Now that we can
Read between the lines
We notice the lines
Have begun to fade
I'm sure
I think
I guess
And all the variants
In between
We see our world
Grow ever more
And indistinct
From deep inside
The belly of the meme 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

White Cloud Nursery (by Bai Juyi)

After a break of a few weeks I returned to my translation practice this morning, picking up where I left off with one of my all-time favorites, Bai Juyi.

Up in the plains of Heaven
Above the mountaintops where
White clouds spring to life

To speak of what comes forth
Without the least effort
Flowing naturally as from
The soul at rest

Never rushing
Nor hurtling headlong
Against the mountains
Down below

Being continually replenished
A tidal wave from heaven
That sweeps towards earth



There's a short backstory to explain why I chose this poem to translate this morning.  During my spin through Twitter this morning I came across a striking photo of what looked like a new galaxy being born.   The photo (which was posted by @GeneVatow ) was accompanied by a brief explanation: We came out of warp in the star nursery, and saw the fledgling stars' birthing glow. An hour or so later as I was looking through Bai Juyi's collected works, the title of this poem leapt out at me, as being a Tang precursor of the same vision - a glimpse into the nebulous origins of the universe - not a bad way to start the day after all.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

In the Din of an Infernal City

In the din
Of the infernal city
Where every minute
You aren't drilling
Someone else may be
Sneaking ahead
We’ve transformed ourselves
Into rats trapped in the most
Elaborate maze and
The whole drama of
Our catch and release
Is being played out
On a proscenium stage
Inside our own head

Detail From Botticelli's drawing Chart of Hell

*  *  *  *  *

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Call and Response - Bai Juyi and Me

Call and response is a musical form, where one musical phrase or line is complemented by another voice or instrument answering in return.  It is a very common feature in African music and may be understood as an expression of a democratic or participatory impulse to include a multiplicity of voices as part of a song or celebration.

For me it has become an important part of my practice of poetry and translation.  I find my own impulse to write is often directly stimulated by reading another poet's work.  I don't think of this as a way of writing that is merely derivative or slavishly emulates another poet so much as trying to respond back in a way that meaningfully adds to or complements the original call.   In a sense, I don't think any poem or song (no matter how well composed) is every so complete that it may not benefit from an answering refrain.

Here's the latest example of call and response in action.  The original call is a short poem by Bai Juyi.  It's one of my favorite Tang poems of all time - concise, lyrical and more than a little mysterious in its phrasing.  I wrote a short responding poem just the other day.  The immediate prompt for my response was this great photo I came across on my Twitter feed.  (Many thanks to Jim Clayton - @jimclayton05 for giving me permission to repost it here.)  Something about the image brought to mind the Bai Juyi poem and I immediately scrawled out my answering refrain which also appears below.

Flower Without Flower

Flower without flower
Mist without mist
At midnight arriving
As Heaven's light dims

Dream of springtime fresh
But how long will it remain
A cloud lingers until dawn
Then disperses without a trace



Flower Within Flower
Flower within flower
Leaf within leaf
A memory so well preserved
Now posed in stark relief

Desiccant in autumn
By winter winds frayed
A silhouette of summer’s glory
Decayed yet full of grace

Now all that's wanting is for me to translate my responding poem into Chinese so that Bai Juyi will be able to write another verse in good measure.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Seasons Turning (by Tao Yuan Ming)

After a few days of chill drenching rain, today brought a fresh new front of clear warming air.  No doubt I'm skipping too far ahead but I found it hard on my morning walk not to entertain the first hint of spring, and the robins perched high in the tree tops seemed to sense it too, as they faced to the east, and bathed in the morning's warming sunlight.  In that frame of mind, upon returning to my desk, it was hard to resist the temptation of seizing the moment to translate a first poem of spring, in the hope of spurring the seasons along in their turning.  This is the first part of a four stanza poem by Tao Yuan Ming and I will try to post the rest of it later this week, assuming the weather continues to cooperate.

Step by step
The seasons turn
In solemn procession
Like a noble head of state
Now comes the garb of spring
What meager words I possess
To describe these eastern regions
The hillsides bathed
In a clinging mist
The heavens obscured
By a lowering sky
But a gentle southern breeze
Brings promise of new growth
Straight ahead