Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind: Poems from the Chinese
by Kenneth (trn) Rexroth
Reviewed by Chris Faatz
One of the great loves of my reading life has been Kenneth Rexroth's translations from the Chinese and Japanese. Published by New Directions, these slim volumes bear an enormous weight of literary and philosophical prestige. Elegant, searching, and, above all, timeless, Rexroth's Chinese and Japanese translations capture the very essence of what it means to be fully alive, fully engaged. Many of these poems are over one thousand years old, yet they not only stand up to the questions and predicaments and experiences of our time, but they bear eloquent witness to the very meat of what it means to be human.
Imagine my delight, then, when New Directions issued two new compilations from Rexroth's translations, Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese and Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind: Poems from the Chinese. The first is culled from his Japanese books; the second is a kind of "best of" selected from the Chinese translations. Let me underline that: these are not new books of poems. Rather, they are selections of the poems already extant in several books, a generous gathering of some of the most beautiful songs of love, war, and human suffering currently available in English.
Take Izumi Shikibu's opening poem from Written on the Sky:
It is the time of rain and snow
I spend sleepless nights
And watch the frost
Frail as your love
Gather in the dawn.
Understated, whispering where others might shout, this is a poem that magically captures a moment, one of a series of moments that one imagines could comprise a whole tale of love, loss, and sorrow. Some of these poems are two lines long, most of them don't run above five. They are concentrated, crystalline, flawless recollections of those points in our lives in which we find ourselves abruptly awake to discover that, at least for now, we are totally and painfully aware of what is going on about and inside of us, later to move on somehow changed.
Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind is a very different book, indeed. The first point readily apparent to the reader is that these are not the evocative, gem-like ah-ha! pieces of the Japanese. In Songs, we encounter such poets as Tu Fu and Li Ch'ing-Chao, Lu Yu and Su Tung-P'o, poets who use their own experience to explore their world and their place in it. These poems range from the overtly political, dealing with war and social turmoil and collapse, to the deeply personal: lost love, growing old, having another cup of "clear wine." Take the Tu Fu poem, "Dawn over the Mountains":
The city is silent,
Sound drains away,
Buildings vanish in the light of dawn,
Cold sunlight comes on the highest peak,
The thick dust of night
Clings to the hills,
The earth opens,
The river boats are vague,
The still sky --
The sound of falling leaves.
A huge does comes to the garden gate,
Lost from the herd,
Seeking its fellows.
Such beauty, such depth in imagery and in underlying philosophy! The timing is perfect; the poem is a picture of the sublime, of a time of day -- or night -- when anything is possible. And then, a doe -- the natural meets the human, and the writer shares his own loneliness at being separated from "the herd."
In Tu Fu's case that was family and career. A minor court functionary, his life was torn apart by war, several times forcing him to flee approaching armies, and it seems that many of his decisions weren't necessarily the best available to him. Other poets in this fine little book express the same feeling differently. Take "To an Old Tune" by Lu Kuei-Meng:
Men hope to last a hundred years.
Flowers last just for a Spring.
Just one day of wind and rain,
And they are scattered on the earth.
If they knew what was happening to them,
They would be as miserable as men.
Not all of these poems are bleak and relentless, however. Some are positively whimsical, heralds of an experience of joy or profundity that turns their expression into celebration.
by Yuan Mei
Reading in the heat of noon
I grow sleepy, put my head
On my arms and fall asleep.
I forget to close the window
And the warm air blows in
And covers my body with petals.
Both of these books, in short, are splendid. There is much to be gleaned from close readings and re-readings of them. Have fun. You'll not look back.