In Their Own Words
Chloe Garcia Roberts on Li Shangyin
Xie Fang of the Senior Examination Class Memorized and Recited Many of My Poems, One Day I Happened to Send Him This.
At dawn, use clouds to conceive the lines.
In winter, hold snow to divine the poem.
On good days, the self is often moved
though impossible a writer always be so.
First resembling a crane in full sleep,
then a cicada with its closed-mouth shriek of desire.
When composing, momentum never unfolds.
Arriving at the predetermined, fitting it be pre-condemned.
At the head of the Southern River: endless trees.
At the Western Tower: shifting haze.
Edits complete, everyone silent, still.
Send it away down a road unbroken, unending.
A constellation of stars hangs toward earth in the cold.
River sounds ascend to heaven at dawn.
If, dear sir, you hold regret
let this poem express it.
The Banquet at River Hall Dispersed, I Return to the Residence Along a Willow Road, Chanting
A spring ode I dared to lightly compose,
its lines, held in the mouth, slipped into a half-empty cup.
Already undone by the river reflecting willows.
More so by plum trees hidden in snow.
Those few of us in harmony: absolutely futile.
A rush of grief quickens, then arrives.
From poetry, what atonement?
One just feels the white hairs hastening.
On Translating Li Shangyin
For me, the first year of motherhood was an extended lesson in learning to fail with grace. Every day, beginning with my son's first day, was a catalogue of failure ranging from the mundane to the spectacular: not getting my baby to sleep, not getting to the grocery store, not remembering to pay my bills, not writing, not reading, and so on and so on. Every day was a reconciliation of what I had imagined would happen with what did happen, a further constriction of my expectations, a further withdrawal from the shores of my former self.
Contrary to my belief that poetry would flow seamlessly in and out of my new existence as a mother, writing increasingly felt like a vestige from another life. Not just the product, but the very act itself was subject to question. In this time, the practice of translation became almost medicinal. With translation I found I could sidestep the self-flagellation of creation and go directly to the heart. I could open a text, in whatever minutes accorded to me between the needs of my son, and be right there in the bliss of it.
One of my ongoing projects has been the work of the late-Tang era Chinese poet Li Shangyin, and during this time I came upon a cache of poems by him on the subject of writing, of which the above are two. Like his other poems, these poems depict the twinning of grief and hope, wanting and loss, but more concretely they are about the disillusionment of being a poet. In the first poem, addressed to an admirer of his poetry, Li Shangyin, usually so opaque about his subject matter, becomes uncharacteristically transparent and gives the reader an unflinching look at the anguish behind his practice. And in the second, this gaze cuts even deeper to end in a harsh condemnation of the futility of poetry itself. And yet these denouncements come to us in the form of poetry, they are conveyed so violently and so exquisitely by the very form they condemn. The poems are evidence that the poet refused to allow his doubts to consume his words.
Over the months that these texts slowly unfolded into English (the first year of motherhood is a time of agonizingly slow production) they became a source of companionship in an unmoored time. They became precious to me because their translation, which began as an escape from my own poetic unease, unexpectedly and benevolently illuminated a path back into my own writing by showing me that the only viable way out of doubt is through it.
Li Shangyin (813-859), was a late Tang poet whose works are famous for their lush and obscure imagery. During his lifetime, he held various posts as a low-level government official, and though his poetry and prose were appreciated within certain literary circles, his status as one of the most important poets of his time was not recognized until after his death.