Thursday, September 11, 2014

Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Su Tung P'o.

 

   Which in today's Chinese would be pronounced Soo Doong Bo, in the same way that Peking has become Beijing and feudal totalitarianism has become...feudal totalitarianism, but under a different name. "The Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu" could be written in any province of contemporary China, though unlike in Su Tung P'o's time it is unlikely that the Communist authorities would allow it to be published (see the final paragraph of this blog!) and probably today's Farm-Wife would end up as a despised migrant worker in the shanty-suburbs of
Mei-shan rather than as a suicide in the local stream, though these two fates are not that easy to distinguish either.

   We are all raised in the canons of our native literature, not much encouraged in schools to look beyond the geographical boundaries, and even less encouraged by publishers, unless they can see a greater profit in old-and-foreign literature than in the novelties of today in our own tongue. What a vast gap that leaves in our knowledge of the world. And who would think of travelling in literature while also travelling to beaches, churches, art galleries, museums? Read Marquez next time you are resting on the beach at Cartagena, after a day's snorkelling among the coral of Las Islas de Rosarios; or Thomas Mann in Venice; Kafka on a long-weekend in Prague; Jane Austen in a Bath café; or Chinese poetry, which is some of the finest in the world, while waiting for your take-away on Spadina Avenue.

   Su Tung P'o, who was also called Su Shih, was born in Sichuan province in 1036, designed the parks that surround Lake Si in Hangzhou, practiced Buddhism in poetry as well as life, witnessed the reigns of five emperors, and rose to the rank of President of the Board of Rites, giving him authority over all imperial ceremonies and acts of worship. The portrait of him was painted two hundred years after his death, by Zhao Mengfu, the man whose name was later given to a volcanic crater on the planet Mercury, though why is not something I am able to explain.

   The translations below are by Burton Watson in "Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o".


I Travel Day and Night

Past the places
where the Ying river
enters the Huai
and for the first time
saw the mountains along the Huai.
Today we reached Shou-chou.

I travel day and night towards the Yangtze and the sea.
Maple leaves, red flowers - Fall has endless sights.
On the broad Huai I cannot tell if the sky is near or far;
green hills keep rising and falling with the boat.
Shou-chou - already I see the white stone pagoda,
though short oars have not brought us around Yellow Grass Hill.
Waves calm, wind mild - I look for the landing.
My friends have stood a long time in the twilight mist.



Spring Night

Spring night - one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs - threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.


Lament of the Farm-Wife of Wu

Rice this year ripens so late!
We watch, but when will frost winds come?
They come - with rain in bucketfuls;
the harrow sprouts mud, the sickle rusts.
My tears area ll cried out, but rain never ends;
it hurts to see the yellow stalks flattened in mud.
We camped in a grass shelter a month by the fields;
then it cleared and we reaped the grain, followed the wagon home,
sweaty, shoulders sore, casting it to town -
the price it fetched, you would think we came with chaff.
We sold the ox to pay taxes, broke up the roof for kindling;
we'll get by for the time, but what of next year's hunger?
Officials demand cash now - they won't take grain;
the long northwest border tempts invaders.
Wise men fill the court - why do things get worse?
I would be better off a bride to the River Lord.


   Sadly I can't find a copy in Chinese of the Lament; instead, because one has to see this poetry in its Chinese characters, "On Cold Meal at Huang-chou", a poem written after his banishment for taking the wrong side in a political dispute.









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