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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #22 (May 31, 2005), page 15.
A thousand years of long white days
The Rock’s Cold Breath: The Selected Poems of Li He
Translated by Jodi Varon
Ice River Press, 2004
Paperback, 40 pages, $7.00
By Doug Spangle
There’s no kind of poet we love better than a doomed poet. The Tang Dynasty (ninth-century) poet Li He rides the wastelands on the edges of the spirit, driven by demons, cast out by the authorities of polite society.
They say he was of noble blood, and had been writing poems since he was a young boy, but flunked his examinations by using a bad pun on the name of his dead father. He earned his living by being a lowly clerk. He rode through the desert on a tired horse, dropping scraps of phrases into his saddlebag, assembling the poems as he camped in the evening. He died young, sick, and exhausted at 26.
His poems escaped the official anthologies but have survived somehow, perhaps by sheer guts, recitations by heart, and by spleen. He wrote of hauntings, despondency, fear, poverty. His images and phrasing are often unusual, skewed, and arresting. He sounds most like a Chinese poet of the past twenty years, but like nobody before that. His poems were quoted several times by Pink Floyd — if nothing else had ever attracted me to Li He, that fact alone would gain my affection.
The problem with English translations from Chinese has always been that of too much false reverence. Westerners have always been inclined to put a glaze of delicacy and piety to Chinese verse, whether appropriate or not. The translations often have an air of being written in a language all their own, which you could call "Translationese," with no connection to any other language, living or dead.
Jodi Varon, in her new translations of Li He (Li Ho by the old transliteration), has largely evaded these tiger traps. While resisting an actual downbeat or depression-inducing tone, she reveals the sharp and gleaming edges that poke through this unusual poet’s verses. Sometimes her version of the poet sounds like a crazy cowboy riding the range in the Wild West of Asia. For some odd reason, it seems to work.
The short poem "At the Imperial Lodge" shows some of the bittersweet chops that give this poet his nearly modern savor:
Red moat water guards these palace walls.
A gentle wind lifts small leaves,
mimicking the courtesans locked inside.
Their bamboo shades closed,
how long will spring grow old?
They’re made to tolerate the chains,
a thousand years of long white days.
Thanks partly to Jodi Varon’s discreet translation (I wish I knew enough Chinese to vouch for her accuracy, sorry to say) and partly to the poet’s unusual mindset, this comes off as untranslationese, with a little bit of sting where we’re used to dime-store perfume. It’s piquant, not precious — we still have a taste for those doomed poets, after all.
In fact, it’s a little bit like having someone introduce you by chance to an old friend you haven’t seen in years, one whom you’d worried about.
And Li He is dead, but he’s alive and well.