A Light Touch
Collection as a familiar garden
By Shelly Bryant
In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century
The construction of Wong May's translations of the 200 Tang poems she has curated and arranged into the anthology In the Same Light: 200 Tang Poems for Our Century calls to mind, for me, the construction of a Jiangnan garden. The entire body of Tang poetry forms the natural waterways crisscrossing the landscape. The 200 poems selected for inclusion in the volume are the location selected for the garden, and their ordering within the volume is the dredging or damming of the natural flow of the water where it needed to be redirected to accommodate the construction of the grounds. The translations of the selected poems are the rockeries, buildings, and plants constructed and arranged around the natural though also carefully cultivated waterways, which allow guests to enjoy a microcosm of the vast landscape within a small, walled compound.
In the last hundred or so pages of the anthology, there is a collection of translator's notes that functions precisely as the inscriptions, paintings, carvings and other artworks do in a classical garden, both enhancing and directing the reader's/guest's experience of the poems/grounds. The notes begin with a comment on how the volume was put together, reminiscent of a garden chronicle that might be displayed near the entrance of a Jiangnan garden, as seen in the Sansui Tang, the first building encountered at the entrance to Yu Garden in Shanghai. Wong's notes include (in Note 10, p. 263) a map depicting the layout of the text, complete with often humorous directives for how to enjoy a tour through the volume, again calling to mind a specific feature in Yu Garden, a painting dating from 1950 depicting guests happily touring the grounds in a way contemporary visitors are clearly meant to imitate. (The painting hangs on the reverse side of the same wall that holds the calligraphy of the garden chronicle.)
It may seem that this resemblance between the layout of In the Same Light and a Jiangnan garden is something I have imagined, most likely the result of the centrality of Jiangnan gardens to my own aesthetic sensibilities. I would probably think so myself, feeling a little chagrined at having read my own interests into the text, had gardens not received a fair bit of attention in the notes section of In the Same Light (p. 293f). In this section, Wong moves rather quickly from the Chinese garden to the Japanese scattered-rock garden, noting, "A Tang quatrain, 4 x 5 or 4 x 7 reads like a Japanese scattered-rock garden. Nature comes to rest warily in a grid" (p. 293). She contrasts the regularity of the rocks in the Japanese garden to the grotesque Taihu stones that feature prominently in a Chinese garden, observing sagely, "The standing stones do not explain, nor do the grids describe" (p. 294).
But even if I had only brought the garden to the discussion on my own initiative, once I had seen the similarity, I could not have unseen it, and I freely admit that it has shaped my own engagement with the work to a degree that perhaps goes beyond its place in Wong's notes. My first inclination when I was invited to review the book was to present a somewhat linear recollection of its strengths and weaknesses, walking through questions related to the translation (quality, elegance, etc.) and its fidelity to the original poetry before moving on to some comments about the very interesting approach Wong has taken to the translator's notes. This intention was completely undone as I read the anthology, so I have opted instead to treat the review much like I would a visit to a garden stopping to take in views as the path through the text guides my attention to particular features, considering how it connects to the history that has brought it into being, and sometimes circling back to see the same feature from a different angle or in different lighting or weather. This is ultimately what my reading of the volume has been a read-through from beginning to end, but with frequent stops to double back and reconsider a spot visited before, and which ended with a certainty that I would revisit the volume over and over for years to come. It is a rich, profound site that cannot be taken in all at once. Fortunately, it is carefully constructed in such a way as to allow for frequent visits without ever making the reader feel tired of the views it has so carefully put together.
The collection's subtitle, '200 Tang Poems for Our Century', is an apt reminder of the burden borne by the translations of these poems. They must not only carry the meaning and impact of the poetry across languages, but across time. It serves as a simple, indirect signal that we are far removed from the original writers and the original audiences of these poems, while perhaps more subtly also reminding us that contemporary readers even of the Chinese poems are not the original audiences either. But, as the subtitle states, these poems the translations are indeed for our century, just as they are indeed the Tang poems we are promised.
In all of the front matter the dedication and a series of short inscriptions we are pointed to the key theme that carries over throughout the poetry and the translator's notes. The dedication reads, "From the Migrants & Exiles of the Tang Dynasty," and it is this theme of migrants and exiles, tightly woven into every aspect of the volume, that so closely connects the Tang poets whom the volume is "from" to the readers of "our century" whom it is "for". The longing, the displacement and the determination to get on with it anyway resonates across time and language in the poetry presented on these pages. As Wong comments in her notes, "Homesickness becomes for the dispossessed synonymous with home. In this they belong together, when little else holds" (p. 263). In our shared sense of displacement, we citizens of a postmodern age belong in the most profound sense with exiled Tang poets.
In her translation of Li Bai's 'Drinking Alone Under the Moon' (p. 86), Wong renders the lines:
These lines wonderfully capture all the things that work so well in Wong's translations of the poems she has selected. These lines are exactly what is promised: Tang poetry for today's reader. There is humour and wit with a very particular mix of heft but always a heft that somehow manages to remain airy and not too oppressive. It is a beautiful encapsulation of the traditional Chinese practice of boldly acknowledging the burden that life puts on the individual, and then finding the courage to laugh and raise a glass to it. This poem puts us in the lonely place of the exile one with no one to drink with, as
The whimsy and the loneliness that are so perfectly mingled in the original poem are mirrored in the translation. Though I am not entirely comfortable with the "See you." of the last line, the overall translation works to convey all the complex emotions of the exiled poet as he drinks to the moon, who "will drink to nobody."
Wong offers several notes on the importance of the moon in Tang poetry (and of various animals, particularly the rhino who serves as a recurring character in the notes). She observes that "if the poets were asked to forgo the moon? A slim volume, with a qualitative difference: Banish the moon, Tang poetry would be a very dark place indeed" (p. 262). She specifically ties the moon (and the various animals) to the exile, noting, "The moon was not banal in the Tang Dynasty. In poetry it was primarily the exile's moon" (p. 262).
What is perhaps most remarkable about the notes cited here, and all 100 pages of notes in the volume, is the light touch with which they are presented. They are insightful and instructive, but never dense or intrusive. I must again point back to their similarity to the inscriptions and the light decorative touches added to the main features in a Jiangnan garden. Wong's notes don't weigh the reader down with a show of her mastery of the subject. Instead, like the cleverly selected name for a pavilion inscribed and hung unobtrusively on a doorframe, these notes jog the reader's memory, pointing the mind in a particular direction and urging the reader to pursue the reflections that arise as s/he pursues that path. The notes are no less profound for the light touch with which they are handled indeed, the opposite is true. It is the light touch that draws the reader in, leaving plenty of space for the associations to work directly on the reader's own mind, rather than presenting a set of already-digested observations for the reader to swallow. In this sense, the notes are very true to the Chinese aesthetics of valuing blank space (liu bai) specifically because it allows the viewer/reader to enter into and engage with the art as it is presented.
This respect for space and respect for the reader characterises Wong's approach to the translation of each poem. She seems completely immune to the temptation that some translators of Chinese poetry have so much difficulty escaping: that of being bound by the rigid forms of classical Chinese poetry. With the allure of the fixed line and stanza lengths and the rhyme structure of ancient Chinese poetry, many translators get so bogged down in the attempt to duplicate form and meaning that the product becomes a dense, undigestible block of heavy, flavourless text. Wong will, apparently, have nothing to do with that. It is not that she is immune to the effect of the regularity of Tang verse in Chinese far from it. As noted in her comments on the rock garden, she connects the regular "4 x 5 or 4 x 7" (p. 293) to "the grid of the austere rock garden" (p. 294). She refers frequently to the form of five- or seven-character quatrains as a grid. In the first mention she makes of this metaphor, she observes how the rigidity of the form functions not so much as a confine, but as a vessel that makes the vastness of our world accessible, calling it "the temptation of a 20-word quatrain for infinite Nature to come to rest in a 4 x 5 grid, just so; a sight to behold" (p. 264). Throughout the notes, she frequently observes the profundity and the beauty of how the form works in Tang poetry. What she does not do is attempt to duplicate the grid-like nature of the original in English, displaying a keen awareness that the freedom and space this form opens up in the language of Tang poetry is completely eradicated when it is forced on contemporary English and this is, after all, a series of Tang poetry for our century, and, obviously, for readers of the English language. So instead of forcing the form on contemporary English-language poetry, Wong draws out the translation, elongating it in terms of number of lines and irregularly divided stanzas, while generally keeping each individual line short and punchy. The result is that the poetry is opened up and aired out, and once again, there is space for the reader. This, too, is like a Jiangnan garden, which is often described in writing about that art form as a "living painting" or "living poem" through which the viewer is expected to walk and, significantly, insert herself into the scene as she pleases.
Nearly any poem in the volume would serve as an example of this approach, but perhaps it is easiest to stick to a couple of familiar pieces, beginning with Li Bai's 'Jing Ye Shi' (p. 72). Wong's translation reads:
The use of white space here is crucial to the effectiveness of the translation. In opening up the poetry, it not only allows the reader to enter the scene, as is generally desired in response to Chinese art, but it also captures an important aspect of all written Chinese language the immediacy of its visual impact. In a denser, blockier translation that more closely adheres to the traditional five-character quatrain's look, we lose the sense of moonlight and cold entering through the window and stirring the would-be sleeper's thoughts which is to say, we lose all the poignancy of the original. No better argument could be made for the practice of foregoing form in favour of feel. In a volume that aims to be "for our century", this is doubly important, as contemporary readers have little patience for dense text, and we are all about feel.
In acknowledging that Wong has not sought to duplicate the rigid grid of the Tang quatrain in her English translations, it should not be imagined that she has ignored the importance of form to the original poetry. This is perhaps clearest, or at least most explicitly stated, in her notes on the translation, 'Nine Thoughts', where she keeps score (literally) in terms of word count: "20 words in Chinese, 21 in English is the score. To translate with word-count in mind, trying to match it in the very short poems [ ] is to fall into the poet's pace, his rhythm & measure" (p. 312). It is also in this section that she introduces a refrain that appears in later parts of the notes as well: the notion of the reader being translated into the poetry, rather that the poetry being translated into a new language. "You are there at the moment of its creation," she says, "the poetry comes into being as you read" (p. 313). Again, she has captured the goal of Chinese aesthetics more generally, creating space so that you, the reader, can enter the art and there create meaning.
The second example I would offer of Wong's masterful use of space is found in her translation of Du Fu's 'Jueju, No. 2 of 2' (p. 55). Wong's translation of the poem is:
This is another example of how poetic blank spaces really are. Here, the space is created with physical white space on the page, as is immediately visible, even before the eye decodes in a single word. The space exists between lines and stanzas, and between the words within each line. It is one of the airiest, most spacious poems in the collection, and the feel of it is very like that of ancient Chinese poetry generally, which is a direct result of that space.
The airy feel of the translations is not incidental. Wong speaks at length in the notes about the importance of breathing in Tang poetry. "A poem for Li Bai is one breath," she tells us (p. 281), as she introduces the concept of shen (spirit) and its connection to poetry. She describes shen yun as "what makes a poem sing" (p. 281), and circles back around several times to the notions of "chu shen (going out of your spirit), meaning one is in rapt attention & ru shen (the spirit enters). One is rapt in both cases" (p. 283). The idea of the reader's role, the reader's spirit both "going out" and "entering in" as an expression of the reading experience is addressed in several places and in various ways throughout the notes, in what are among some of the most profound observations on how we are invited/expected to respond to the poetry itself. She observes how
And this is precisely what her translation choices achieve opening up space so that the poetry can breathe, our spirits can enter, and we can breathe its air. Even more, there is an aural space in the English version of Du Fu's poem, a sort of incompleteness to each thought, without ever becoming disjointed, that does for the ear what the white space does for the eye and what Chinese characters always do for the eye. The suggestion of images brings the pictures to mind almost before the brain really processes the words, which is how the written language functions due to the suggestion of those images in the form of each character. In this sense, Wong has been particularly successful in preserving the core experience of reading Tang poetry, and she has rendered it into a form that is accessible for today's readers of the English language. This is a very singular success, one that is not easily attained. It is what makes these translations so utterly faithful to the poetry they are seeking to carry over not just across languages, but across generations.
Wong's decision to lay out the poems in the order she has is described in the notes and even forms the general frame for the entire body of notes and that alone is worth the price of the book. In writing this review, I find myself constantly torn between a need to focus on the poetry and a desire to focus on the notes, but at the end of the day, the two, whether read together or as separate entities, achieve a similar thing: they create a new space in which the reader can engage in meaningful ways with centuries-old verse.
Reading In the Same Light feels very much like visiting an old, familiar garden, but in a season in which you have never visited it before. The experience is both fresh and familiar all at once, reminding the exile of home.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 4 Oct 2022