December 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Breaking the Willow: Poems of Parting, Exile, Separation and Reunion edited and translated by David Lunde

One of the hazards of reading poetry is running into cringe-inducing, embarrassing translations. In a way, this is worse than reading bad poems in your own language. At least with those, you know what you’re getting. With perfume-y, florid, oozy French poems, serene but inscrutable Japanese poems, dank and guttural German poems, and overly virile poems from the Spanish, you can’t always tell whether it’s the poem or the translator that’s awful. Ancient poems (and philosophical writings) translated out of Chinese often read like fortune cookies, or missives from Yoda or Long Duck Dong. In the post-Misty School era, this is inexcusable.

Thankfully, translator David Lunde has endured years of comparing lots of translations -- some of them “ludicrously bad” -- so we are spared the same fate. He’s figured out how to avoid both translating like a poet (i.e., taking great liberties with the original “in both form and content, some seeming to use the original merely as a starting point for their own poem”) and translating like a scholar (meaning wordily and awkwardly, with “little or no attention to rhythm or sound”), even though he’s both.

Breaking the Willow is a sad, moody, portable, and strangely charming introduction to classic works by great Chinese poets of the 12th century BCE through the 14th century. The poets have different voices, but they share loneliness, exile, circumspection, and, often, a love of booze. Seriously, some of these poets make Charles Bukowski look like a teetotaler.

Li Bai (701-762), one of the “Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup,” supposedly died drunk, trying to embrace the moon from his little boat on the Yangtze. I’ve read other translations of his poem “Drinking Alone Beneath the Moon.” Compared to Lunde’s, they seem stodgy and affected and “poetic” in a bad way. Lunde’s version is a mellow nighttime ballad, sweetly timeless, that captures that feeling of setting off on a road trip with no destination. There’s also a poignant humor to it that’s missing in other versions, but feels so authentic that I’m just sure it’s the poet’s voice, and sure I would’ve really liked him, if I’d ever come across him singing and dancing under some fat spring moon, hanging out with his shadow.

I offer a cup to the moon.
With my shadow there are three of us,
but the moon doesn’t know how to drink,
and my shadow can’t help but follow me.
Still, I’ll make do with their company,
have fun and make the most of spring.
I sing and the moon rolls around,
I dance and my shadow leaps about.
While I’m lively we enjoy each other,
when I get too drunk we go our own ways.
Let’s keep this undemanding friendship
till we join together in the far Cloud River.

It’s clear from elsewhere in the book that Li Bai’s real-life friends missed him awfully. Lunde’s selection from Du Fu’s (712-770) beautiful poems of exile includes a few to his tipsy old buddy: “Missing Li Bai at the End of the Earth” and “Dreaming of Li Bai 1 and 2.” It’s clear from both that Li Bai was out of touch and in peril, with mountain goblins, malaria, water-dragons, deep, turbulent water, “the net of the law,” dark passes, and the natural progression of old age dogging him. It’s almost comforting, given those conditions, that he died in a happy, lively, and undemanding moment of lunar intimacy.

I don’t mean to imply that Li Bai was the drunkest of the Breaking the Willow poets. In “Alone on the High Balcony”, the heartbroken Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), with his “dark grief at her leaving now blackening the heavens” decides, “Might as well get crazy drunk, I think.” Li Qingzhao, Wang Wei, Bai Juyi, and Zhang Kejiu all enjoy tippling, or at least turn to the bottle to drown their sorrows. Boozing was not just for the boys, either. Qingzhao’s (1084-ca. 1151) “Words to the Tune ‘Tipsy in the Shade of Flowers’” is a feminine tragedy, delicate and defiant.

Lunde provides a nice, judicious section of notes on the poems, a satisfying introduction (subtitled “Bureaucracy Saves Poetry”), and an inspiring translator’s forward, but you’ll probably be tempted to Google these poets for more biographical information. These poems make you want to get to know the poets better, although perhaps not quite as well as Li Bai got to know the moon.

Breaking the Willow: Poems of Parting, Exile, Separation and Reunion edited and translated by David Lunde
White Pine Press
ISBN: 1893996956
96 Pages