Book Review: Memories of Mount Qilai: The Education of a Young Poet, by Yang Mu

Memories of Mount Qilai is a prose poem based on youthful reminiscences of Hualien and other places in eastern Taiwan. It (via this translation) is very beautiful and hypnotic, so much so that it will often make you think of other things, until you are turning the pages without absorbing or even reading the words. Yang Mu is an excellent poet, and some of his conventional, individual works are included here, including (from p. 159):

Carrying an oil paper umbrella
alone, I make my way down a
long, long and lonely lane in the rain,
pacing back and forth, hoping to encounter a
young woman knotted with sadness and hate
like a bud of lilac

However, if the cited shorter poems are emotionally compressed, with a high ratio of meaning to word, the prose poetry of the overall book is the opposite: meandering and unfocused, rather obscure. A chapter toward the end concerning a friend who committed suicide never seems to come to any point of power or intensity.

Still, though, some passages will differentiate themselves from the meandering flow and make an impression on you, such as (on p. 201)

The sound I heard, beyond being entangled in my own questioning, was the sound of bicycles braking high on the slope above the north end of the bridge, the sound of bicycle chains.

I knew it was the sound of school being let out. They must have lowered the flag, listened to the speech of exhortation, dispersed, and set off for home. Nine hundred male students were surging out, swinging identical book bags in the same color and with the same weight, their hats on their heads, in their hands, or, like mine, thrust into their book bags. I didn’t attend the flag-lowering ceremony today. Starting around noon, I couldn’t sit still, as a strange, unformed melody floated through my mind, as if from the other side of a high, dark, ancient wall someone abandoned himself to chanting for me a fragmented but still special and recognizable song of prudence, pronouncing words that were difficult to understand but occasionally stressing a certain expression, seemingly also what I frequently heard between sleep and wakefulness. I looked around me: the distant sky, sea, prostrate mountains, the aged banyan tree, hibiscus, canna lilies, and the beehive under the eaves, steadily growing larger by the day. ‘How am I to let go, be free, release myself, and be different from others?’ I repeatedly asked myself such silly questions and then when totally exhausted, ‘How can I prove that I am different from others?’ The blackboard was covered with proper nouns: ‘Age of Enlightenment,’ ‘feudal lord,’ ‘serf,’ ‘guild,’ ‘Galileo,’ ‘isolationism,’ and ‘indulgence.’

Of course, poetry is the best proof that one is different from others. In a passion of ‘unsociable eccentricity’ (on p. 142), Yang asserts, ‘My form of expression is my own….This is the best. No one else has come up with it before; it belongs entirely to me, appropriate, exact, and effective.’

Yang’s book is subtitled ‘The Education of a Young Poet.’

On the Difficulties of Translating Chinese Poetry

I once gave a talk as part of a ‘Lost in Translation’ series on rendering Chinese poems into English. I presented my translation of the Tao Yuanming poem ‘Drinking #5’ (which I posted here last week), and, although I claimed nothing for its style, related with pride how I had expanded upon Tao’s original meaning (or gone beyond earlier translations), to make it seem that he was imagining and not really observing the chrysanthemums and mountains and other phenomena described in the poem. I thought this expansive (and almost certainly incorrect) rendering would reinforce what I believe he was saying about the process of escaping bleak reality via the power of imagination.

As usual, I wasn’t sure the audience were following my abstruse argument. Some Chinese people were present, and they said nothing.

Days later, a Chinese student who had been at the talk approached me at a study abroad fair and informed me, now that it was just between us, that she didn’t like my translation at all. It was too cerebral, in her view, totally lacking the emotive element that suffused the original.

Digesting her criticism, I realized that the emotive element of Chinese poetry accounts for the bulk of its power, that this emotive aspect is the hardest quality to translate, and that the failure to capture the emotive connotation of Chinese poetry in translation was chiefly responsible for the seeming pointlessness of Chinese poetry to foreigners.

For instance: Do you know the sound of children’s swings, clanging against each other, in a deserted playground? Well, that is a Chinese poem. It’s not that non-Chinese people are insensible of the emotive potential of such a thing, but it’s doubtful that a Westerner, especially, would use poetry to convey it. He would be likelier to use more modern media. There is, of course, the sound of clanging swings in the middle of the second side of Abbey Road (before ‘Sun King,’ I think); and a similar sound and image, from a deserted playground, begins the film Midnight Cowboy. In both cases, the emotive effect is very strong.

But if you try to put it in a poem –

                The swings clang —

                ching! ching!

                Who was just playing here?

– you can’t pull it off.

I’ll speak for myself: I can’t pull it off.

Translation of the Chinese Poem “Drinking” # 5, by Tao Yuanming (a.k.a. Tao Qian, 365-427)

結廬在人境      Though I may dwell amongst the populous

throng,

而無車馬喧      By din of cart and horse I’m quite unvexed.

問君何能爾      How, you ask, do I maintain my calm?

心遠地自偏      “The wand’ring mind, no clamor may

molest.”

 

采菊東籬下      Unreal chrysanthemums bloom all about.

悠然見南山      In fancy, too, I spy Lu Mountain’s peak;

山氣日夕佳      Its mists are splendid, as the sun fades out.

飛鳥相與還      Then, with the flying birds, my mind

retreats.

 

此中有真意      For here is where the truest pleasure lies:

欲辨已忘言      Beyond my words, the world seen with

closed eyes.