Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei|
by Pain Not Bread
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|Entering Through A Gate of Dew
by Robyn Sarah
I was twelve when I first came across Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty. I had arrived early for a piano lesson when the previous student was running overtime; our teacher, issuing me into the den that served as anteroom, ran a cursory eye over his bookshelf and placed in my unsuspecting hands a volume of Chinese poetry in translation, saying, "Here's something you can look at while you wait."
I do not remember the title of the book he handed me, nor can I now describe it, but the poems were a revelation. I did not register that they were centuries old. What I remember marvelling at was their immediacy, the vividness with which they conjured their particulars of time and place¨a world I had never seen, yet which felt powerfully familiar, as if each poem embodied a moment of dTja-vu, as though these rivers, these cities, these mountains mentioned by name, were already known to me. Although the English translations did not rhyme, they clearly were poems, and they were so by virtue of their powerful evocation of things commonplace, elemental, and perennial: nature, weather, the seasons, simple human pleasures and emotions, human musings on eternal questions. The poems seemed to speak directly to me. If they were "Chinese", then it seemed I too must be Chinese¨or have been, in an earlier life.
Nearly a decade passed before I encountered the Tang poets again, and when I did, it was in the same edition (a paperback reprinting of The Jade Mountain, compiled and translated by Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu in 1929) that first caught the attention of Roo Borson¨as she relates in her "Afterword" to Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. She describes her similar excitement in discovering these poems, "most of them now more than 1200 years old, but still strangely fresh, as if waiting for us to come upon them again"¨and how the book was for her an "early talisman" in the journey that led eventually to the creation of the volume here under discussion.
Among poetry collections, Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei is an oddity. For starters, it was written collaboratively¨by a writing group calling itself Pain Not Bread and consisting of Borson and two fellow writers, Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. Second, although it takes poetry of the Tang as its starting point and is to all appearances admirably researched (the authors going so far as to enroll in Mandarin classes)¨it is neither a work of translation (not even, in the usually understood sense, of free imitation) nor is it a scholarly study. And third, while it consists of original poetic compositions, these are comprised wholly or primarily of material culled from other texts¨mostly (but not exclusively) scholarly writings about Tang period poetry, and variant translations of the poems themselves.
In Borson's words: "These poems... may be thought of, in some sense, as free variations¨sometimes on the original poems and translations, sometimes on elements of the critical commentaries of the translators, sometimes on a combination of sources¨the result being, we hope, some analogue, appropriate to our time and culture, of the high allusiveness of classical Chinese poetry..." But elsewhere she acknowledges that the poems are often "sparked off by what might...best be called a random selection of words and phrases...scattered throughout the original with no apparent connection, in the sense of the logic and needs of the original piece," and she adds¨in seeming contradiction to her earlier statement¨that they are "not 'variations' (in the usual sense) of anything¨they do not seek to follow, however loosely, the emotional, rhetorical, or logical framework of any particular poem, translation, or introduction."
Borson is disappointingly coy about the group's actual method of composition. Her Afterword does not so much describe a process as hint at a kind of alchemy, a quasi-mystical collusion between the writers and the various texts in which they immersed themselves (and a similar collusion, presumably, with one another.) We are left to wonder whether three hands were at work in any given poem, or whether individual poems are wholly or mostly the composition of one or another collaborator; we can only guess at whether any set of rules, strict or otherwise, (or indeed, any common understanding) governed the use of found material; and, short of combing through the source texts (all of which are listed in the Notes that follow Borson's Afterword), we cannot more than guess at the ratio of found material to original expression in any given poem. My guess is that most of the poems are pastiches made entirely, or almost, of found phrases culled from the source texts and spliced together in collage fashion with the assistance of creative punctuation. (I base the surmise on two characteristics of the poems: the frequent occurrence of utterly surprising composite images of a sort that do not come naturally to the mind, and certain peculiarities of syntax which I recognize from experiments of my own using this method.)
The book, then, is an unlikely fusion of diverse literary practices. In its immersion in and appreciation for the poetry of the Tang, it is a work of the genre of "Hommage a..," one that pays homage, by reference and/or by imitation, to some literary antecedent. In the constraint it accepts by composing with found materials, as well as in its collage technique, it nods to the avant-garde. In being collaboratively written, it hearkens to certain oral traditions¨and it breaks with the egocentric Western conception of the artist as an individual personality or voice. But of these three, what dominates¨and what gives the book its weight¨is its affection for the great poetry that inspired it (the works of Wang Wei, Du Fu, Li Bai, Li He, Meng Jiao and others) and its invocation of the tones and colours, the essential ethos, of that poetry.
One could, of course, in the spirit of our day, call this "appropriation of voice". Let's not. Wang Wei and Du Fu need no one to speak for them. The compositions of Pain Not Bread may borrow (and do borrow, often heavily) from the vocabulary, the image-pool, and the emotional timbre of Tang poetry, but they are of a very different order from the poems that inspired them¨such that they cannot be said to "compete" with actual translations or free imitations of Tang poems. One would not read Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei as a substitute for reading Wang Wei¨but one who has not read Wang Wei and who reads these poems might be beguiled into looking up Wang Wei and other Tang poets; and I believe that this, if not the actual mandate of the authors in publishing this volume, is something that would please them. (Their inclusion of an extensive bibliography would seem to invite readers to explore this ground for themselves.)
One could also complain that the distortion and fragmentation to which the poets subject their borrowed material is frivolous, or exploitative, or plagiaristic, constituting in one or another way "unfair use" of the original poems. I am not inclined to make such a complaint. The book is too magical to dismiss for this reason.
The art of collage¨there is little doubt in my mind that collage is central to the creation of these poems¨is an art of juxtaposition; more precisely, of unlikely juxtaposition. It relies, for its effect, on the mind's natural inclination to seek connection between things that are juxtaposed, to try to make a whole out of parts. The collage artist places things next to each other that have been taken out of their original contexts, and implicitly asks us to interpret them in light of each other¨that is, to intuit a new context in which they make sense together¨though not necessarily the kind of sense that either of them made before. The astonishing thing is that our minds will do a large part of this work subliminally, accepting on faith that the pastiche is a "whole", even if its wholeness is of a nature that stretches our everyday understanding.
It is the peculiar genius of Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei that the poems juxtapose quotation from two disparate kinds of discourse: that of Tang poetry, and that of critical commentaries on the poems. The poems are image-rich: they describe features of the real world¨landscape and topography, wildlife, weather; but they also employ abstraction as they muse on human life, express emotions, ask philosophical questions. The commentaries are analytical and abstract: they explore the "topography" of the poems themselves in structural and linguistic terms, glossing on syntax; but they are also concrete where they discuss historical and societal context. Each mode of discourse has its own vocabulary and concerns, with some overlap (e.g. the poet talks about the clouds, the commentator talks about the word "clouds" in the poem's first line.) When the two are interwoven, the result is something rich and strange, neither conventionally coherent nor merely nonsensical¨having "the sound of sense", yet signifying nothing that could be paraphrased. To illustrate, a poem quoted in full:
No one knows your thoughts: the night is empty.
These translations, then, might deepen repose.
And in the first line, egrets clenched like fists.
Yet "Ming" is simply "sound",
which accurately applies to the leaping fish,
the written character of relentless struggle,
an interiority impossible to reproduce,
but serene, like a flock of fists weeping on sand,
egrets sleeping in the boat's wake.
It is only in such austerity that words have weight
enough to occur.
("The Written Character")
At the age of forty-one:
sets out on the dark bridge
from one personality to another¨
in this very body to wake and live.
A rose has no counterpart;
good deeds, changelessness...
somehow these poems, copied on the back of the
(meaning death) survive.
By now the moral shadows are gone.
The open secret is friendship.
Now I hear cloud music
stirring even the beautiful clouds.
To come upon phrases like "a flock of fists weeping on sand," or "poems, copied on the back of the head (meaning death)" is electrifying¨the more so, when these prodigies are mentioned so matter-of-factly, so familiarly, that they have the same dTja-vu effect on us as the names of Chinese cities and rivers in Tang poems. Whether or not one considers it a poetic parlour trick, collaged poetry generates a surrealism full of surprise and delight, and this book is shot through with it: "The spirit of a wronged ghost rising like a stormcloud/ from the shattered legbone of a long-dead laborer..," "Clear waters drift through a huge mouth,/ through the immensity of a tall wind...," "The original Chinese concealed in the bark of the Buddha tree...," "..everywhere I go, the news is with me/ Blowing hard against my forehead/ making me shiver, soaking me to the skin." The images are wild, but they feel somehow inevitable, like dream logic:
The road is paved with broken teapots and ricebowls
from here to the capital. A stop to rest means
rain on the shoes, and contemplation.
Each grassblade is the grave of a vanished immortal
sipped at by beetles...
Often a phrase or a sentence is seen to recur in several of the poems, always used differently, as if each collaborator had drawn from a common pool of such phrases and had his or her own go at it¨or as if multiple attempts at a poem based on that phrase had been allowed to stand. The recurrences do help give unity to the collection.
There's no doubt that some of the poems work better as whole poems than others, leading me to suspect that different hands dominated in the shaping of them. Some fail to sufficiently abbreviate the academic jargon of commentary, suffering from ponderousness; some feel prosily "clunky", lacking shape and/or music. Some are simply uneven¨perhaps a sign of the collaborative process? But nearly every poem has a little sparkle in it somewhere¨and a handful (among them: "Water Chestnut Stems", "Bitter Heart", "Translation", "Forbidden City", "Friendship", "The Prince", "Fireflies") are altogether charming. I should add that the book is beautifully designed and printed, with a classic modesty appropriate to the spirit of the work.
Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei affected me in three ways: it made me want to dive back into Tang poetry myself; it made me want to experiment with collage again; and it put me in the mood to write poems. For all of which, I am grateful. To quote my favorite lines from "Water Chestnut Stems", lines that could describe the experience of reading this book:
In the much-analyzed poem, we enter through a gate
and there is medicine to cool the heart.