#171: SPEAKING TO WAKE THE STARS. I came across J. P. Seaton’s translations from the Chinese a good thirty years ago, in The Wine of Endless Life (White Pine Press), a charming collection of drinking songs of the Yuan Dynasty; having recently replaced my copy of long ago, I once again found pieces I had off almost by heart:
If someone came what would I do
dozing here with my clothes on
completely at ease, feeling frisky
human life? What can you say
rank is above me a bit
wealth, I don’t need it
haha, you laugh
I laugh, haha.
Or this, by Kuan Han-ch’ing:
toot once, strum once
give us a song
to Great Virtue
enjoy yourself, relax
stop setting snares
where that leads you.
go find a place to flop
and flop there.
Since that book, published in 1984, he has translated Ou Yang Xiu, Han Shan, Du Fu, Chuang Tzu and Yuan Mei as well as editing and contributing to several anthologies, including the excellent pocket book The Poetry of Zen, from Shambhala. His translations have an almost nonchalant grace—the natural manner of a translator who has taken in the poems he loves and taken on the poets’ voices.
In 2012 he published Bright Moon, White Clouds: Selected Poems of Li Po, again with Shambhala, and my favorite of his works. Li Po is by all accounts the other of the greatest Chinese poets, along with Du Fu, who adored Li Po with the ardor of a worshiping younger brother (he was Li Po’s junior by a decade). Du Fu is the conscientious member of the family who set out to make good: he has something of the swot about him, and it’s plain he very much took to heart his failure to achieve the clerkly success that was one measure of a man in T’ang China. He is also the poet who gave to Chinese poetry a new range in expressing the tragedies, the losses and the horrors of the An Lu-Shan rebellion and the crashing disorder it brought to the world he lived in. Li Po was the mischievous, hard-drinking adored firstborn who lived in state of grace, mostly due to his endless energy and his gift of expression. In Mandarin his poems have by reputation a kind of golden beauty given only to the greatest masters. He was not an innovator, but a perfector; what he did, he just did better than anyone. And he was the kind of person who moved in an air of extravagant legend: he was said to be ten feet tall; the emperor described him as “a banished immortal;” he was later believed to have died by attempting to embrace the moon’s reflection in a river and drowning. In the most accomplished and wondrous period of Chinese history, he was considered one of the T’ang’s “three wonders,” alongside Pei Min, a master swordsman, and Zhang Xu, a master calligrapher.
A portion of Li Po’s verse is happily marked with a simply expansive spirit, a disdain for class distinction, a mix of aplomb and bonhomie; he’s terrific company. But some of the wild wonder of his more legendary presence also inhabits his verse, even in translation. Unlike Du Fu, who seems to us completely, insistently secular, saturated in heartbreak and tragedy, Li Po was a rapt wanderer, almost a shaman, who studied with Taoist masters; and here we may find a connection with those later drinking songs Seaton translated. Drink was one of the ways T’ang poets got their feet off the ground, but because of its connection with Taoist elixirs and the pursuit of immortality, the drinking songs always refuse to be just drinking songs, like, say, the rowdy bibulous lyrics in the Carmina Burana. The Taoist-influenced poets, when they drink, seem to go somewhere, some place that is not quite the ordinary earth. And their words take on not only the cheer of a good high, but the accents of Lao Tzu and the other Taoist sages, so that those woodland paths, the gaggles of courtesans, the infinite emptiness of the night sky above, all partake of the uncanny, even the wondrous. Seaton’s translations bring across the expansive heart of Li Po, but at their best they also convey this strange and heightened air.
This night, in Summit Temple,
I raise my hand and touch the stars.
I wouldn’t dare to raise my voice,
for fear I’d wake them, up in Heaven.
Seaton ends his selection with a seventeen-poem sequence, “Fall Cove Songs,” by the end of which Fall Cove seems a near neighbor to Han Shan’s Cold Mountain—another place not entirely on any map. “There is another world other than this one we choose to live in,” Li Po writes, and, reading Seaton’s versions, we feel we’ve spent a little time there ourselves.