Poetry Book Review
by Kevin McLaughlin
Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po
translated by Yun Wang, White Pine Press, 2019.
Poet-physicist-scholar Yun Wang has changed forever the way the Western world will regard Chinese poetry with her translation of Su Dong-Po’s tune poems in a collection titled Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms. This illuminating work is destined to be a major contribution to world literature. Beautiful images are as plentiful as the gold made by the collision of two neutron stars. One line reads, “A broken moon catches on a leafless phoenix tree.” In addition to being a tender, striking image, this poetic phrase could be the answer to any Zen Koan ever posed to a student.
Dong-Po (1037-1101) navigated the stormy Chinese civil servant system of the Song Dynasty, in and out of favor with the authorities, subject to the cataclysmic regime changes and the age’s fluid cultural climate. He adopted the name Hermit of East Hill circa 1080, and maintained his inner hermitage, regardless of his personal circumstances, throughout his life.
The poet possessed a deep understanding of both Buddhist and Taoist philosophy. In addition to the Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path, Buddhism teaches Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is Form, the true nature of reality. Dong-Po lifts Form to reveal the inherent Emptiness, and dissolves Emptiness to reveal Form. The 11th-century poet floats plum blossoms and lanterns downstream with an elegance that transcends the need to appreciate his work with a knowledge of Eastern religions and philosophies.
Taoism teaches spiritual balance, adhering to Nature’s Way, self-effacement, conservation of the vital energies, spiritual alchemy, motion from stillness, and extreme longevity. Lao Tzu from the Wudang Mountains would have blessed, “Who says life does not bloom in youth again/ Even the water at my doorstep can flow west/ Do not mourn the white hair and sing of the golden rooster.”
Readers of English poetry, particularly Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Keats, will recognize a congruity and gladly harken to Dong-Po’s song. Those familiar with Stonehouse and Cold Mountain will want to add this volume, available from White Pine Press, to their bookshelves. Words can obscure words: the true way to demonstrate the insight and power of these translations is to offer examples from “Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po.” Let it be reiterated; this will change forever the way the Western world regards Eastern and Chinese poetry.
To the Tune of “Butterfly and Flowers”
Blossoms fade in withered red and apricots are tiny
Swallows appear in the sky
Green water swirls around houses
Willow catkins peel off branches in the wind
Where at the sky’s edge does fragrant grass not thrive
Behind the wall is a swing beyond the wall is a trail
Beyond the wall a traveler passes
Behind the wall a girl laughs
The laughter wanes and the sound dies away
The heart is undone by the heartless
To the Tune of “Sand of the Washing Stream”
Soft grass and flat sedge freshen after rain
My horse trots on a sandy road free of dust
When will I pack up to plow side by side with a friend?
Mulberry trees and hemp warm in pools of sunlight
Mugworts exhale scent of vanilla into the wind
I the governor finally in my element
To the Tune of “The Sun Pass”
Mid Autumn Moon
Dusk clouds vanish as a crystal chill blooms
The moon’s jade plate turns against the soundless Milky Way
This life this night is a flower about to fade
Where will we see this lustrous moon next year
All three translated poems are from Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po, translated by Yun Wang, White Pine Press, 2019.
Yun Wang is the author of poetry books, The Book of Totality (2015) and The Book of Jade (2002), and a book of translations, Dreaming of Fallen Blossoms: Tune Poems of Su Dong-Po (2019). She is a cosmologist at Caltech.
Su Dong-Po represents the pinnacle of literary accomplishment from the Song Dynasty. He is credited with transforming ci (tune poem) from a minor form of poetry, written to match fixed tunes and often used to express amorous feelings, to a major form of poetry capable of expressing the full range of emotions and the human condition. It became the primary vessel for lyric poetry in classical Chinese poetry. School children in China learn that the indispensable classics in poetry are "Tang shi Song ci (Tang poems and Song tune poems)." Li Bai and Du Fu are the grand masters of Tang shi; Su Dong-Po is the grand master of Song ci. Many poems in this Chinese/English bilingual book are appearing in English translation for the first time. The Chinese originals are accompanied by Pinyin, making this an ideal textbook for students.
Click on the cover image to order a copy of Yun Wang's beautiful translations.