Not too long after reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms, I spent a few hours of a few evenings browsing a website called modernchinesepoetry.com (the web presence of the lit journal 21st Century Chinese Poetry). There's some cool stuff to be found on there, but reading it can be disheartening at times. It's a reminder of the indispensable value and the inadequacy of translation—and of how more gets lost in the translation of poetry than prose. Reading these poems as a (monolingual) English-speaking American is like peering through a keyhole. You're grateful for the glimpse into another world, but wonder with some sadness about the things you know your narrow vantage point is preventing you from seeing.
Things Get Rearranged
The world's secrets hide in slight variations.
The coffee aroma in the morning air
feels like the glow from a honeycomb,
meanwhile, outside the window,
the olive grove soaks in the twilight mist.
Tiny footsteps follow faint sounds to distant places,
but the fisherman has returned and is sitting in the courtyard
watching a bird foraging in the trees.
He still dreams of sending letters home.
The sea forgets and the glacier calves icebergs,
that's how all things under the sun
The telephone is ringing,
up blows a blackish-green wind,
a seductive wind . . . for one's lost living,
but soon telephone wire, computer wire, and so on and so forth,
all come to intrude in continuous coils; he feels himself bound
Annoyed by wires without end, feeling restricted,
the bedroom, the parlor, the kitchen, all have become
Interrogation Time, but where is his arbitrator?
But in China, the Law only judges the feeble.
Seductive Wind, tell him, life only comes once.
In the Song Dynasty, men were killed casually, knights
The telephone rings, puffs the green blackish wind,
Spring Girl, seductive wind, but he lives like China's
When you and I walk side by side, the wind makes our pants stick to
When we do the laundry together, I talk about my childhood,
and how in the mountains I saw a pair of sparrows,
crows the size of a pillow, and a nameless fruit tree.
When we embrace, we don't wish to be seen,
nor wish a giant bird would come and lift our burdens.
If it indeed flies by then, it won't want to take us with it,
it will go to some other people.
If it indeed flies by then, we wouldn't have noticed it anyway.
When we enter autumn together, feeling the severe cold,
we wish to have another two people with us, so
the husband also has a husband, the wife has a wife
to do the house chores together.
When we make a meal together, I ask:
how about rice tonight? She says, OK.
I say, what else is there to worry about? No worries, she says.
When we watch TV together, a few times we
forget to close the refrigerator door.
When we lie down together without talking, in bed,
we look at the roof and notice its gentle glow.