Early this week, Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz on Twitter put out a call for people to respond with their go-to poets in our troubled times. I’m always uneasy when being put on the spot for short-lists, because I’m by nature a person of various moods and needs. The poet I need today is not always the one I need tomorrow. And then, it’s the same or even more so with music for me. Perhaps some of that comes through here in this project’s variety?
Two names surprised me* as I tapped in the poet names that came to my mind that day this month: Edward Thomas and Du Fu. We’ve dealt with Thomas here more recently, so today I’ll speak of Du Fu.**
Two things seem to connect me to this master of classical Chinese poetry: Du Fu wrote his best work as an old man (such as I am) — and that productive period coincided with a great governmental rebellion and crisis in China. When Du Fu writes a lovely nature passage, I always read it as the work of someone who is also seeing great destruction and violence in the human part of nature.
Du Fu, not an Asian-American, but his poetry sometimes speaks to my country none-the-less.
In this troubled week I went looking for a poem I could get close to and perform, and I found this one of Du Fu’s. For practical reasons, I need to make my own translations of Du Fu from English language glosses (such as the ones found at Chinese-poems.com) and the difficulties of making a graceful poem in English out of an 8th century Chinese poem would seem daunting, but they attract me all the more. Obviously, there are great risks that I will misunderstand what Du Fu is trying to say — but not only do I accept those risks, I’ve been tempted more than once to transform key images from Du Fu’s time and place to contemporary America. For these reasons most of my Du Fu pieces should be understood as adaptations, the kind of thing that I’ve decided are best labeled as “After a poem by….”***
Here’s the English gloss of the Chinese I worked from, and for comparison here’s a link to another person’s English language translation.
This is the gloss I worked from for today’s piece.
And here’s my “Rain on a Spring Night (after Du Fu)” version used for today’s performance:
I usually would work longer on one of these, but it’s been too long since I presented new work here.
I think of my opening section as a good faith attempt at an accurate translation into a working English poem. I used English syntax and conventions, added the poetic device of parallelism to substitute for the word-music losses inherent to translation, and tried, as I always do, to present vivid images.
The last section of Du Fu’s poem is where I likely diverge. I do sense a turn in the poem at this point, I think it’s possible Du Fu’s trying to contrast the peaceful rain following nature’s order in his opening. The (cooking? signal? lantern?) fire on the boat is the only human sign in the poem. Is that only coincidental decoration? The gloss’ final line is most difficult. A single image there comes through to me: that flowers, perhaps even fallen blossoms, are like the patterns on a brocade fabric. “Government city” puzzles. Like brocade on rich courtiers? Or is this spring morning near a capitol city?
So, my choice was to allude, somewhat obliquely as Du Fu seems to have done, and the final scene is designed to depict not peaceful spring and beneficent rain, but the aftermath of violence as we all to well know it now and here: the yellow crime scene tape, the flower memorials left. A rain of bullets is not a good rain.
My music and performance is very sparse for this, but I decided that’s starkness was effective. You can hear the performance with a player some will see below, or with this highlighted link.
*I wouldn’t even have known their names, much less their poetry or something of their lives before starting this Project six years ago.
**I have to note his name was often spelled in the western alphabet as Tu Fu. Du Fu is supposed to be the better approximation, even though there are as many or more references to him as Tu Fu online or in books.
***I was aware of that sort of classification, but it was poet Robert Okaji (who has also produced graceful work in English from classical Chinese poems) who cinched down that tactic for me. Another thing that informed my practice here is my love for “the folk process” transformations that folk music lyrics go through. In that latter example, a tale of an unfortunate British Isles rake easily becomes the tale of a dying cowboy on the streets of Laredo Texas, or a run-of-the-mill elusive bad-boy-robber ballad gets pared down by a colonial subject whose nation has been dehumanized into the tale of a shape-shifting were-fox.