Lament (after Sheng-yu’s Lament by Mei Yao-che’en)

It was difficult to return to work on new pieces for this project yesterday. November was blustery and very gray, the whole world seemed to shiver. It was weather to huddle up, as curled and still and hidden as one could be. None-the-less I rode my bike to breakfast, and when I rode past a small pond I could see three ducks on the soon to be frozen water. I wondered; did they miss the migration memo? Are three enough of a formation to make the long southward flight? Are they waiting for a greater flock to gather that I suspect won’t be coming around?

Having completed my Kurt Vonnegut series, I am reminded of a whimsical concept his made-up religion Bokononism introduced: the “karass,” a term for a group of disparate people strangely linked together without their knowledge that yet still seem to be working with a common purpose and unknowable goal.

If so, poet Robert Okaji and I may be in such a flock.

Ostensibly independently, Okaji and I both find creating American English translations/adaptations of classical Chinese poetry rewarding. We even often use the same source of literal glosses of the poems since neither of us understand the language those poets wrote in. Okaji’s practices have informed some of what I do with translation in that he allows himself to extrapolate English poetry from these old poems where his or the modern American reader’s understanding might otherwise be puzzled, unsure, or unmoved.*  This weekend I read one of his adaptations, “Sheng-yu’s Lament (after Mei Yao-ch’en)”  and was struck, as he apparently was, by the depiction of grief and loss.

Okaji’s version is quite good, but I still wanted to try my own adaptation. I approach translating classical Chinese poetry like I approach translating from French, German, or Spanish. My primary goal is to understand first what the poet wants us to see, to sense — the imagery. With poetry the “word-music” is highly important in the original language, but generally I do not try to transpose the sounds or even the sound-organization of the original language into English. I do like to retain something of what I call “the music of thought” in the original poem, the order and arrangement of the images in the poem’s journey.

I always start wanting to honor the original poet, the original poem, but despite that I often get carried away with a desire to change the way the poem ends to something that occurs to me from the experience of the other poet’s poem. This may be a failure, a fault on my part, and so when I do that here I try to cite what liberties I took. Okaji has a concise way to handle this issue: he calls his adaptations into American English “After…” which gives one license to do what the muse wills.


Robert Okaji’s fine translation is available here, and he also includes the English-language gloss we both used to create our versions of this poem. Besides his blog which includes selections from the full variety of his poetry, you can download a selection of his “after…” poems adapted from the Chinese here.


I started out thinking about how to render the first word: “heaven” in the gloss, a word carried over by Okaji. Best as I understand Chinese culture, the term “heaven” often carries a connotation closer to the concept of “fate,” and I actually used fate in the second draft, and then reverted to heaven in the final version. I decided I needed the listener to be firmly in the experience of mourning and grief, and to a Westerner, heaven does that. My next problem to solve were two lines both plain and puzzling: “Two eyes although not dry/(Disc) heart will want die” Interestingly, they rhyme in the English gloss, and early-on I decided to make that into a refrain. The narrator seems stuck, and refrains are a great device to show that situation. Okaji plays his “after card” here, with the very fine “my heart slowly turns to ash” that may not be in the original but adds vividness.

I wanted to bring forward Mei Yao-che’en’s image in the next set of lines — that there are things that seem elusive, that we think of as gone, but they still exist —and there are objective, work-a-day methods to go into the depths to retrieve them. I was unable to find out any additional context for the Sheng-yu whose lament the poem is said to be reflecting. Given my own age I read this poem as an older man, a widower who has now also lost his son to death, although given the historical dangers of childbirth it could be a tale of a woman who died of childbirth complications and then the infant too dies. The poignant specifics of the pearl sinking into the sea asks for allusive meaning, pearls coming from oysters on seabeds, and so a returning, perhaps a child-soul coming forth and then returning to where it came from. Or given my old-man framing, a widower throwing a dead wife’s jewelry into the sea. If the story of Sheng-yu was known to Mei’s readers this might be understood more specifically, but lacking knowledge I let this specific mystery remain.

Mei’s lines “Only person return source below/Through the ages know self (yes)” are hard to grasp. Okaji made his estimate, and I made mine. My aim was in part to underline that this section is a contrasting development of the supposedly lost things in the depths of the earth or the sea.

Okaji’s adaptation ends strongly, and it seems to me to be a more likely accurate translation of the poem’s final line. While I like my solution to the next-to-last line, I decided to go with a much odder final line. In my choice, inspired by what I felt in Mei’s original poem, and from being an older person with many grievings — the dead whose immortality is, in part, made up of my remembrance of them — is that I do not have to dig down deep or dive deep to see them, that they are with me. In the thin depths of a mirror I find them, and that my fate is to join their fate soon enough in my passage of years.

Musically I wrote an entire other tune for this, a bit more R&B like, which I abandoned early in my attempts to record this. Instead, I returned to my thought of some unusual colors associated with the Velvet Underground, and particularly John Cale,**  the Welsh viola playing member of that band. I created another spare and eccentric percussion part inspired by Velvet’s drummer Maureen Tucker’s inventions, and then laid down an electric bass line that anchors the melody. My guitar part came next, not R&B at all this time, the atmospheric arpeggios perhaps subconsciously connected to Chinese string instruments. The top instrumental lines are a cello and viola.

You can hear my performance of this lament with either this highlighted hyperlink or where available, this graphical player gadget you may see below.


*Others who have informed my practice: Ezra Pound’s rather free translations from glosses of classic Chinese poets, and Thomas Campion, who based his most famous poem on Latin poet Catullus while adding his own flavor.

**Two early John Cale solo LPs The Church of Anthrax and The Academy in Peril,  like his settings for Nico recordings in the early Seventies, aren’t to everybody’s tastes but hearing them opened my mind then to different ways to combine orchestral instruments with modern songwriting and electric instruments. If you want to explore them now, I’d suggest starting with 1972’s The Academy in Peril  which is the most accessible.