'Touched by the magical and the bizarre'
Back in February 2007 I reported from the hippy reboubt of Waiheke Island on the shambolically magical launch of The Vertical Harp, Mike Johnson's book of translations of poems by the T'ang Dynasty visionary and rebel Li Ho.
Johnson's book soon got the thumbs up from Iain Sharp in the mass-circulation Sunday Star-Times, and now it has had a rave review in the more august surroundings of the New Zealand Journal of Asian Studies. Writing in the June 2008 issue of the journal, poet and Sinologist Diana Bridge has drawn attention to the 'exceptionally attractive' design Titus Books has given The Vertical Harp, as well as Johnson's 'confident and convincing' versions of Li Ho's eerie eighth century lyrics. Here is Bridge's review in full:
Mike Johnson, The Vertical Harp: Selected Poems of Li He, Auckland: Titus
Books, 2006, 69 pp., ISBN 978-1-877441-03-5 (pbk.).
Were there to be a poll of favourite translated versions of Chinese poems, it is my guess that Ezra Pound’s would top the list. The reason, of course, would be that Pound’s English versions work superbly as poems. The question for Sinologists has always been whether these poems also work as translations. Sophisticated examinations of some of Pound’s versions against the original, such as those offered by Zhaoming Qian, suggest an interpretation that bridges the approaches of scholars of Chinese classical poetry and readers of poetry more generally. It goes like this: when the original is inhabited deeply enough by the poet-translator, and when it has become the catalyst to an English version of exceptional quality, much that is true to the meaning of that original will emerge, or remain, regardless of whether the translator has entered the original poem through the work of others.
Mike Johnson calls the poems in his collection, The Vertical Harp: selected poems of Li He, ‘secondary translations’, and ‘re-creations from English sources’ These terms would seem to describe what Pound was famously doing in Cathay, and I approached Johnson’s versions with the not know Chinese, is upfront about what the reader should expect. Whereas translations of the mid-Tang poet Li He (790–816 CE), he tells us, have in the main been scholarly endeavours, his own selection aims at bringing ‘Li He’s poems to life in contemporary English’ and is intended for ‘the wider poetry reading public’.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Johnson’s versions, like those of Pound, are the product of a long and thoughtful consideration of and collaboration with the scholarly sources available to him. Unlike Pound, he uses all the means he appropriately can, without loading down the poems, to provide his reader with a framework for them. A ‘Translator’s introduction’ and notes that give the background to individual poems, as well as operating as guides to interpretation, are supplemented by the decision to expand some of the allusions in the original and integrate them into his versions. He provides a bibliography and is scrupulous in indicating his influences throughout. We are made aware in the foreword of a second element, which might be summed up as the call of one poet to another. Johnson refers to ‘the powerful spirit of Li He himself as evident in his words’ in the work.
The Auckland University Electronic Poetry Centre site begins its entry on Johnson, who has published four collections of his own poetry (as well as a novella and six novels), with the sentence: ‘Mike Johnson is a New Zealand writer whose stories and poems are touched by the magical and the bizarre’ – words which might describe the works of Li He himself. It goes on to say that Johnson ‘first registered on the New Zealand literary scene as a poet with a minimalist Chinese style’. Both of these statements would seem to go some way towards supplying a motivation for his bold and unusual endeavour.
A combination of poetic empathy and the hard yards that Johnson has put in result in poems and a portrait of Li He that accord well with traditional and recent perceptions, although not necessarily estimations, of the work of this guicai, ‘demonic genius’.
The clever decision to break his selection into five categories, poet of protest, of the palace, of the occult, of nature, of war, serves to bring out the dominant themes in Li He’s oeuvre and, as the author notes, has the additional effect of suggesting a likely chronology for the poet’s brief life. It also allows the corresponding facets of this poet’s psychology and poetic personae, which have been the subject of much commentary, to emerge. These personae range from brilliant, embittered, young scholar (debarred, despite the patronage of leading scholar and poet, Han Yu, by a pretext – a taboo on homophones – from sitting the
examinations which were his route to office), to practitioner of the palace style, nature poet, devotee of the shaman-inspired Chu ci [Songs of the South], student of the occult, and jaded realist in the war poems that conclude Johnson’s selection.
Mike Johnson’s grasp of Li He’s imagined world and his reflection of the Tang poet’s unique vision is confident and convincing. His English versions are distinguished by a similar high-voltage lyrical or, as the work demands, demonic, imagery. They are focused with the jolt of contemporary diction, which proves an effective tool for conveying the startling quality of the originals. One example: the eunuch general targeted in one of Li’s ‘Six Satires’ is called a ‘girly half-man’. In his foreword Johnson speaks of the poems being ‘mostly mine and mostly his [Li He’s]’. In terms of the creation of a compelling and singular voice he succeeds extremely well – more consistently overall, perhaps, than previous translators.
Although Johnson’s versions are not primarily aimed at the reader of Chinese classical poetry, if one wants to understand the way in which individual poems work as translations – as well as gain a clearer idea of Johnson’s stylistic strengths and emphases relative to other translators – it is to this reader that his poems must be consigned. In the introduction to his Poems of the Late T’ang (reprinted with additional preface, 1977) eminent classical scholar A.C. Graham cites the first four lines of Li He’s ‘on the frontier’ as an example of the elements (word order, a similar pattern of stresses, the concreteness of the imagery) of a classical Chinese poem likely to lure the English translator. For Graham’s:
A Tartar horn tugs at the North wind,
Thistle Gate shines whiter than the stream.
The sky swallows the road to Kokonor:
On the Great Wall, a thousand miles of moonlight.
The clamour of barbarian horns lures the north wind
moon-driven desert sand clangs silver as water
the sky devours the road to the emerald ocean
along the Wall endless metal miles
In place of a compression that catches the order, rhythm and look of the Chinese original, and proper nouns that insist on place, Johnson aims for a more sensuous, crowded lyrical effect and a more vague sense of actual place. Those preferences lie behind his separation (following Frodsham) of Qinghai, the translation for which in pre-modern times is Kokonor, into the two characters that comprise it: ‘emerald ocean’. The insertion of ‘clamour’ and ‘clangs’ and the substitution of the dense ‘moon-driven desert sand’ for ‘Thistle Gate’ (which editor of and commentator on Li He’s works, respected Qing scholar Wang Qi [1696–1774] tells us signifies a geographical area) are there for reasons of added concreteness and for the alliteration. (Alliteration is absent from the original but it enters the fifth line with the onomatopoeic doublet, mengmeng; the line is rendered by Johnson as ‘white dew drifts, banners drip’). By mentioning sound in both lines of his translation Johnson privileges the construction of his own metaphor – sand as metal – over the Chinese tendency to alternate an aural impression in one line of a couplet with visual description in the other.
Li He’s sensuous quality as a poet is likely to be the catalyst to Johnson’s frequent recourse to assonance and alliteration. He uses the devices throughout with a resourcefulness and variety that hark back to his own background as a poet. The poems introduce a wholly contemporary rhythm. When Johnson extends or repeats aspects of the original, his more leisurely versions may represent a conflation of different scholarly readings; or they may supply an extra step, usually aimed at the reader without Chinese background. But as often as not the reason seems to be metrical; for example, the rhythmical two-liner that initiates the poem, ‘the far sky’: ‘Heaven’s river turns, one vast sidereal rotation/ whirling the stars around’ (where the words in italics duplicate meaning).
Johnson has taken seriously Li He’s reputation as a poet renowned for his ‘parts’ or couplets rather than poetic structure overall – to the extent that he has generally opted for a two-line format, overflowing to three, and occasionally four, lines when the English demands. It should be said that his poems look impeccable on the page. His formal choices also help to contribute an impression of stylistic consistency, which, in turn, gives the reader the sense of engaging with an individual voice.
If there is a price to pay for the kind of consistency indicated above, it is to be located in a loss of generic identity. Genre is used by the Chinese poet to place a poem stylistically for the audience or reader. Within genre, the literati poet may play, with or without irony, with the themes and words of an earlier song or poem. An example is Li He’s ‘Tomb of Little Su’. The Tang poet’s version addresses a sixth-century yuefu (ballad) and the story behind it. Opting for the short irregular lines associated with many yuefu, Li He reflects the theme of mutability in a series of startling compressed images. His lines retain the simplicity crucial to the ballad, well caught in Graham’s opening lines: ‘Dew on the secret orchid/ Like crying eyes’.
Johnson is well aware of the poem’s pedigree. He follows Graham in attaching the original ballad (in the latter’s translation) to the head of his poem and also in placing below it the words ‘ascribed to the singing girl, Little Su, 500 AD’. This allows him to locate his poem while adopting a generalised title, ‘tomb of a singing girl’, in line with his strategy of ‘stripp[ing] the poem of its historical cloak’. But Johnson’s version shows what a delicate balancing act translation can be. His diction is in a different register from that of Li He. In his first two lines, ‘covert, dew-crammed orchid/ tear-crazed eyes’, the crowded juxtapositions of images and consonants capture the surprise but not the original’s combination of startling image and limpid simplicity.
In his final couplet, Li anchors his poem to a particular spot, the grave mound associated with a poignant narrative around which a legend or, as Johnson suggests, a ghost story, has grown up. Li concludes with wind-blown rain over Little Su’s tomb. In Johnson’s version, ‘sleety winds shift’, alliteration overloads the composure of the original ending, taking it in a different direction and dissipating the poetic effect of beginning with dew and ending with rain.
The Vertical Harp, as material object, is exceptionally attractive. Pasted across an ox blood-red cover is a strip of elegant calligraphy – the text of the poem from which Johnson’s title is drawn. On the back is a short poem called ‘incarceration’, which I quote in full.
the moat, blood red, reflects
a palace in spectacular decay
mirror the gestures of palace-girls
how many spring darlings seen
from behind drawn curtains
hair whitening to dust?
ten thousand years of pale days
The girls referred to here were those brought in to amuse the Emperor Xuan Zong (712-755 CE) when he stayed in the palace which served him for one night as travel lodge. For this privilege they were rewarded with incarceration for the rest of their lives. Johnson’s rendering of the clichés of palace poetry and his imaginative reconstruction of the themes of that genre are livelier and tonally better sustained than any I have read since Anne Birrell’s translations of the sixth century anthology, Yutai xin yong (New Songs from a Jade Terrace), that appeared in 1982. This poem is infused with an energy largely lacking in the original. Nonetheless, the first couplet provides an example of the pitfalls that threaten a translator.
It has been said that language brings its ghosts along with it. A culture brings in its wake a way of reading its particulars. In this case, to bring blood into a palace style poem is to overstep thematic parameters. Johnson’s translation appears to start with Frodsham’s preferred version, ‘vexed red’. ‘Red’ in this poetic context is overwhelmingly likely to be a red flower growing in the moat. (The commentaries, opting unanimously to read both of the characters concerned, hong and fan, as written with the grass radical – the earliest texts are written without – offer several floral options. As in other cultures, the image which most often stands behind a flower is that of a woman, a symbolism picked up on by Li He when he selects the word yong, ‘embraces’ or ‘encircles’, to describe the moat. As it stands, Johnson’s translation evokes some bloody event that is associated with dynastic decline. It therefore reads as if responsibility for the fate of the ‘spring darlings’ lies with that bloody history rather than with the harsh, if conventional, decree of the Emperor.
I have indicated ways in which Johnson’s poems tend to diverge from the ambience, and on occasion the traditional readings, of Li He’s originals. Whereas qualifications of this kind crop up in relation to the translation of individual poems, they do little to disturb the overall achievement. The impression left by this spread of poems is of one poet engaging masterfully with another. These are ‘secondary translations’ that inhabit and re-create even the most difficult of Li He’s originals with imagination and flair. With the added pictorial inducements of its cover and the inclusion of several panels of calligraphy, The Vertical Harp is likely to attract not only readers who have never heard of Li He, but many who have.
Reviewed by DIANA BRIDGE
Victoria University of Wellington