Last updated: March 12, 2021

Yang Mu, “Start: Fourteen-line Poems for Ming-ming”

One year ago today (March 13 Taiwan time), Yang Mu, passed away. And just a couple of days before, I visited UC Berkeley, Yang’s alma mater (PhD Comparative Literature, 1971), for the first time. Back then, I was struggling to decide which program to attend. After learning his death, I picked up his essay, “The Berkeley Spirit,” and it was the turning point for me: “Knowledge can be power only when it’s freed and enters the society, the world we live in.” 1

While I’d been singing “in New York you can be a new man” since 2016, my “longing for something to be a part of” was evidently stronger, and it resonated with me on a deeper level. Admittedly I’m not exactly sure what the tradition, or traditions, to which Yang Mu belongs are exactly, but I am sure I want to be part of them, however tangential. A few days after his death, I decided to come to Berkeley. Of course, I considered quite a few other factors, most much more rational, but that’s for another post elsewhere; in this blog, Dionysus rules.

Enough backstory. To remember the poet, I’m presenting my translations—or, poetic interpretations, as I’d like to call them—of his work. My ideal is that I’ll be doing this on this day every year, but who knows. This time, I’d like to share my rendering of his sonnet sequence, originally titled, “Chūfā: Gěi Míng-míng de Shísìhángshī.” It consists of fourteen fourteen-line poems, dedicated to his son, Ming-ming, newborn at the time of writing, March 1980. In them, we see the father’s eager anticipation, his earnest care and wishes, all for his son.

In rendering any poem, I pay most attention to readability. This is not supposed to be a scholarly edition filled with footnotes, although interestingly I like to translate poems that normally require footnotes even in the original language. I abuse my license as a translator, or author, of some sort. I look to replicate the aesthetic experience through another language, preserving obscurities and allusions but also some interpretive space. If you want more something more literal, closer to the original text, there are other translations (some mentioned below). I would also sincerely suggest you study the original language in which it was written.

With that said, in approaching the poem, it is useful to know to have a bit of idea of what poetry as a artistic medium is for Yang Mu himself. It’s a difficult topic, and a lot has been said. I will just point you to his coda to Someone (1986), which I happen to have translated before:

For poetry, we seek new modes of expression; its spirit, its intention, its cultural ambition, its tenacious longing for artistic breakthrough at its core, and its social concern, the way in which it harmonizes criticism and didacticism with poetic cadence and textual referentiality—all that does not change with political reality and ideology. Life of poetry renews as it evolves within itself; it has its own ebbs and flows, beginnings and endings, for it has the capacity to engage, and to transcend. Indeed, poetry is ever-new.

Poetry is persistence, not compromise.

***

Poetry, or our organic life of culture as a whole, must be defined only through experimentation and breakthroughs, if it is to deserve of our unwavering persistence.

Among other things, I will first point out that this form of the sequence here is worth particular attention. I’d say Yang Mu was inventing a different kind of sonnet for the contemporary lyrical tradition in world literature, and he made a conscious choice not to imitate the form on the superficial level—in terms of quatrains, metrical feet, and rhyme scheme, products of the Western tradition characterized by Petrarch, Shakespeare, etc. For Yang Mu, it seems to me, modernity oscillates between the old and new, the past and present, the classical and contemporary, the East and West, solipsism and collectivism. In this light, in appropriating the otherwise foreign form of sonnet, Yang draws on the illocutionary affordance of the form: that it’s inherently dialogic, passionate, and resistant to some tradition—which is strongly felt, at least by me, in the sequence below.

To be more specific, I am making this rather idiosyncratic choice: I choose “fourteen-line poems” in lieu of “sonnets” for the title. I argue that the form of the poems here is Yang Mu’s own invention, so it follows that it is inappropriate to just call them “sonnets”—they are not, and, as we will see, they refuse to be part of the relevant tradition in Western literature. The “fourteen-line” seems apt also because in the classical Chinese tradition, forms are often named after its most characteristic number: the seven-character quatrain, say. It is my argument that “fourteen-line poem” more adequately conveys the poet’s ambition: make it new, and bring disparate traditions together.

Another glaringly idiosyncratic choice I made is the other part of the title, which is different from the other two existing translations I can find. “Departure,”2 it seems to me, is more about leaving someplace for another, with an inherent stress on the destination, not point of departure per se, which is not what the poems are about. “Embark,”3 on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be in the same register as Chūfā. I thought about “Starting from Here,” but that’s just too long. The other day it occurred to me that all my favorite episodes from This Is Us have a one-word title, and Frasier, which I’ve been re-watching, is another example of one-word title. They seem oddly powerful, clean, and crispy. So, I’m landing “Start” for the time being. And yes, the act of translating is decidedly personal for me.

I translated part of the sequence (I, II, VIII, XI, XIV) in 2019 for my reading group at Carnegie Mellon. The rest was done recently, and still subject to likely extensive revision in the future. In any event, here goes:

From The Coast with Seven Turns

Start
(Fourteen-line Poems for Ming-ming)

translated by Kent K. Chang с любовью посвящается Ване

I

After a little bit of wind and rain, bright sunshine
wakes up clover, lichen, and ferns. We cross
the lawn together, arms and shoulders linked, examining
the damp wall that exudes the whif of an early spring.
In the northwest corner we plant a Chinese holly
and also fix the side gate with nails. And then
a windy and rainy night pulls tight the prophetic strings
on the magnificent ancient zither of our life, and
opens up an expanse of solemnity and grandeur
which is March, opulent. We lean on each other
in the early morning chill, we wait in anticipation,
listening attentively to the farthest rain clouds—
gradually gather, and dispense, above the sea:
a dignified horn toot, a precise point on the drum.

II

On that perfect day, we witness winter chill
gradually yielding to the warmth of spring.
A sonic boom at daybreak—on both sides of
the long bridge—causes the vast, misty lake splash.
When Life chooses that day, with extraordinary determination
and the hefty resonance of boisterous thunder—
Life proclaims on that perfect day …
After sunrise there is a brief flurry of snow,
downpour thus cleanses the sober earth at noon.
Mountains raise higher, rivers flow faster and faster,
blue pines clamor and hurry in the wind, out of a sudden
of a sudden, a flock of white birds flits over the sprouting
prairie, flying hail knocks on the sea-facing window:
You have arrived on the perfect day, the day of your choosing.

III

I hear the earth shaking like an olive leaf.
As it experiences the gale of spring returning
to where it came from, Wave, in the guise of Time,
brings forth the past, the present, and the future
in the boundless space—it’s the sound that is real,
and beyond our sensations; I see this persistent light,
like a flaming torch, like the seven bright stars,
like swordplay, like spark, like a pure and innocent
mirror, like a beam from Nirvana, shining
on the palace rid of dust or moss—
the dazzle that is real, that is above all else,
to the east of the eastsouth, the north of northwest—
We hear, and we see, when Life presents itself
with the free, fearless sound and light.

IV

Facing the growing leaf bud, the rigid gesture of
a huge tree, my door is left wide open.
A flock of birds is taking off from the grass—
they chirp after one another inside and outside
the walls, and conquer the branches now adorned with
a touch of green—our eaves are now ringing. All
flower buds are bursting, earlier than usual,
shaking off the winter from last year. An earthworm just
quickly turned over in the mud. A tiny moth is feeling
anxious, crashing into a golden pupa with his growing
wings; Classical and Romantic books keep fighting
on the selves: How many poems to read aloud? What’s
the procedure? Starting with Chinese, or English?—
All welcoming their new little master with vociferous cries.

V

This is your kingdom, the realm of milk. Your first
home is like a strawberry island. Thousand miles
of stirring waves—do remember, home is
that prosperous island, miles of stirring waves away.
Imitate it, be billion times greater than it. Remember
that south temperate zone, one of bananas and pineapples.
Its west coast against the blue sky and ocean, the chain
of majestic volcanos breaking through the ridges and
peaks that mark the snow line. And all rivers are flowing
towards all directions, towards the boundless ocean, gazing,
awaiting. This is exactly your kingdom, where we gather
together, in the rainy, cool north temperate zone. I need
you to know the latitude and altitude of your surroundings.
Strawberries and milk. You’ll start from here.

VI

We are more impatient than you are yourself. At noon
we cannot take our eyes off you in the dandelion stroller.
You look surprised, as if you are facing a mirror.
We can somehow see your eyebrows. Your eyes are directed
right at the sun, and have taken in all the skies.
You have no idea where you are, but we do. At night
it feels like I am opening a box of crayon, looking at you
conducting a great experiment of colors. Before the lamp,
yellow and blue harmonize into the dashing green; red and black
are pumping up each other, into the most profound and undying classics
of Europe. I even let you tear up the seven colors of light
on a mirror, just as you wish, and look at how you are confused
over the rather gloomy outcome, experience your true nature, and
your mistake after you let your imaginations go wild—

VII

And from one minor mistake, how you make sense of
that which is beyond our fantasy, how you use precise lines
and colors, like for a small tree of life of the garden.
The beginning of the harvest season, the shallow sky,
at twilight—drifting clouds and rainbows come closer
as they move away, teasing those towers and castles
and horses kicking up sand, and the flags of warriors—
all of a sudden all become a seven-stringed zither, a bamboo fan,
a cutter and a ruler, a swing, or, these dreamy beings
that will prove to exist beyond our experience. And yet,
through our yard of falling petals, up there near
the northern window, a military plane is flying straight
from east to west without making any sound, breaking through
the shadows of swings now dismissed. Let us listen attentively.

VIII

[Justice and social issues became a key theme in Yang Mu’s writings later in his career, and the change is often associated with his change of penname from Yeh Shan to Yang Mu in 1972. VIII can be interpreted as alluding to the Lin family massacre that took place on February 27, 1980.]

Beyond the seventh heaven, at the beginning
and the end of the universe, is the sea of stars, forever
glittering, stars we can relate to. So familiar are
your voice and face, so familiar.
A long time ago, in another time and age, we were one—
one form and one shadow traveled side by side,
drifting beyond the seventh heaven of
incomparable silence. We fight against—
with a will that will not be commemorated—
the earthly, foolish, futile laws and philosophical systems,
challenge passionate authorities, with detachment,
with a smile that cannot be interpreted or imitated.
We once trudged across mountains and rivers, side by side,
in search of earthly justice, righteousness, and compassion. 4

IX

You will recognize for sure, through fluffy,
choral odes and praises, recognize the stage
of characters and actions. Should it be possible,
stay silent amongst cheers, use our rational mind
to observe and to experience, look through this
long, repetitive drama without showing any sign of compromise,
forever and ever, and with arete, insist
on the law of unity we have inherited—then you will recognize
that, all space, time, and characters must be in unity,
in harmony, like an oracle. The truth and the false
will be distinguished, according to Nature—the Sun,
the Moon, the stars, the mountains, the rivers—
according to the law and order afforded by the Universe.
Other than that, we will allow and tolerate nothing.

X

Beyond the apple trees, the tardy summer sun is painting
a picture of times that have passed. The wind blows,
from the valley, from the home of salmons, and embraces
the ocean—amid the stench of the taiga. We will explain
to you, how the ocean current flows, its gesture
eternally aggressive and expansive—returning
to one abstract, potent prime meridian, from the north
of the North Pole, cutting perpendicularly southward
into the icebergs of penguins. You will fly over
this eternal abstraction and the potent feelings, and
explore all along the kind and familiar Northern Tropic,
moving along the axis of East and West—
to the most beautiful island of your life, with its ever rising
temperature and humidity, and the saturated, dashing green.

XI

The wind blows down the valley too, the river originates
from primitive tranquility. Tattoos, humming cicadas—
that is our secret world, filled with the unreachable,
and it cannot be portrayed with just a few crayons.
A searing heat comes from the other end
of my childhood; once frustrated and cooled
in my lifetime, it leads to this end, searing as ever.
No need for you to be afraid. Walk toward the blooming
betel palms, use simple dialect and polite,
friendly gestures that suit the occasion,
return people’s curiosity with smiles. They will
support you, like brothers, in their tribe. 5
Home, our inviolable soil.

XII

All of them are real. Reed flowers, just like that,
let them dash through the throbs of cars and hearts
under the railway bridge; they are real. Deep, heavy,
tumultuous, they are not the clouds wandering
in the barbaric state; they flash through your eager,
inquisitive eyes, and once again they stay in your
boisterous, clamorous memories. The fishnet along
the coast line under the sun: let it bring out
our ancestors’ will to survive, treading towards
the ceaseless waves, just like raging raindrops
that would rather be one mere moment of the endless world
just to witness one singular will spreading all out, or
just like a curved knife cutting into the dark woods.
All of them are real—our inviolable ancestors.

XIII

You will take akin to, our own accent, you
will be eager to listen to the clock, drums, mantras
in temples, the wind gently blowing through
the sugarcane field, rustling into afar—the sweet faith.
Indeed, humans were once lost in dialogues and debates,
and in false news and in rage, we found a stable standpoint.
We indifferently observed the dust creeping, hiding
all around, and took ludicrous declarations
and accusations lightly. Because we too were once
lost—only that after careful considerations, we
have chosen the lofty mountains, the sobering
and nurturing running rivers. From the country we
went into the city, and yet to the country we return,
untarnished, exhilarated—just like a new drum.

XIV

The start this is—amid the sound of the horn
a day of bells and drums, breeze and drizzle.
Sunshine aplenty is your bedspread, ah spring—
Daffodils and bees have spread in the field
of your speedy growth. You wave your powerful arms
decorating the sky with brilliant musical notes.
You must know them and master them. Let the wild geese
in ranks gah gah the western magnitude, and
the whale splashing be the northern latitude. Moonlight
colors them peacefully, twinkle twinkle little stars adorn
the bed where you learn to lift your head and turn over. Carriages
and ships await at the post, with precision, like a symphony,
like the seal and like the scribe, like classical, symmetrical
and sartorial patterns, and like a sequence of fourteen-line poems.

1980

1

Unless otherwise noted, translations are mine.

2

Adopted by Michelle Yeh and Lawrence R. Smith in No Trace of the Gardener.

3

Adopted by Colin Bramwell and Wen-Chi Li; see here.

4

Note to self: VIII and IX are my favorite, at least in March 2021.

5

The place alluded to in this one is Hualien, home to a few indigenous tribes in Taiwan. Hualien is close and dear to the poet, and it has been chosen as his resting place.

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