22 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/8

A poor woman

In her cottage she knows nothing
       of elegant silks and scents;
She thinks of getting a go-between
       but that distresses her more.
Who will love a person of quality,
       somebody with talent?
Everyone falls for fashionable women
       made up in exotic ways.
She's prepared to vaunt the stitching skills
       she has in her ten fingers,
But not to compete at who is better
       at painting their eyebrows long.
She wields her needle and gold thread bitterly,
       year in and year out,
Making wedding costumes that
       are for other people to wear.

Qin Taoyu, translated by Peter Harris

This poem from the intersection of romance and economics dates from the Tang dynasty (618 - 907); it's probably unnecessary for me to point out how relevant its concerns still are (even the go-betweens still exist, sometimes in the form of websites). It's a deftly structured poem, and by the end of it, we feel we know this imaginary and unnamed woman from over a thousand years ago. It opens with a view of her cottage; she's not indigent, but she is cut off from life's luxuries. Yet she seems to be a sensitive, even refined person; the thought of engaging a go-between to find a husband is upsetting to her. Though marriage at that time was more of an economic and social rather than romantic institution than it is in contemporary America, the longing for love and understanding still exist somewhat uneasily with the economic necessity of finding a spouse (in China there were also spiritual and social imperatives for having children who would take care of you in your old age and honor your spirit when you joined your ancestors). She wonders who could love her – yet there's pride and dignity there, too, as she thinks of herself as someone with talent (we have not yet been told what her talent is). She realizes that quality and talent are not necessarily what men are looking for: they want "fashionable" women in "exotic" make-up. She looks down a bit on these women; she declines to compete with them at their elaborate and stylish cosmetology. And now we find out what her talent is – she's a seamstress. As the lonely years pass (each one making her less marriageable in the eyes of others), she feels bitter, the bitterness of a talented, sensitive person condemned to drudgery by economics, a bitterness associated inextricably with her talent – she wields her needle and gold thread bitterly. The gold thread might tip us off to the final twist: she's making wedding costumes, but only for other people. Presumably she can get a better income by making elaborate wedding outfits rather than everyday clothes; it's possible that people would only hire a seamstress for such fancy work, relying on their own lesser skill for day to day outfits. But you also have to wonder if there isn't a bit of self-imposed suffering there, the way one might keep obsessively pressing a sore tooth with the tongue. This is a haunting and poignant portrait, as vivid, subtle, and surprising as one of Browning's monologues.

This poem is from Three Hundred Tang Poems, translated and edited by Peter Harris in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poets series. It's a translation of the Chinese classic Three Hundred Tang Poems (the number is approximate; all versions of the collection contain over three hundred poems), the first version of which was assembled around 1763 by a scholar named Sun Zhu (also referred to as Hengtang Tuishi, "the retired master of Hengtang"). This is the only poem in the anthology by Qin Taoyu; I don't know if other works by him survive.

No comments: