24 February 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/9

To the Tune "The Fair Maid of Yu"

Once when young I lay and listened
To the rain falling on the roof
Of a brothel. The candle light
Gleamed on silk and silky flesh.
Later I heard it on the
Cabin roof of a small boat
On the Great River, under
Low clouds, where wild geese cried out
On the Autumn storm. Now I
Hear it again on the monastery
Roof. My hair has turned white.
Joy – sorrow – parting – meeting –
Are all as though they had
Never been. Only the rain
Is the same, falling in streams
On the tiles, all through the night.

Chiang Chieh, translated by Kenneth Rexroth

The speaker's entire life is laid out in these lines, and though they may seem impressionistic – we travel from youth and a brothel to white hair and a monastery, with only a small boat on a big river bobbing in between, and even the sex of the speaker is unclear* – it is actually, below its sensuous surface, brutally direct about what remains of the speaker's life when it's been winnowed in old age by memory and experience: a few strikingly vivid visual/auditory moments, isolated from the daily flow of work and sex and general human relations and actions, and a sense that these things of the outside world as stored in the speaker's memory (candle-light on silk, the cries of wild geese, the low clouds, and in particular the rain on the roof; he speaks of these things rather than of his thoughts and emotions) are the things that last, outliving an individual's particular joys and sorrows (which have in fact not even survived to the end of his life). A blunt statement of a concrete detail ("My hair has turned white") acquires resonance from its juxtaposition with a broader philosophical statement ("Joy – sorrow – parting – meeting / Are all as though they had / Never been"), and in turn those lines, which could out of context seem too obvious, perhaps banal and overly generalized, hit home through their connection with the physical evidence of the speaker's increasing age and impending death. No novelistic connections or explications help get us from brothel to monastery, but more information would be an intrusion on what the speaker is saying about what remains of and what matters in his life. The great cycle of Nature, the rain falling in rivers and evaporating back up to the sky and then falling again, will outlast this life.

I've always been entranced by the sound of rain. I wonder if this poem, which I find haunting, would resonate as much with someone who did not feel that way?

* Chiang Chieh was a man, but when I first read this poem I thought the speaker was a woman. I guess I was assuming the speaker was a worker rather than a customer at the brothel. It's not uncommon in translations of Asian poetry to find a building for nuns called a monastery rather than a convent, so nothing here really tips the reader off, but for the sake of convenience I'm identifying the speaker's sex with the poet's.

I took this from Kenneth Rexroth's One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese: Love and the Turning Year.

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