The Poetry Book Society Spring 2022 Translation Choice
Chinese poetry is unique in world literature in that it was written for the best part of 3,000 years by exiles, and Chinese history can be read as a matter of course in the words of poets.
In this collection from the Tang Dynasty are poems of war and peace, flight and refuge but above all they are plain-spoken, everyday poems; classics that are everyday timeless, a poetry conceived “to teach the least and the most, the literacy of the heart in a barbarous world,” says the translator.
C.D. Wright has written of Wong May’s work that it is “quirky, unaffectedly well-informed, capacious, and unpredictable in [its] concerns and procedures,” qualities which are evident too in every page of her new book, a translation of Du Fu and Li Bai and Wang Wei, and many others whose work is less well known in English.
In a vividly picaresque afterword, Wong May dwells on the defining characteristics of these poets, and how they lived and wrote in dark times. This translator’s journal is accompanied and prompted by a further marginal voice, who is figured as the rhino: “The Rhino in Tang China held a special place,” she writes, “much like the unicorn in medieval Europe – not as conventional as the phoenix or the dragon but a magical being; an original spirit”, a fitting guide to China’s murky, tumultuous Middle Ages, that were also its Golden Age of Poetry, and to this truly original book of encounters, whose every turn is illuminating and revelatory.