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Free Translations of Li Ch'ing Chao: Program Notes from the Translator

Updated: Jun 27

I. Youth

Not yet sixteen I left my childhood swing

My big hands hanging lazily at my sides

Sweat stains the cotton of my Summer dress:

Dew bows the nodding heads of flowers.

And when he comes I run away in fright

My socks slip down and my hairpin falls -

But at the gate I turn back, I turn back:

Turn and smell these green and unpicked plums.

II. Middle Age

After the day’s heat, evening wind,

Rain washes away the blaze.

After the crescendo, quiet:

In the mirror I powder my cheek.

Beneath red silk, the skin is white,

Snow and cream, touch and feel,

I smile at this stranger: my love,

Tonight, inside the curtains of our bed

The pillow and mat will be cool.

III. Old Age

Year after year, drunk in the snow,

We filled our hair with plum blossoms,

Then shredded them wantonly,

Let them fall on our clothes like tears.

This year at the Middle Kingdom’s edge,

My thin hair is streaked with white.

Night comes, wind cries:

And now our plum blossoms have gone.

The following program notes were published in West Meets East (Albany Records, 2017).

These are “free” rather than scholarly, exact, or literal translations. In fact, I would describe them, following Ezra Pound, whose renderings of Chinese poets into English I greatly admire, as not translations so much as “transmissions.” I was aiming throughout at communicating in English, with music, to a contemporary audience, some of what I have found almost breathtakingly beautiful in Chinese Tang and Song verse.

This project was sparked by a meeting with my Baylor colleague and his wife, Dr. Paul Sanchez and Kayleen Sanchez. I was moved from the start by the combination of Paul’s ability as a composer and the lyrical power of Kayleen’s voice. Excited to hear of their project of setting Chinese poems to music, I began to in hear in Paul’s music the ancient musical form of ci verse and in Kayleen’s voice the ancient Chinese lyric of a female and often melancholy speaker.

The Song female poet Li-Ch’ing Chao (or Li Qingzhao) thus seemed an obvious choice for translation. The most celebrated female poet in Chinese literary history, her voluminous corpus reflects the arc of a passionate and tragic life. Aristocratic, sensitive, brilliant, she met and married in 1101 Zhao Mingcheng. He died in 1129, and Li Ch’ing Chao was left alone and in exile. Browsing her poems, I wanted to reflect something of that biography – and something of the enigmatic love story at its heart.

I chose three of Li-Ch’ing Chao’s poems marking the major stations of her life: youth, middle age, and old age (and retitled them to make the scheme clear). Like much traditional Chinese poetry – and much premodern western poetry – these poems draw a line through the circle of the seasons, from youthful spring, through the summer of life’s flourishing, to the winter of its close. Where much modernist poetry seeks complexity and artificiality, I sought instead the naïve simplicity of a life submerged in vegetable rhythms.

In the first poem, “Youth,” the poet is awakened from childhood: I marked this with the original addition of “not yet sixteen.” Her stirring is reflected in the back and forth movement of the swing, the speaker’s arms, and the repeated looking back at an addressed male whose presence is heard in the clarinet motive. The unevenness of my rhythms and the line length are at once reflective of Chinese changduanju “long short line” poetry, and of the awkwardness of adolescence.

In the second poem, “Middle Age,” stirring is replaced by balance. Here again, I wanted to capture something of the traditional Chinese view – like the premodern western view – that humanity finds harmony within cosmic balance. This is a poem about human passion, whose atmospheric equivalent is found in heat followed by downpour. But that passion is played against the balanced extremes symbolized by the mirror: heat at the beginning of the poem and cool by its end, noise and quiet, red and white, and – in a calculated ambiguity – the presence and absence of the beloved.

In the final poem, “Old Age,” we move to a retrospective past tense. As Paul’s musical setting underscores so beautifully, the white of the plum blossoms, and of the cold snow, now becomes the white of the poet’s hair. Alone and exiled at the edge of the Middle Kingdom (Zhongguo “China”), she again looks back – but there is now no echo in the night. The lack of closure at the end of the first two poems looked toward the future or absent husband; this lack of resolution will, however, be final.

Stated thus baldly, my translations seem like a rude attempt to uncover Li Ch’ing Chao’s private being. I hope though that the poems carry something else too, a modesty or restrain which I associate with many Chinese friends. This modesty has nothing to do with prudery – I purposely chose “sweat” to deflect that. Rather it has to do with accuracy, and its rhetorical equivalent is the poetic choice of metonymy over metaphor. The plum blossoms, Li Ch’ing Chao’s ripening body: adjacent, but with no equals sign between.

If I have managed to evoke again whatever it is that is evoked by juxtaposing a woman and flowers, these poems will not have entirely failed. But for where they have, I beg forgiveness from Li Ch’ing Chao’s ghost.

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