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Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind

This collection of Chinese poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and selected by Eliot Weinberger, is review-proof. These poems have endured centuries and still stand as models of economy and beauty. All a reviewer can do is offer excerpts from some of the most memorable of them.

This collection of Chinese poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and selected by Eliot Weinberger, is review-proof. These poems have endured centuries and still stand as models of economy and beauty. All a reviewer can do is offer excerpts from some of the most memorable of them.

Su Tung-P’o’s “Thoughts in Exile” perfectly captures the mindset of one who can never return to his beloved homeland. He watches “[t]he phoenix and the snowy swan / Cross the heavens in their migrations,” free to wander and to return to their homes. The dilemma is articulated explicitly when Tung-P’o writes, “I am forbidden to visit the Western Lake. / There is no place else I want to go.” In the end, he has only his art, which must suffice: “But nobody can stop me / From writing poems about the / Mountains and rivers of Wu.” Sadness and beauty encompass the poem and make it representative of the whole of this collection. Rexroth’s translation expertly captures the simplicity and beauty of the language.

Mei Yao-Ch’en’s “An Excuse for Not Returning the Visit of a Friend” is, on the other hand, lighthearted even while the friends of the poem remain separate. The dilemma is that the speaker has two small children who “hang on my clothes / And follow my every step.” The front door is as far as she can get. “I am afraid / I will never make it to your house.”

Spring with a capital “S” is a prevalent season in these poems. In the loveliest of them, “Spring Ends,” Li Ch’ing-Chao writes of the passing of Spring and the passing of a loved one, or perhaps the end of a love affair: “It is the end of the time / Of flowers.” The speaker lacks the will to comb her own hair: “He no longer exists. / All effort would be wasted.” The last five lines encompass all that is beautiful and sorrowful about this and so many of these poems, all of which deserve to be read and treasured slowly and often:

I hear that Spring at Two Rivers
Is still beautiful.
I had hoped to take a boat there,
But I know so fragile a vessel
Won’t bear such a weight of sorrow.

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