The title of this collection ambitiously suggests that after the first part of translations, the following variations and responses should enlighten our skies and blow us away. And while it doesn’t deliver the promised symphony of fire, it does burn in a few impressions that will last after the words have faded.
The book begins with an example of a translation, variation, and response to one poem, “Spring as the Brocade Attests,” illustrating the methods to be employed. It is an unfortunate start, as the translation is by far the best of the three methods, calling the whole exercise into question. Consider the lines “so delicate a woman / I’d rather miss her than see her […] curtains stay drawn / eyes fix on the jade screen.” The poem is full of the Chinese capacity for acceptance of denial and suffering, characteristically leaving so much unsaid. The variation of the same poem mimes the invocations, but seems to miss the point without generating a new one. The response that follows gets better mileage, recalling both Rilke and some of Xin Qiji’s other moments: “there’s no delaying Spring with offers / nor can we know where it goes.” However, it ultimately lacks unity, jumping too quickly from plaintiveness to dreaming to resignation. This is likely from a misunderstanding of the timing of the line, which gives breath to pause on images, but slips away on phrases such as “somewhere in the world / or under perhaps.”
That said, some of the later responses do move in genuinely surprising directions, and without the translation to distract us, Kelen and Vong draw us directly into their meditations on this Song-dynasty poet. The ideas here are what matter, especially when they run counter to the general expectations and conventions of Chinese poetic thought.
Xin Qiji is best known for his ci lyrics, on which this entire collection is based. Ci uses rhyme and the tonal pattern from a song the poem is named after, meaning the title may not have anything to do with either the subject or another poem of the same name. We find some nods to the formal structure in this collection, with a few parallel constructions that remind us of the regular ci lines, as well as some of the characteristic end rhyming. However, it would have been nice to see a fuller English analogue to the Chinese formalism. Instead, they often use syntax that gives a pseudo-translation feel rather than use the advantages of English.
Still, there are many good spots further in, such as lines from “song of a river city” like “white hair and pale face—such work to be old! / wine won’t restore youth but it makes words bold” or these lines from “god of water”:
I laugh at the water god
wonder what angers him
. . .
I take a walking stick
to the dark green moss
was it I who asked for this wind
for this rain
all these thousand years?
Kelen and Vong have already done some of the work of digesting these poems for us, silhouetting their modern view against the strangeness of Xin Qiji, whose military and administrative sense of duty often produced lyrics somewhat removed from both a contemporary perspective and the erotic moods often associated with ci poems. This ground work makes it easier for the Western reader and writer to absorb what is useful for present day demands, getting us to the crux of our own disappointments with an Eastern efficiency.