Across Serpentine Lake—Frank Bidart and Du Fu
October 19, 2013
Oct 19, 2013
5 Min read time
I am allowed to study Chinese poetry in an academic setting in part because it has world historical importance. Lyric poetry is a crucial part of China’s earliest literary canon, and it has figured in almost every major political, social, and spiritual transformation the country has undergone. This includes the fall of the Han Dynasty (Cao Cao: “Facing my wine, I burst into song / how long can a man’s life last?”), the rise of communism (Mao Zedong: “The Red Army fears not the pain of long marches”), as well as the quieter, more cerebral revolutions of the late 1970s (Bei Dao: “I’m telling you, world, / I — do — not — believe!”). Poetry is both a participant in and a reflection of Chinese history, so those who are interested in China are usually interested in poetry, and that is fairly straightforward. But I am also interested in Chinese poetry because I am an American and an English speaker, and because I care about English-language poetry and the local politics of the Western hemisphere.
Imperialist traditions instruct Westerners to learn about Chinese people in a way that allows us to engage them as competitors. They say we can go seize the prettiest and most exotic material, and bring it back, in part as testament to our own ability to bridge temporal and social space. Fortunately, we have an alternate tradition, one in which a Western subject encounters Chinese culture, undergoes transformation, and then returns to their original context as someone new. It is easy to dismiss these transformations as somehow inauthentic, not the “real China”—ten minutes spent with Ezra Pound or the work of the Wu Tang Clan will convince anyone with outside experience that these are loose translations at best. Like all translations, they create a version whose relationship to its original is tenuous, negotiable, and shifting. Dismissing the fidelity of the translated version, though, says nothing about the value of those transformative experiences. As long as we relinquish any expectation of being able to perform cultural or intercultural ‘truths’ on behalf of all parties involved, intercultural space can be a place of creation and discovery. The Chinese do this unrepentantly with the English language and Western culture: Chinglish is not English, but that doesn’t mean, as this kid reminds us, that it is not the “fucking future.”
Literary historians make convincing arguments that British and American poetry has long taken inspiration from Chinese poetry, often by way of Japan. Imagism, the countercultural poetry of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and lots of other movements, schools, and practices trace direct roots back to traditional Chinese poetry. What is more surprising, though, is the way in which that cross-cultural transit persists today. Frank Bidart’s 2008 poetry collection Watching the Spring Festival is a fascinating and inspirational example of the way that Chinese poetry remains transformative for Anglophone writers today.
The collection contains a rethinking of Du Fu’s poem “The Ballad of Lovely Women” that Bidart titles “Tu Fu Watches the Spring Festival Across Serpentine Lake.” In both poems, Du Fu’s speaker, a commoner, watches a banquet thrown for the corrupt court of the High Tang. The courtiers’ beauty, greed, and frightening power are reproduced in Bidart’s poem through loose free verse versions of the original’s imagery. In the context of the collection, and of Bidart’s career-long project to connect readers empathically to the roots of our modern pathologies, however, the piece becomes much more than simply a translation. Other poems about empire, such as “Under Julian, c362 A.D.” and “To the Republic,” as well as poems about American modernity like the opening piece “Marilyn Monroe,” pull the collection away from a recreation of Chinese poetry and bring a version of Du Fu’s world to life as our own: it is Du Fu who is watching us across Serpentine Lake, not the inverse.
This shift is perhaps most clear when one examines the differences between Bidart’s “Tu Fu” and Du Fu’s “Ballad.” Bidart adds a concept at the end, when the general Yang Guozhong arrives at the banquet: “Beware: success has made him incurious / not less dangerous.” A poem written before the 2008 national elections that describes an incurious and dangerous leader reeks of allegory. Following that allegory through the rest of the book, we see ourselves and our Bush-era culture as the collection’s sick protagonist, lost and disoriented in the whir of desire. In the idiom of Bidart’s previous work, the American inheritor of empire is this collection’s Ellen West (or worse, its Herbert White), committing crimes because we are unable to conceive of a way to avoid them. Du Fu’s double role as both the excited aesthete, thrilled by the music of the feast’s belled chopsticks, and as the resentful political subject, watching his community’s wealth go to waste, is reproduced time and again in the collection. In “God’s Catastrophe in Our Time,” Bidart describes a moment “when those who decree decree the immemorial / mere habits of the tribe / law established since the foundations of the world . . .” The poem ends “when I had eyes what did I do with sight.” To see is in part to see selfishly, to establish a little empire of pleasure that resents the larger political empire not because of its injustice, but because of its success.
Transcultural reading allows us to see the uncanny reflection of ourselves in the struggles of others, and thereby serves as an antidote to our uniquely human inability to see our own monstrousness. Bidart, for decades a master at exploring the greed inherent in our shared idea of the self, picked up the tool of translation effortlessly and without any prelude, as a natural outgrowth of some of his central poetic intentions. For my part, I see Watching the Spring Festival as a kind of ars poetica for the transcultural reader and writer: it argues that our fascination with the distant and the unfamiliar can be more than the drive for exotic sensation, that it can be an attempt at transforming the desire for sensation, an attempt at seeing it from outside the self. Today, we particularly need—I, at least, particularly need—that transformation because one of the great engines of the horrors of contemporary life is our own consumption, our own desire, and our own willingness to suborn or engage in violence to fulfill our desire. As the title poem of Bidart’s collection explains, “We have been present at a great abundance / which is the source of fury.”
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October 19, 2013
5 Min read time