Echoes of a Chinese flute. For Pao-Chin, a Boatman on the Yellow Sea
Where is he now, in his soiled shirt reeking of garlic Sculling his sampan home, and night approaching fast -- The red sail hanging wrinkled on the bamboo mast; Where is he now, I shall remember my whole life long With love and praise, for the sake of a small song Played on a Chinese flute? I have been sad; I have been in cities where the song was all I had, -- A treasure never to be bartered by the hungry days. Where is he now, for whom I carry in my heart This love, this praise? Edna St. Vincent Millay WHERE is he now?'' This phrase reechoes as I see Pao-Chin reborn in the person of my assistant in China.
Li Jin Ping does not smell of garlic and is acquainted with Chinese classical literature. His appointment as my assistant while I teach this year as a Foreign Expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou (Canton) is a boon, for he is sensitive to my every need before I am aware of what my need might be.
Norma Millay, who lives in New York on Steepletop, the former berry farm she inherited from her poet-sister, sent me off to China last fall with her taped reading of a number of poems, including ``Recuerdo,'' which many will recall by its first two lines: ``We were very tired, we were very merry/ We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry,'' as well as ``For Pao-Chin.''
Already I've had students memorize ``Recuerdo.'' The language is so direct and the ferry has become the essential metaphor of this year at Jinan University.
Jinan means ``open to the south'' and the university is for overseas Chinese from Southeast Asia. According to Li Jin Ping the word means, ``We send our influence and strength southward. We send greetings to the south.''
Despite the presence of Maoist slogans I've discovered in his own poetry, I feel sure Li Jin Ping is the finest translation/transposition of China I shall encounter. Of peasant background, whatever that may mean precisely, he has retained much of his land in his considerable knowledge of English. With classic Chinese gesture and stance he conveys his point of view.
How worldly and sympathique of the poet to have gotten beyond the garlic and dirt and to have loved Pao-Chin, whom I imagine sculling his sampan with great elegance, his silhouette graceful against the brilliant evening sky above the Yellow Sea. It is the Chinese flute song across the water she will carry with her in cities on the other side of the world. And the song will be all she has. The song and Pao-Chin are one and she carries in her heart love and praise for him.
In Yue Xiu Park in Guangzhou there is a five-story tower on a hilltop known as Zhen Hai Lou, or ``tower overlooking the sea.'' It dates from the Ming dynasty in the 14th century and is one of the oldest buildings a tourist may see in China. There is a couplet on the top floor of the tower. Here is the translation Li Jin Ping did of it. Surviving thousands of calamities The tall tower still stands. I ask: Who has picked stars and touched the sky despising the past and the present? After five hundred years, Where is the old lord now? So I lean over the railing and gaze at my sword shedding tears over the bygone heroes!
To extend the ferry-bridge metaphor, I asked Li Jin Ping to find a classical Chinese poem using the theme. He came up with this translation of a poem by Chen Chu-bing, a general during the Manchu dynasty. Crossing the sea on a ship Amid pounding waves and songs the ship
is sailing to the east. The immense sea stretches to the
dim horizon The tidal waves surge And the land flickers in the distance. After rain and thunder the sky
has been washed blue. Under the red sun the waters have turned
crimson. The white waves twist and turn
like silk ribbons And they are also like white steeds
fighting in the autumn wind.
Fifty or 60 years ago Edna St. Vincent Millay was in China with her husband, of Dutch descent with business in Sumatra, and they took a sampan boat one late afternoon on the Yellow Sea, symbol of China. Pao-Chin was the oarsman.
I sense the same elegant simplicity in Li Jin Ping that the poet sensed in Pao-Chin. I have yet to hear ``a small song played on a Chinese flute.'' But here is a poem, written by Li Jin Ping, that evokes a bridge drawn between classical and modern China. Lines Composed before Leaving Kwangchow Petrochemical Plant Against the green peaks the gigantic tanks and towers are half- hidden in clouds. And the lofty Mount Tatien pierces the blue skies. Welding sparks on the Ammonia Sphere outshine the moon; And explosions to remove mountains have frightened away tigers and dragons. Making overall plans depends on our leaders, Changing the world relies on the workers and peasants. As soon as chemical fertilizer pours out like snow, Even the Pearl River and the white- cloud Mountains will extend their congratulations!
A few days after committing the foregone words to paper I handed the little manuscript to Li Jin Ping to read. A smile flickered about his face as he did so. Just yesterday very apologetically he presented me with another poem. He read it to me with dash, drawing some of his style from that of traditional Chinese opera, I would surmise. Of course, I was moved and would like to include it here. To my American Friends You have come from afar, from thousands of
miles away. Across the vast ocean, from the abundant
land, To an entirely new country, Among smiling friends. Here you teach with enthusiasm. Here you learn with curiosity. You are kind to us all. You are dear to me! From you I enjoy friendship of the
American people. From you I enjoy culture of the
West. My great country is getting strong. Let me give my best wishes to you
among flowers and songs!
One senses this can happen because Vincent Millay could see and hear the natural elegance and the small song beyond the garlic and dirt.