A poem a day:a thicket of words and birds (and lotuses)

Xu Bing, “Living Word 鸟飞了” (2001, cut and painted acrylic) Source

Most likely not literally; not always a poem, and not always every day.

But as another semester crash-ends in a flurry of paper grading and conference attending and fulfilling of academic writing debts — I thought I’d revive this little experiment that Clare Woods, Ann Marie Rasmussen, and Melissa Simmermeyer, and I hatched late last summer.

Our particular method of madness: to translate a bit of poetry, a few lines of text, an odd turn of phrase — every day. A reminder to stop and chew over words before diving into our daily noise.

In honor of the place (AMR’s living room) where this idea was borne, here’s a ci lyric by the Northern Sung woman poet Li Qingzhao 李清照 (1084–1151?).

AMR’s gift from a graduate student from China

如夢令

常記溪亭日暮

沉醉不知歸路。

興盡晚回舟

誤入藕花深處。

爭渡

爭渡

驚起一灘鷗鷺。

To be sung to the tune of “Like a Dream”
by Li Qingzhao 李清照

I often recall that sunset: the pavilion by the creek,
deep in our cups, the way home forgotten.
Our pleasures sated, it was late by the time we steered our boat to return.
By accident we stray deep into lotuses–
How to get through?
How to get through?

Startling to flight a beach full of egrets and gulls.

_______________

I thought I would start here, as the drawing in AMR’s dining room depicts Li Qingzhao gazing skyward at a line of migrating birds, and which immediately reminded me of her short lyric to the tune of “Like a Dream.” It wasn’t until after I started translating it did I remember that I had already done so once, a long long time ago. Now if only I could find a copy of my senior honors thesis online without having to recall it from the Widener depository…it might be fun to compare the two versions of my translation of this poem, over two decades apart.

I do vaguely recall what I wrote: about a poetic impasse finding resolution in the imagery of egrets and gulls in flight. Something like that. It was a long time ago.

Belatedly, it does occur to me that this short lyric on meandering and metamorphosis is the right place to start (and Clare is correct to point out that the act of translation inevitably inspires commentary.) The original motivation for this exercise, after all, was to find a way to work through the dense thicket of abstract ideas by grappling daily with actual, singular words. Chewing over individual phrases, and devising ways to re-render them in another space and time, as a way of reminding oneself of the whys and hows of language.

How to get through? How to get through?–through a metamorphosis into a flight of birds and words.

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