Liu Tsung-Yuan has long been acknowledged as one of the most accomplished prose writers of the T’ang Dynasty. However, his excellent poetry was set aside for a time in China—largely because, relative to his prose, he wrote little of it—and it has been wildly under-translated into English. Fortunately, renowned translator Red Pine, the pseudonym of Bill Porter, altered his plans for retirement after happening upon Liu’s poems. Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan as translated by Red Pine is the type of comprehensive book I wish I would have been assigned in a Literature or even History course as an undergraduate. In the impressive preface, which contextualizes Liu’s poetry for the reader, Red Pine writes, “I began messing around with Liu’s poems—and I never intended to do more than mess. It didn’t take long before I realized I couldn’t stop.” Now I share this sentiment as I read these translations, immersed in the more personal side of Liu, a court official exiled to southern China during the ninth century.
Typically, I wouldn’t focus attention toward the preface of a collection. However, in this case, the introduction is particularly important. Red Pine offers over a dozen pages of contextualizing history, a marriage of researched facts and superb storytelling, an ideal and personable guide. Moreover, he is transparent about his own motivations and perceptions. Of some of the poems he did not include, the translator admits they would have required “more enthusiasm than [he] was likely to muster,” and of other poems he has not “bothered” to translate them because they are “dense as mud and weighted down by endless historical references.” All of this is to say that Red Pine does not have an instinct to fawn over Liu, to idolize him, and this demeanor increases his ethos. He mindfully celebrates the best of Liu’s poetry, poems that deserve careful attention and masterful translations which he offers.
Red Pine was, in part, drawn to Liu’s poetry because of its personal nature. In “Reading Zen Texts in the Morning at Transcendent Master Temple,” the first line––“gargling with well water makes my teeth chatter”––sets the action of the poem into motion with a speaker-centric focus. In the Chinese, the first line is “汲井漱寒齒.” If we break down the line character by character, we begin with the verb to draw (water). The second character is the noun well, which is followed by gargle. If the translation would have been front loaded with the well of water, instead of the action of the speaker, who is “gargling,” the emotional core of the poem would have been misaligned. This poem is about the poet’s experience. Thanks to this astute translation, we can, quite vividly, imagine ourselves in Liu’s shoes, become immersed in his experiences as someone new to life in a monastery.
Also noteworthy is the attention to sound within these translations. For example, in “Waking Up Alone,” Liu writes about how government tasks and, perhaps the rain, keep him from his morning hike. Red Pine translates the second line of the poem as “it was a pitter-patter rainy morning.” The translation of “寥落,” liáo luò, as “pitter-patter” serves, for me, two functions. It mirrors the alliteration of the Chinese, which reminds me of sonic qualities of the rain on a window. Moreover, the connotation of small feet, evoked via the phrase “pitter-patter,” juxtaposed with the title, “Waking Up Alone,” heightens the sense of solitude.
In over 200 pages of poems, there are only a few rare moments when I find myself taken out of the poetry due to diction or syntax. And even in those instances, such as the word “diaphanous” in the opening poem, “On Seeing the Painting Festive Clouds at the Examination,” the words seem true to the original, and they align with the texture of the piece. (The opening poem, for example, also includes “felicitations” and “auspicious.”) Most likely, it is only my preference, or fuller adoration, for the more personal poems with more casual language that paints my experience. Moreover, Red Pine has included Liu’s poems in chronological order, and it is fascinating to see the progression of this T’ang Dynasty poet’s style and voice throughout his life. A book to be read widely, Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan is a collection to be studied in the classroom or enjoyed by the fireside as an impressively executed curation of literature in translation.
Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan. Translated from the Chinese by Red Pine. Copper Canyon Press, 2019.
Heather Lang-Cassera is Clark County, Nevada’s 2019-2021 Poet Laureate. She holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation. Lang-Cassera serves as World Literature Editor and book reviewer for The Literary Review, Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and Editor-in-Chief for Tolsun Books.