Theophilus Kwek reviews Li Shangyin

Translated from the Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts, with additional translations by A. C. Graham and Lucas Klein (New York Review Books, 2018)

Although critics have often quibbled over the poems of Li Shangyin (c. 813–858)—a minor courtier of the late Tang era whose work swiftly gained renown after his death—they largely agree on the sheer difficulty of reading them. “I read Li Shangyin’s poems and felt baffled by them,” wrote the poet Arthur Sze in 1999. “They strike me as veiled, mysterious, and full of longing.” Reformer and scholar Liang Qichao reached a similar conclusion nearly a century ago: “What Li Shangyin’s [poems] really mean I fail to grasp . . . I have problems even with the literal meaning. Yet I feel the beauty of his poetry.”

This elusiveness of Li’s poems has been attributed to, among other factors, the intrigue of his life and times. The divisive currents of the rapidly declining Tang establishment created a perfect storm in which writing with any specificity about one’s lovers and rivals, patrons and peers (often the same people) was simply out of the question, especially for a bureaucrat struggling to get by. Chloe Garcia Roberts, the intrepid translator behind New York Review Books’ sleek new selection of Li’s poetry, describes in her introduction how Li often had to safeguard his position as a “glorified ghostwriter” for superiors of different factions and persuasions. Viewed another way, however, Li’s obscurity belies a deliberate and practiced intricacy: a product of both his encyclopaedic knowledge of Chinese cultural history (much of which has been lost to us over the centuries) and the sensuous lyricism of his poetic voice. 

To unravel the eccentricities of Li’s poems in English would have been an exacting enterprise. But Garcia Roberts pursues something more ambitious still: a revival that preserves Li’s ambiguity, his overtones and nooks of meaning. In a 2015 interview, she expresses a desire to create “a type of mirroring or even a reincarnation of the original”—in other words, a translation that would capture as much of the multivalence in Li’s original as possible. To this end, she decided to forgo the textual notes that have accompanied other English editions, leaving the average reader in the dark about, say, Li’s references to arcane fragments of Tang cosmology. Yet, Garcia Roberts argues, these allusions would have been inscrutable even to Li’s contemporaries. The point of her translation, as she clarifies in the interview, is to allow the present-day Anglophone reader to “experience the obfuscation that exists even in [Li’s] original.”  

The result is a volume that hovers at the edge of comprehension, defying those who seek straightforward explanations but rewarding the meticulous reader (or re-reader). Individual poems announce themselves without context, sure-footed in their tone and historical vision but difficult to grasp at first glance. The first stanza of Li’s “Yesterday” gives a sense of this opacity:

The Purple Girl Spirit left.
This morning,
The bluebird delays in coming.  

Surprisingly, none of the natural questions that arise—Who is the Purple Girl Spirit? What is meant by her departure? Why is the bluebird significant?—can be answered fully within the space of the poem, let alone its translation. Garcia Roberts intends for us to leave such enigmas aside as we attune our senses to all the fleeting images and linguistic effects she has rendered into English. For instance, the subtle half-rhymes in Li’s original—“shen” (spirit), “shi” (messenger, referring to the bluebird), and “she” (delay)—are mirrored in the recurring /r/ phonemes of her translation: “Yesterday,” “Purple,” “Girl,” “Spirit,” “bluebird.” As we muzzle our interpretive instincts, the first lines of the following stanza describe our frustrations:
Not allowed to speak,
Once again we are dispersed.

The assonance between these lines (“Not allowed” / “Once again”), along with the symmetry of their last syllables (“speak” / “dispersed”), lends the couplet a sense of incomplete resonance, priming us for Li’s clipped and somewhat rueful message in the next two lines: 

The scarcity of moments when we wax fulfilled
Completes the bitterness.

Without warning, the loss gestured to in the first stanza becomes the object of the second. And though the identity of the Purple Girl Spirit remains a mystery, what matters most is experiencing the full weight of Li’s “bitterness,” especially when the fulfilment he desires is out of reach.

Reading sense in tandem with—and sometimes as secondary to—sound and sight can be slow and even frustrating for those of us accustomed to more expository translations. With this sensory emphasis Garcia Roberts holds the reader at a careful distance from conventional ideas of authorial “intention,” providing a space in which meaning can shimmer into view. Not unlike the equally allusive poems of John Ashbery or Geoffrey Hill that may be more familiar to Anglophone readers, Garcia Roberts’s translations force us to accept a necessary, unbridgeable gulf between what we know and what Li knew, the specificity of his experiences forever locked away in his language. And yet, as we pore over a translated text that is brimming with suggestion, we marvel nonetheless at the beauty and complexity of Li’s worlds.

The question remains, however, whether Garcia Roberts successfully recreates Li’s visual and auditory syntax. Not pursuing interpretive clarity is one thing, but it is quite another to transpose the fullness of a language as challenging and multi-dimensional as classical Chinese into an entirely alien tongue. Here, unfortunately, Garcia Roberts’s generally sound decisions regarding tone and form do not always work in her favour. The former is a tough choice for any translator, but particularly one who also seeks fidelity to Li’s “opulent and extraordinary world,” as Garcia Roberts puts it elsewhere. In many instances, she aims to reconcile Li’s bookish manner with naturalistic modern phrasing, but English, which affords few visual and tonal possibilities compared to Chinese characters, proves unable to handle both. 

One example is “After the Banquet at River Hall . . . ,” where Garcia Roberts’s creative rendering of the last stanza supplies a refreshing take on Li’s indecision and regret:

From poetry
What atonement?
One just feels the white hairs

These pithy lines speak directly to us, their contemporary rhythm and diction both timely and timeless. Earlier in the same poem, however, she defers to the constructions of classical Chinese grammar, leaving a somewhat stilted second line:

A spring ode
I dared to lightly compose.
But the lines I’d held in my mouth
Fell into my half-drained cup.

Such renegotiations of tone—between fidelity and renewal within a single poem—mean pieces like this one sing in certain stanzas but fall flat in others. An alternative approach would have been to aim for more consistency within each poem, but perhaps greater variation across the collection as a whole, to cope with the demands of Li’s moods and idioms, and to avoid such off notes.

Garcia Roberts’s translations also prove less convincing in their formal presentation. In the introduction, she highlights her decision to break many lines “along the fault of the caesura” to capture in English a sense of how Li structures each of his lines “as a couplet in itself.” This is undoubtedly an astute observation about the architecture of Li’s poems, but Garcia Roberts’s attempt to recreate it pays off in some instances and not in others. After all, building on a fault line is always risky, and the beauty of a caesura is that it creates a moment of tension and reflection without severing the line of thought or implication; when the break is overdone, it produces two orphaned clauses that no longer cohere with the same taut poise. The first stanza of “Untitled [2]” illustrates both the possibilities and pitfalls of Garcia Roberts’s approach: 

Come is a hollow word.
Go severs all traces.
Moon slants over building roofs.
Bells of the fifth watch.

The first couplet corresponds to the first line of Li’s poem (“來是空言去絕蹤”). The repeated “o” sounds of the first translated line, as well as the tactful sibilance in the second, lend a fitting coherence to each segment but also fit them together as two halves of a single argument (as they are presented in the original). The third and fourth lines, by contrast, come across as clipped fragments; neither full sentences nor immediately related to each other, they lose a sense of a united thought that appears in Li’s original (“月斜樓上五更鐘”). A. C. Graham’s translation of the same poem, included in the appendix, presents the same line with only a comma to mark the caesura:

The moonlight slants above the roof, already the fifth watch sounds.

In this particular case, Graham’s structural choice to bridge the fault with “already” proves more successful, and leaves the reader room to imagine the buildings and bells that Garcia Roberts names explicitly. Some of her translations may have benefited likewise from a more flexible approach to their form; yet, to her credit, including alternatives in the same volume deepens our appreciation of the complexity of the task at hand.

These minor complaints aside, Garcia Roberts’s translation represents an original approach to one of the most distinctive and challenging voices of the classical Chinese canon. Though not the most accessible body of work for the occasional reader of Tang poetry—and a demanding one even for the specialist—Li’s startling images and aural complexity gain new life in Garcia Roberts’s hands. The poems also arrive at an apt time: their obscurity, shaped by the political machinations of their era, resembles how political intrigue, divided loyalties and widespread upheaval play havoc with plain speech and meaning in the present. It is perhaps in grappling with their beauty and uncertainty that we might learn something of how to speak in our own complicated world.