Friday, November 17, 2006

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China translated by David Hinton

Taking a little food, a light walking-stick,
I wander up to my home in quiet mystery,

the path along the streams wandering far away
onto ridgetops, no end to this wonder at

slow waters silent in their frozen beauty
and bamboo glistening at heart with frost,

cascades scattering a confusion of spray
and broad forests crowding distant cliffs.

from "Climbing Green-Cliff Mountain in Yung-Chia" by Hsieh Ling-yun (385-433)

I want to be there on the path looking down on the running streams and up at the green and rocky mountains.

Many of the poems in Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China translated by David Hinton make me feel this way. They paint beautiful pictures of what were remote places, far from the overcrowded cities, political corruption of government, and destruction of war. Reading a series of these poems is like examining a line of ancient paintings with little boats on lakes surrounded by peaks. Each tells a quiet story.

Nineteen poets ranging from 5th to 12th century China are profiled in this book. While some chose the wilderness life, others were political exiles. The poems themselves can be seen as a criticism of the prevailing way of Chinese life of the time, but the modern reader can only find hints of how spoiled the cities were. They instead get a poetic tour of the wilderness.

The modern reader may notice two things. First, the geography is not named for presidents or generals. Cold Mountain, Tremor Lake, Helmet Peak, and Three Gorges are typical names. Second, some titles are as descriptive as the poems themselves. I liked the title "Following the Trail Up from Deva-King Monastery to the Guesthouse Where My Friend Wang Chung-hsin and I Wrote Our Names on a Wall Fifty Years Ago, I Find the Names Still There" on page 244.

The modern reader wanting to forget Iraq, Enron, gang crime, and congressional scandal may find escape in these poems.

a thousand cliffs, ten thousand canyons,
I've wandered until I've explored them all,

from Climbing Mountains in Dream by Po Chu-i (772-826)

Don't you want to be there?

Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, translated by David Hinton. New York: New Directions, 2005. ISBN 0811216241

1 comment:

osblake said...

I've started a link exchange blog to encourage communication between people who write poetry online. Would you like to be a part of it?

Email me at: or post a comment confirming your entry to The Poets Union on my personal site:

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O. S. Blake