A few days ago, I mentioned having found a poem to cross a desert with. I boldly said, I didn't even need the entire poem at all--just that one famous line: 採菊東籬下-- Plucking chrysanthemums by the eastern fence.
A popular subject for calligraphy or to be used for the seals of gentlemen on retirement, the phrase evokes the good life--not of La Dolce Vita but rather of the simple life; of a serenity achieved by a life of service and self-cultivation, where less is more and nature provides wonderful company.
It is, I think the simple truth that contentedness comes from being easily contented. And hence lies the great allure of plucking peonies (oops, I mean chrysanthemums).
A friend, having read my blog post then mysteriously posted another poem to my facebook wall:
"Passage of Sighs"
Cao Zhi, AD 229
Carried out by strong winds
Only wanting to return home
Heading southward, the wind blows me northward
Thinking it will blow eastward, it takes me westward
Drifting, drifting, where will I end up?
Surely I will perish and yet life continues
Wandering through hills and plains
Drifting and turning, no place to stay
Who knows my hurt?
I wish to be grass in the forest
Burned in autumn fires
Destroyed by fire-- does his extinguish the pain?
Wishing for this with my roots remaining
Not surprising given he is a mysterious man, there was no explanation of why he posted it and at first I was thrown. So, I contacted the Great Professor Wang who kindly sent me the original Chinese and the historical context. In many ways, the story echoes the chaos experienced by Lady Li—a woman who lost everything she loved and yet chose the pen name, “easily contented” 易安 (whereby freedom is based less in our choices as in the ability to shape our lives around contingency).
Professor Wang explains,
This is supposed to be one of his later poems, sort of summarizing, and sighing over, his own painful life history, being blown here and there by successive political winds. His father, Cao Cao, chose Cao Zhi's brother Cao Pi to be his successor to the throne, and kept Cao Zhi far from the center of power; after he became emperor, Cao Pi had Cao Zhi and their other brothers sent away from the capital (blown this way and that by winds of change....)"
The winds of change and the winds of destiny, I suppose Cao Zhi felt as if he had fallen through the cracks of his own life. I am still not happy with the english in the last line (and would love help with it!) but I like very much this image of enduring and self-cultivation through the overcoming of hardships; love the image of the poet hoping only that his roots will survive the fire.
Is this not the perfect poem for a mid-life crisis par excellance?
As to the title, remember when Dante sighed?
In late May, in the New York Review of Books, Robert Harrison, reviewed Slavitt's new translation of La Vita Nuova. talking about poetry's connection to sighs, he says,
What appears to the eyes then becomes spiritualized and, as spirit, enters the onlooker's inner being, inspiring the soul to emit a sigh. From this sigh of inspiration--this culminating intake and exhalation of breath--the poem we are reading is born.
As I have mentioned here many times before, Francois Jullien talking about daoist physiology brings up "breath phenomenon 氣象" and says that through one's in-haling and ex-haling, one breathes in landscape, atmosphere and social context and breathes out character, heart, correct behavior..............and poetry. Or as Rushdie says, "We inhale the world and breath out meaninf. While we can. While we can."
This kind of elegant sighing in the wind/sighing in the mountains happens again and again in Chinese literary history. A person's dreams are dashed by fate and they lose everything (like running out of a burning house). But, finding great solace in nature, they realize (and are grateful that) they are still able to sigh.
Suspiro ergo sum.
For Tao Yuangming it was plucking chysanthemums and for Su Shi, it was bamboo.
On Qian Seng's Green Bamboo Skin Veranda, by Sū Shì
I would rather eat a meal without meat
than live in a place without bamboo.
Eating without meat makes you lose weight,
but living without bamboo makes you lose refinement.
When a person loses weight, it may be regained,
but when scholars lose refinement they are untreatable.
Others will find these words funny,
seeming lofty and at the same time, crazy.
Ruminate on this carefully if you're wise,
or you'll never ride a crane to Paradise.
The translation is Professor Wang's, and he explains that the "cranes of Yangzhou in the last line is a metaphor for ascending to heaven." It reminds me of the paintings made in the Heian period which depicted Amida traveling down to earth over spectacular landscapes on whispy sighing clouds to come and meet the dying and escort them back to paradise. The paintings, called Amida raigo-zu 阿弥陀来迎図, were sometimes held up right in front of the aristocracy when they were on their deathbed--their last sights being these beautiful paintings of landscapes with Amida traveling down to meet them on the breath of clouds.
Ah, the simple life.