Our Tears Become A Language

Conversations with the dead are invariably pleasant, if a little one-sided until you’ve honed your listening skills.

I am currently in the middle of an ongoing dialogue with the Chinese poet Li Qingzhao (1081 – c. 1141). I have long admired her work but have only recently been able to establish a fruitful discourse with her.

Li Qingzhao`s Shu Yu CiOn my first trip to China in 2002, we visited her memorial in Jinan. As she is one of China’s most well-known poets, I had read her ci poems in translation, but was not yet able to read them in the original. Nevertheless, I bought a book of her most famous poems and took it back home and put it on my shelf, where it sat for a dozen years. (Read/Download a scan of it here: Washing Jade Ci-Poetry Collection by Li Qingzhao Shuyu Ci Ji 李清照 漱玉词集)

Over the course of those 12 years, I learned Chinese and took some courses in Classical Chinese and ci poetry. Earlier this year I pulled her book down from the shelf and decided to write responses to a couple of the poems, using the following method. I first attempt to read the poem. Next, I look up and study the individual words and phrases, using commentaries on Chinese-language websites for guidance. Next, I read existing English language translations. Finally, I write my response.

Classical ci poetry relies heavily on the trope of the lonely and lovely woman pining away in her sumptuous boudoir. Most writers of ci were men and they used this trope to imagine women longing for them, suffering for them. Yeah, whatever. Li Qingzhao stands out because she is a woman writing in the form and the classical images of ci, tragically, fit her real life experience.

guoande seal script jpegAs a gay man writing in the  21st century, my life and experience could not possibly be more different from hers, and yet I find myself consistently inspired by her poems. My responses are firmly set in the present and in my own life. They are not projections into hers, or nostalgia for a time and place that never was.

To see all the responses written so far, as well as the Chinese, word-by-word breakdown, and an English translation of the originals, click here. Or browse them individually below.

“55th Birthday: Long-lived Happiness (Nanchang Birthday)”
“Revised response: As if in a Dream: A Song”

“Finally at 5 o’clock: New Lotus Leaves”

“My heart rises up: Bodhisattva’s Gold Headdress”

“Charlottetown Harbour: Long-lived Happiness”

“The Luxury: Bowl of Green Jade”

“The Spider: Bodhisattva’s Gold Headdress”

“Translation: Bodhisattva’s Gold Headdress”

“A Fool’s Game: New Jade Candle”

“Translation: New Jade Candle”

“A Carload of Poets: Bowl of Green Jade”

“The Point of No Returning: Mountain Hawthorn” 

“On a web—unravelling: Auspicious Partridge”

“Translation: Auspicious Partridge: A Pair of Ginkgo”
“Late Summer Day: Sand Washed by Waves”
“Translation: Sand Washed by Waves: Spring Melancholy”
“Seven Years Later in Parc Laurier: Sand Washed by Waves”
“Our moment in time : Complaint against a Prince”
“Tested (While the Locust Tree Blooms): A Weary Lovely Maiden”

“رياح ليلة واحدة /The winds of one night: Picking Mulberry Seeds”

“Into the perfumed: Sand of Silk Washing Brook”

“Punchline: Sand of Silk-Washing Brook”

Fading, but not fast: Rouged Lips”
“Old Man, Winter: Pure Serene Music”

“Our Fathers, Who Are in the Heavens: Immortal on the Riverbank”

“Hard Bargain: The Lone Wild Goose”

“Another Winter: Immortal on the Riverbank”

“Birdsong
(For My Baby, For The Road): New Version Sand of Silk-Washing Brook”

“Never Better Nothing More: Remembering the Maid of Qin”

“As for what remains: Spring at Wuling”

The Disappearance: New Version Sand of Silk-Washing Brook

“Peace on Earth: Happiness Approaches”

“Roses Daring Bloom (from Whitman to Genet): A Galaxy of Beauties

“The Wasp Nest: A Perfumed Garden”

“Now, if you please, turn the lights off: A Perfumed Garden”
“Ancestral Sonnet and Remembrance Tanka: Little Overlapping Hills”
“While we Waited for His Love: Rouged Lips”
“Resurrection Spell: On the Trail of Sweet Incense”

“To Reach the Palace of Heaven: On the Trail of Sweet Incense”

“Somewhere in Lebanon: Peaches of the Two-Coloured Palace”
“A Cicada’s Swan Song: Spring in the Jade Pavilion”

“Gay Pride: Complaint Against a Prince”

“Brackley Beach: Complaint Against a Prince”

“Bodhisatva’s Gold Headdress”
“Partridge Sky III”

“Partride Sky II

“Airing Innermost Feelings”

“Picking Mulberry Seeds”

“Nostalgia for Fluting on the Phoenix Terrace”

“The Charm of a Maiden Singer“

“Celebrating the Clear Serene Dawn: To the Late Peony”

“Sand of Silk-Washing Brook” IV

“Sand of Silk-Washing Brook” III

“A Long Melancholy Tune”

“Queer by Choice: Joy of Eternal Union”

“Drunk in the Shade of Flowers”
“Fisherman’s Pride” II
“A Sprig of Plum Blossom”
“Fisherman’s Pride” I
“Sand of Silk-Washing Brook” II
“Butterflies Lingering Over Flowers” III
“Butterflies Lingering Over Flowers” II
“Magnolia Flowers” (Shorter Version)
“Butterflies Lingering Over Flowers” I
“Sand of Silk Washing Brook” I
“Partridge Sky”
“A Southern Song”
“As in a Dream: A Song” III
“As in a Dream: A Song” II
“As in a Dream: A Song” I (Translation)

3 thoughts on “Our Tears Become A Language

  1. Pingback: Translation: Zhou Bangyan’s “Sand of Silk-Washing Brook” | tankawanka

  2. Pingback: Into the perfumed: A response to “Sand of Silk-Washing Brook,” attributed to Li Qingzhao | tankawanka

  3. Pingback: Waves Washing Over Sand (Spring Blues), a version of a translation of a poem attributed to Li Qingzhao | Mumbling Jack

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