I'll come is empty talk I'll go and then no trace
The moon slants over the tower the fifth clack of the bell
Dreams of far separation calls that are hard to recall
A letter rushed through its writing before the ink could be ground thick
The candle glow half encircles the golden halcyon
The musk wafts partly permeating embroidered hibiscuses
How Young Liu resents that Mount Penglai is so far
But I am cut off by Mount Penglai another ten thousand fold
Time to meet is hard to find and parting, too, is hard
The east wind has no force and a hundred flowers fail
Unless spring silkworms reach their death silk cannot be spun
When waxy candles turn to ash will tears begin to dry
In morning’s mirror only worried about her temples turning white
She recites at night while I’m sure she feels the chill glow of the moon
From this place to Mount Penglai is just a little road
Bluegreen bird indulge me please and spy a little glance
Yesterday the Purple Maiden Goddess went away
This morning the bluegreen bird should have come instead
But not allowed any language we are separate still
It is so rare to be complete it’s enough to sigh about
On the sixteenth the wheel of the moon and the toad’s shadow cracked
The ten and three string pegs a slanting line of geese
After the sound of the morning bell what else could there be?
With a smile she will lean on the wall beside the plum blossom tree
Li Shangyin is noted as being one of the most ambiguous and densely allusive poets in the Chinese tradition. In the words of one prominent American scholar of Chinese poetry, “much of his poetry is difficult, and some of it is impenetrably obscure.” As a result, he is one of the most written about poets in Chinese, but has only been graced with one monograph each in English and French.
In 1969, James Liu called Li Shangyin a Ninth-Century Baroque Chinese Poet, but his difficulty means that he also fits translation into an aesthetic T. S. Eliot described as “more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning”—especially because so much difficulty in contemporary poetry in English, from Ezra Pound to J. H. Prynne, can be tied to referencing China. And Chinese poets and readers since the eighties have cited Li Shangyin to defend contemporary writing against charges of being “obscure.”
But difficulty in poetry is not only linked to “the early years of the last century, when,” as Charles Bernstein put it, “a great deal of social dislocation precipitated the outbreak of 1912, one of the best-known epidemics of difficult poetry.” Stephen Owen notes that a “general distrust of poets and poetry seems to have increased in the second quarter of the ninth century,” leading to a period-style of difficulty and a sense that to “admire poetry, moreover, might be looked upon as a dangerous diversion from serious pursuits.” Li Shangyin’s poetry may not only stand in opposition to society today, in other words; it may have implied this opposition from something close to the beginning.
My translations aim to link the opposition to the social order that motivated these poems in the ninth century with an opposition to the social orders relevant to dense and allusive poetry today.
Li Shangyin 李商隱 (c. 813 – 858) was a poet of the late Tang dynasty (618 – 907) whose work defined the period style as allusive, sensuous, and hermetic. New Directions will publish Derangements of My Contemporaries, a translation of his prose lists by Chloe Garcia Roberts, in 2014.
Lucas Klein—a former radio DJ and union organizer—is a writer, translator, and editor whose work has appeared in Jacket, Rain Taxi, CLEAR, and PMLA, as well as from Fordham, Black Widow, and New Directions presses. Assistant Professor in the School of Chinese at the University of Hong Kong, his translation Notes on the Mosquito: Selected Poems of Xi Chuan 西川 won the 2013 Lucien Stryk Prize and was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award in poetry (see http://xichuanpoetry.com). He is also translating seminal contemporary poet Mang Ke 芒克.