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Poem of the week: Autumn Twilight, Dwelling Among Mountains by Wang Wei


An admirable translation of poems by the 8th-century Chinese poet includes this beautifully serene work about the changing seasons

The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton and published in the UK by Anvil Press is a wonderful introduction to one of China's greatest classical poets. The work we encounter in its pages is rooted in the practice of chan (zen) Buddhism, and belongs to a culture utterly different from our own, and yet it seems far from alien. We've all seen similar "wilderness" landscapes represented in Chinese paintings, of course – perhaps even paintings which are copies of originals by the multitalented Wang Wei himself. And any reader of contemporary poetry will feel at home with the clutter-free modernity of the language and the simple couplet-structure Hinton employs. The poems are short and compact, with beautifully concrete images which recur and connect across the collection. Thanks to an illuminating introduction and notes which seem to provide exactly the right amount of detail, we quickly get our bearings.

This week's poem "Autumn Twilight, Dwelling Among Mountains" is typical in its combined economy and density, while unusual in the hints of end-rhyme. By some translator's alchemy, Hinton almost succeeds in giving English words the visual impact of written Chinese. The nouns in this poem (and many others) create separate miniature pictures, and, even merely listed in order of appearance, together compose a whole landscape: twilight, mountains, sky-ch'i, rains, autumn, moon, pines, stream, rocks, bamboo, washerwomen, lotuses, boat, recluse. This landscape, though, is not simply visual but infused with autumnal atmosphere – the freshness after the "new rains", the sharp chilliness of the "bright moon incandescent in the pines".

A note explains ch'i : "the universal breath, vital energy, or life-giving principle. What we call "weather" or "climate" was spoken of as the ch'i of sky or heaven." This compound word, appearing after the caesura in the poem's second line, immediately opens a bigger space, as if we'd suddenly looked upwards. It contrasts with the almost throwaway comment, "It's late" – though this tiny sentence too has several implications. "It's late" can refer equally to the time of day (twilight), to the season's position in the year, and to the poet's advancing years.

Adjectives are scarcely less significant than nouns. Take "empty" in the first line. "Empty" is a recurrent word in Wang Wei's poems, and its presence here denotes more than a bare mountain landscape unvisited and uninhabited. Hinton notes that the concept of "empty" has special Taoist and Buddhist resonance, and is "vaguely synonymous with non-being, that pregnant emptiness that underlies the ever-changing manifestations of the empirical world". In another poem, "empty rivers and mountains" are equated with sages or "old masters" ("Mourning Meng Hao-jan"). Perhaps because autumn is a season of transition, it leads the mind to thoughts of an underlying permanence.

"Crystalline" is particularly suggestive, and may relate to the idea of li, which, we're told in another context, has the philosophical meaning of "inner pattern" and originally "referred to the veins and markings on a precious piece of jade". Perhaps the complex, crystal-like patterns exposed by the moonlight in the movement of the water lead the poet to thoughts of nature's deeper symmetries.

After the intensely visual second couplet, the third begins with sounds: "bamboo rustles." The image of stalks and leaves crowded together which the verb "rustles" evokes prepares the mind for a new diversity of imagery. Human beings enter the picture for the first time. The rustling of the bamboo suggests the movement of the "homeward washerwomen". As in haiku, the reader may connect juxtaposed images or see them as separate units. This wonderful couplet depicts the end of a working day, every image suggesting movement and transition. Natural and human elements are interwoven: washerwomen and boat (significantly downstream), bamboo and the "lotuses" whose wavering might signify human activity, like the rustling bamboo, and also the seasonal shift, when plants begin to weaken, and their flowers to fade.

That concept reappears in the mysterious final couplet. Again, in the word "design" we might understand the "inner pattern" of organic processes. "Spring blossoms wither away by design" – so we're reminded of the inevitability of autumn. The last line seems to imply that, by contrast, human beings are fortunate in having a longer timespan at their disposal. But who is the "distant recluse" and is "distant" meant to refer to geographical distance or to personal aloofness, or both? The recluse could be Wang Wei himself, contemplating with pleasure an extended period of retreat. Or perhaps a friend has come to stay, and this is a courteous offer of an extended invitation. As the poems are arranged in this selection, the facing page has a brief and beautiful valediction, "Farewell to Yuan, who's been sent to An-his", the last couplet of which is a poignant plea: "Stay a little. Linger out another cup. Once you've gone/ west over Solar-Bright-Pass, there will be no old friends."

Perhaps, though, Wang Wei is simply speaking generally. Any traveller can put up at a mountain way-house and "stay on" to meditate in peace, no longer pursued by the daily round. This idea of "staying" is intrinsic to the practice of chan Buddhism. Chan, the note explains, means "stillness", and is the Chinese translation of "dhyana", Sanskrit for "sitting meditation". The seasons travel endlessly, but the chan Buddhist follows the mountain path in order to find a place to linger and be still. How remarkable that, centuries later and worlds away, we can somehow feel that quality of stillness in the words and silences emanating from Wang Wei's poems.

Autumn Twilight, Dwelling Among Mountains

In empty mountains after the new rains,
it's late. Sky-ch'i has brought autumn –

bright moon incandescent in the pines,
crystalline stream slipping across rocks.

Bamboo rustles: homeward washerwomen.
Lotuses waver: a boat gone downstream.

Spring blossoms wither away by design,
but a distant recluse can stay on and on.

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