Daily Archives: 5 January 2023

Summer reads 2: The Gleaner Song Lin

Song Lin, The Gleaner Song, translated by Dong Li (Giramondo 2021)

Song Lin (宋琳) was a campus poet in Beijing in the 1980s, and was active in the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square, for which he was imprisoned for a year. On his release he married a French woman, and in 1991 went to live in Paris. After spending time in France, Singapore and Argentina, he returned to China in 2003, and now lives in Yunnan province. He has published many books of poetry and prose, including two bilingual French-Chinese volumes, and currently edits the poetry journal Jintian (Today), which ran for nine issues in the late 1970s before being censored, and was revived in 1999.

The Gleaner Song had its beginnings when Song Lin was on a long walk in the countryside of upstate New York with the young Chinese-born poet-translator Dong Li. Describing that walk in his introduction, Dong Li writes:

I saw his eyes light up as a deer leapt from the wild into a wide-open field. As the evening hues shifted farther into the forest, his line of sight followed the deer until it vanished into the night. We talked about the deer, and later he asked me to translate a poem that he had written to record the occasion.

That translation was to become the final poem in this book. It’s preceded by poems spanning four decades and as many continents, incorporating classic Chinese forms and elements of western modernism. Mostly I found it a difficult book, but in interesting ways.

To talk about the difficulty, and why it’s worth dealing with, I want to have a closer look at one poem, ‘Notes from South Xinjiang’. You can read the whole poem, without my commentary, on the Cordite Poetry Review website, where it was published in February 2022.

The rest of this blog post gets a bit detailed. A short version: the poem is a number of brief observations and reflections during a visit to South Xinjiang, the southern part of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwest China, much of which is taken up by the Taklamakan Desert, and most of whose population are Uyghur. It is a prose poem made up of 23 short numbered paragraphs. On a first reading, probably in bed at night, I enjoyed the sense of a mind at play in a new place, but I knew there was a lot I hadn’t understood. Here is what I found when I reread the poem with the internet open beside me:

Notes from South Xinjiang

1. The reckless god reads the braille of the desert.

The poem announces at the start that its subject is a desert. The gist of this first paragraph is clear enough: the shapes made by the wind on desert sands can look like braille, but it would be reckless to read a meaning into them – which by implication is what the poet, godlike, may be about to attempt. But is ‘the reckless god’ someone from ancient Chinese tradition, and would I read the poem differently if I knew? That question remains unanswered.

2. One night in Kupa, I received a telegram from Mars: there were traces of water.

I looked up ‘Kupa’ and found a river in Croatia. But there is a town called Kuqa (or Kuche) on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, so I’m pretty sure that’s where the poet was. Wikipedia gives a long list of variants but ‘Kupa’ is not one of them. Who can blame a copy editor for not picking up what is almost certainly a transcription error, but mistakes like this add a layer of difficulty for the uninformed reader. So the poet is on the edge of the desert which he imagines as Mars-like. There may even be a suggestion that Mars has water where this desert does not. Certainly in photographs it looks vast and dry.

3. Dead rivers look like twisted mummies in the gallery of the sky.

I parse this to mean the dead rivers as seen from the sky – that is, in the gallery of images held in the sky rather than a gallery of images of the sky, which was my first reading. A map of the region shows a network of rivers, with a note to say they are ‘usually’ dry.

Why mummies? It’s not an obvious visual likeness, but it turns out that 4000-year-old mummies have been found in this area. This is the poem’s first oblique reference to the region’s ancient history

4. Language, dust of dust, flies on the long, long road.

I don’t know if the ambiguity of ‘flies’ – is language as insignificant as insects or does it fly away? – is something that happened in the translation, but either way it works well: human activity, especially language, is dwarfed by the desert. This paragraph introduces human activity more explicitly, and specifically the idea of the road, which is taken up the next five paragraphs.

5. An oar stands before the boat-shaped coffin. Sailors of the desert sea, tell me, what kind of sail do you dream of?
6. Business caravans head east, and west. The sun bakes eyebrows, beards, and crusty flatbreads.
7. Go. Once you lie down, you run the risk of being air-dried.
8. From one invisible border to another, I count those disappeared countries.
9. A silkworm once dreamed of Rome; or rather, Rome once dreamed of a silkworm.

These six paragraphs reflect on past human travel in the desert. Paragraph 5: the mummies from 4000 years ago had boat-shaped coffins. Paragraphs 6 and 7 refer to conditions endured by caravans of any era. Paragraph 8: perhaps the poet knows what those disappeared countries are, where those borders were – I don’t, but neither of us needs to know that for the line to work. Paragraph 9 is a lovely evocation of the history of the Silk Roads which passed through this region, skirting the desert (according to this map).

10. Breeze in the dense forest, homonym of silk and porcelain.

This paragraph is an example of what must be a nightmare for translators. It makes no sense as a stand-alone sentence in English. Really, all one can take from it is that some words in a Chinese language sound the same as others. Maybe in the original it’s an elegant pun, or a cute but inconsequential observation. As I can’t read or speak Chinese, I have no way of knowing, and I can’t see how a translator could do other than what Dong Li has done here: translation is impossible. (In other poems, Dong Li explains linguistic play in a footnote, but that’s a bit like explaining the mechanics of a joke – it still doesn’t make you laugh.)

From here on the poem bristles with specific historical and cultural references. It’s as if the poet is wandering abut the region, making random, elegant notes about things he sees. He also, incidentally, challenges the ignorant reader to do a bit of work. Or from another perspective, he points to a number of doors that open on vistas of new knowledge.

11. The Han princess Liu Xijun – Sappho of Wusun country – was married to a vast and endless homesickness.

Song Lin gives his western readers a small hand by comparing Liu Xijun to Sappho, the earliest woman poet in the western tradition. Liu Xijun wrote one of the earliest poems in Chinese written by a woman. Wusun country, as far as I can tell, was a little to the north of South Xinjiang, but near enough. Liu Xijun’s poem includes the lines, ‘Living here, I long for my land, and my heart aches / Wishing I could be a yellow swan, and return to my old home.’

Having paid homage to traditional Han culture, the poem now moves on to religion:

12. Under the statue of Kumarajiva, I thought: perhaps his intelligible translation saved Buddhism.
13. On their pilgrimage to Chang'an, the three Buddhist masters walked in the opposite direction to the three wise men.

Kumarajiva’s statue is in Kuqa. He was a Buddhist monk of the 4th and 5th centuries of the current era, who translated many Buddhist texts from Sanskrit to Chinese. His translations are still in use today.

Chang’an is the ancient name for Xi’an: I don’t know the story of the three Buddhist masters who – I’m guessing – travelled through South Xinjiang. The reference to the three wise men is another example of Song Lin’s cross-cultural awareness. I read him as suggesting an equivalence between the foundation of Christianity and the bringing of Buddhism to China.

14. If Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty knew that the Ferghana horse was a horse with a disease, would the history of Ferghana be re-written?

At about 100 CE, China imported huge numbers of horses from Ferghana in central Asia, roughly contemporary Uzbekistan, coerced by an army sent there by Emperor Wu. The horses remained popular for the next thousand years. They were said to sweat blood, which – according to Wikipedia – modern authorities believe was caused by the activity of parasites.

15. The donors depicted on the murals have thin eyebrows.
16. Stupa - navigation system of the desert.
17. What a pity! Gan Ying saw the sea but did not know which one he saw.

Paragraphs 15 and 16 are mercifully straightforward, though I don’t know if thin eyebrows have particular meaning in Chinese iconography.

Gan Yin was a diplomat who travelled west in 97 CE in search of Rome, but only got as far the ‘the western sea’, which – according to Wikipedia – could have been the Mediterranean Sea, the Black Sea or the Persian Gulf.

18. Petals of the mandala – one five-baht coin after another.
19. The auricle of the crescent rises on the ruins where Xuanzang preached.

Paragraph 18 doesn’t need any extra research.

Xuanzang was a key Buddhist teacher of the 7th century CE. The ancient novel that was the basis of television’s Monkey Magic was a fictionalised version of his journeys. He visited Kuche (now Kuqa) in 630 CE. The crescent of Islam, compared here to an ear, has risen where once actual ears heard him preach.

20. In the dark labyrinth of the karez, flowing water looks for bright vineyards.

This is a beautifully concise evocation of the Turfan Karez System, which consists of 5000 kilometres of wells and underwater channels around Turpan, on the edge of the Taklamakan desert. It’s tentatively listed as a World Heritage site.

21. Migration – from Sanskrit to Charian, Uighur to Chinese; over battlefields and millennia of forgetting, Maitrisimit flies into my vision like a phoenix.

Oh dear, I couldn’t find ‘Charian’ online, but Tocharian languages were spoken in South Xinjiang from 400 to 1200 CE. The paragraph should begin ‘Migration – from Sanskrrit to Tocharian’. (Does this mean no one actually managed to read the poem thoroughly when the book was in production?) So the migration described follows the flow of languages that have succeeded each other over the millennia.

According to Wikipedia, ‘Maitrisimit’, full name ‘Maitrisimit nom bitig’ is an Old Uyghur translation of the Tocharian text of a Buddhist drama, which itself (departing from Wikipedia here) is probably from a Sanskrit original. The way the text survives the extinction of language after language is captured in the image of the phoenix (not necessarily a reference to western mythologies, as China too has a phoenix).

This is the poem’s first mention of the Uyghurs, and possibly suggests – ‘Uighur to Chinese’ – that their culture is in the process of being wiped out. Given the necessarily oblique way Chinese poetry has addressed political matters over the last half century, it’s perhaps not too much of a stretch to see this as a disguised protest.

22. Another Uighur muqam: alas the musailaisi wine, the ice-cold beauty, come quickly and rub out my burning desire for you!

The poet has visited the statue of Kumarajiva, some murals, a statue of a Ferghana horse, and so on. Now he relaxes at a musical performance, a Uyghur muqam, drinking musailaisi, traditional Uyghur wine. I’m pretty sure his address to the wine echoes centuries of conventional drinking songs and poems. If there is a protest at the treatment of the Uyghurs, it is thoroughly disguised, but still visible to reader who want to see it.

23. In Kashgar, Shen Wei said to me: there are people wherever poplars grow.

As you’d expect, Kashgar is another city in South Xinjiang. Shin Wei is a poet, younger than Song Lin, who lives in South Xinjiang. So the poem ends on a note of collegiality among poets (an almost Jennifer-Maidenish note). I have no idea what Shen Wei’s remark means. In English the sound play between ‘people’ and ‘poplars’ creates a kind of resonance, and the original Chinese may have a similar play, but that’s a guess.

In the end, I have to resign myself to the reality that not everything in a poem can be translated, and be grateful for as much as does make it across the barriers of language and culture.


I am grateful to the Giiramondo Publishing Company for my copy of The Gleaner Song.