Rhyming with A New Graduate in Mourning: Two Poems


The Transcendents don’t stay in the human realm for long,

ten autumns passing in a mere moment.

Under a mandarin duck tent the incense stays warm

and speech is still ceaseless inside the parrot cage.

This morning dew beaded the flowers, like a face in anguish.

Tonight the wind will bend the willows like a worried brow.

No news since the colored clouds took off.1

Pan Yue is so sad his hair is going white.2


A branch of moon cassia, as graceful as the mist.3

Ten thousand river peach trees, making rainfall red.

Drunk before your goblet. Stop staring off in pain.

Sadness and pleasure in the past were no different than they are today.

1     The “multicolored clouds” are the clouds on which the ancients rode when they first became immortals.

2     Among the most famous poems by Pan Yue (247–300) are his three elegies for his wife. The story is that he was so overcome with grief that his hair turned white overnight.

3     Because “cassia” (桂) is a homophone for “honor” (貴), those who passed the civil service exam were said to have “plucked cassia” (折桂), or reached an honor.




Visiting Alchemist Zhao, Who Was Not There


Where is the alchemist off with transcendents?

He’s left his dark robes4 at home

and the stove still warm with herbs left boiling,

tea roasting in the courtyard next door.

The painted walls are dark in the lamplight

and the shadow of the flagpole is slanting.

I turn my head, eagerly, and more than once,

but it’s only flowers on the branches beyond the wall.

4     The clothes of a Daoist apprentice.




Seeing You Off


The shape of water conforms to its container:5 we know it is indeterminate.

Clouds drift with no intent.6 Will they ever come back?

Despondent spring winds over the Chu river tonight,

one mandarin duck flies away from its flock.

5     Han Fei 韓非子 attributes a quote to Confucius that “In treating the people, the ruler is like the vessel while the populace is like water: if the vessel is rectilinear, the water will be rectilinear; if the vessel is round the water will be round” 為人君者猶盂也,民猶水也,盂方水方,盂圓水圓. Critics generally read Yu’s usage here to mean that women must rely on men to keep them proper.

6       In the famous poem “Returning Home” 歸去來辭 by Tao Qian 陶潛 (aka Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, 365–427) is the couplet “Clouds drift with no intent beyond the peak of the mountain / and birds tire of flying but still know how to return” 雲無心以出岫 鳥倦飛而知還. Yu has tweaked the meaning considerably.








































Translator's Note

Yu Xuanji (魚玄機, c. 840–c. 868) is one of the most interesting poets in premodern Chinese literature, combining late Tang lushness with rare frankness in a woman poet’s voice. Nearly fifty of her poems remain.

Yu was raised in Chang’an, the Tang capital, and at sixteen she became the concubine, or secondary wife, of a recent imperial examination graduate named Li Yi (李億). Some stories say that famous poet Wen Tingyun (溫庭筠, 812–870) met Yu while she was doing laundry and took responsibility for her education. Yu separated from Li Yi after only three years, when he took up an important position at court that moved him closer to his wife. Yu then entered a Daoist nunnery, and her poetry of this period reflects her hopes for spiritual transcendence, but eventually she returned to Chang’an; it was there, Jia Jinhua writes, that “she gave free rein to her romantic nature, aware of the freedom her status as a Daoist nun and ‘semi-immortal’ accorded her but conscious also of the double-edged nature of that freedom.”1 

Yu’s poetry is even more fascinating than her biography. As Jia writes, “she did not, as many other female poets did, try to imitate the voice of male poets or use the conventional women’s voice constructed by the male tradition; instead she spoke in a straightforward, truthful manner, creating her own distinctive voice to express her genuine feelings of love, joy, leisure, sorrow, lament, regret, and dissatisfaction.”2 My translations try to convey this distinctive voice and its genuine expressions. In my eyes, contemporary English translations of classical Chinese poetry tend to fall between two extremes—with scholarly translators prizing philological accuracy and sometimes even taking a perverse pride in not letting their writing be informed by conventions of contemporary Anglophone poetry, while more creative attempts at experimentation often fall short of that goal. My own experiment represents an attempt to bring philological rigor and compelling creative writing together. Scholarly and literary audiences do not have to be at odds: both are looking for precision of image together with compelling, and compellingly fresh, phrasing. Combining accuracy with renewed attention to contemporary anglophone poetics, I hope to provide new access to Yu’s idiosyncratic lush frankness.

Works Cited

1 Jia Jinhua, “Yu Xuanji,” in Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Women, Volume II: Tang Through Ming 618–1644, eds. Lily Xiao Hong Lee and Sue Wiles (Routledge, 2015): 569.

2 Jia, 571.

Lucas Klein


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