The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse
Translated by Red Pine
Copper Canyon Press ($17)
Yellow River Odyssey
Chin Music Press ($17.50)
by Justin Wadland
The translator known as Red Pine thinks of translating in terms of dancing. “I see the poet dancing, but dancing to music I can’t hear. Still, I’m sufficiently enthralled by the beauty of the dance that I want to join the poet. And as I do,” he writes. “I try to get close enough to feel the poet’s rhythm, not only the rhythm of the words but also the rhythm of the poet’s heart.” Over a career spanning three decades, Red Pine has danced with many classical Chinese poets and important works of Taoist and Buddhist literature, including the poet Han-Shan (or Cold Mountain), the Tao Te Ching, and the Heart Sutra. Informed by his own Buddhist practice and travels in Asia, Red Pine’s work is consistently characterized by a generosity of spirit that opens up these challenging texts to the English-speaking world.
All this dancing with T’ang poets and Taoist sages has certainly had an effect on the heart of the translator himself too, and it most clearly comes across when he writes under his given name, Bill Porter. Porter has authored three travel books, all set in China, that have taken him in search of Taoist hermits, Zen temples, and most recently, the source of the Yellow River. Yellow River Odyssey chronicles a 1991 journey Porter made through the cradle of Chinese civilization. Few Westerners can match Porter’s knowledge and sensibility as a guide through this watershed, and he describes his experiences with such grace that it’s easy to forget that he’s fluent in Chinese and completely immersed in the history and literature of China.
Beginning in Shanghai, where he crashes an expat party and then heads north, Porter follows a meandering course, stopping at historically significant sites like the birthplace of Confucius, and also offbeat, largely forgotten places. When he stops at Hankukuan Pass, where according to legend Lao Tzu composed the Tao Te Ching, he finds the local authorities developing it into a tourist spot. Other than construction workers, he’s the only one there. The pass itself is less impressive than expected: “I was surprised how such a simple place had been glorified by historians and artists, who often depicted it as a rocky, snow-covered mountain pass, instead of just a cart trail through a loess plateau.”
With publisher Chin Music Press, Yellow River Odyssey has found a match made in Taoist heaven. A Seattle-based small press, Chin Music draws inspiration from a Japanese aesthetic toward printing books; as stated on its website, the press wants to create “literary objects—books that are a pleasure to touch as well as read.” Yellow River Odyssey achieves this effect, with over fifty black and white photos taken by Porter showing cities, bridges, rapids, mountains, temples, and people in the region. Many images, such as the one of the beach where one of China’s first emperors sent out ships in search of the mythic Penglai, or Island of Immortals, are striking beyond their documentary quality.
Coinciding with the publication of the travel book, Copper Canyon press has released a new edition of the Red Pine’s translation of Stonehouse, a Zen monk who retreated to a mountain hut in the thirteenth century. “If you’ve never heard of Stonehouse, you’re not alone. Not many people have, even in China, even among Buddhists, much less poets,” says Red Pine by way of introduction. He first happened upon Stonehouse in the 1980s while translating the better-known Cold Mountain. Red Pine originally published his translations of Stonehouse in 1986, but over the years, he’s kept returning to the poems, and the older work felt a little out of step. Thus, he’s been itching to “hit the dance floor one more time” with his favorite poet.
The poems begin with an introduction from Stonehouse. When not sleeping, the poet says he enjoys composing poems, but with no paper and ink around, he hasn’t yet written any down:
. . . some Zen monks have asked me to record what I find of interest on this mountain. I have sat here quietly and let my brush fly. Suddenly this volume is full. I close it and send it back down with the admonition not to try singing these poems. Only if you sit on them will they do you any good.
He doesn’t literally mean that you should use his poems as a booster seat, like the telephone books of yore, but instead sit in meditation with them, perhaps grappling with them much like Zen students work on koans.
Fortunately, one need not be an adept at meditation, nor particularly versed in Zen Buddhism, to appreciate and enjoy Stonehouse. A small number of his poems do seem didactic, almost like dharma talks put to verse, but most of them capture the austere day-to-day life of a hermit with lightness and humor. The poems tend to be brief, four to eight lines long, and impart an abiding awareness of the natural world:
Where did that gust come from
whistling across the sky
shaking the trees in the forest
blowing open my bamboo door
without any arms or legs
how does it come and go
my attempt to track it down have failed
from the cliffs a tiger roars
Red Pine’s notes accompany most of the poems, along with the original Chinese, and the translator has a real knack for elucidating obscure references or imagery without explaining away the poem with arcana. “The tiger is considered the source of wind in China,” he says in the comment to the poem above.
The notes, at times, can be as enthralling as the poems. A single note might include a reference to Chinese history or culture, an explication of Buddhist doctrine or practice, an account of Red Pine’s own travels to the sites of Stonehouse’s huts, and speculation on the life and daily affairs of the poet himself. In one poem, for example, Stonehouse describes his hermitage in the mountains: “my gableless hut is surrounded by vines / gibbons howl at night when the moon goes down.” Red Pine says:
Stonehouse’s hut had no gables because his roof was round . . . I imagine something like a thatched yurt with bamboo walls and a layer or two of mud on the exterior. Gibbons and their eerie howls were once common throughout the Yangtze watershed but are now found in the wild only in a few nature reserves in the extreme south.
In recent years, Red Pine/Bill Porter has become a best-selling author in China; his travel books in particular have tapped into the curiosity of a burgeoning Chinese middle class eager to learn more about their country’s history and culture. Remarkably, the Chinese editions of his books have sold in the tens of thousands, with his book about Chinese hermits selling over 100,000 copies. Yet what is even more remarkable is how little known the translator and author is within his own country. One thing is certain, however: he has quietly and steadily built a body of work that celebrates a contemplative approach to life, which is sorely needed in our fast-paced, media-saturated culture.