Many of the poems in this issue seem to coalesce around themes of
darkness and light. In what ratio of shade or illumination do your
poems thrive? Does a dark poem need light, and vice versa?
I haven’t yet read the poems in this issue, but it makes perfect sense
to me that they should body forth themes of conflict, of opposition, of
partiality, shading, and gradation.
A strong artwork will not merely express a position but will include
its opposite. One cannot merely agree with a really good poem; if it is
of lasting interest it will incorporate sufficient tensions such that
all the positions expressed in it are also undermined and questioned.
Poems are constantly telling us in their very structures that they are not simple broadsides on issues.
Wang Changling’s poem, for example, offers us a fiction in which the
speaker uses a vivid image to express the state of his heart. In my
opinion, the poem is most powerful when one realizes that the speaker’s
words are not true, that no one really has such a heart as he
describes, able to remain a pure piece of ice once it is dropped in a
cup of hot tea. That he says he possesses such a heart is interesting;
that we know he doesn’t have such a heart—that none of us do—is what
makes this a poem.
What drew you to this particular poem, and what elements of the original did you find most challenging to bring into English?
My one-year old daughter Auden is half-Chinese. When Auden met
her Chinese family, many conversations focused on what Auden’s Chinese
name should be. Part of the challenge was to find a suitably literary
yet uncommon name to match that of an amazing British poet; another
part of the challenge was to find a name as beautiful as Lee Shuang Bai
, Auden’s mother’s name, which alludes to a famous Chinese poem, and can be rendered in English as “Plum Frost White.”
It was Auden’s grandmother who recalled Wang Changling’s words about
parting with Xian Jian and the image of a heart like a miraculous piece
of ice that would not melt even when it is immersed a jade cup of hot
tea, an image expressed by the phrase Bing Xin
. Bing Xin
literally means “ice heart,” but in the context of the poem it does not
suggest what Americans mean by “cold-hearted.” I was immediately struck
by the rightness of this name, thus Auden is known to her Taiwanese
relatives as Lee Bing Xin
is her nickname), and thus I received an implicit assignment to try to bring some version of the poem into English.
is also the pen name
of a prominent female Chinese novelist and poet of the 20th century who
was graduated from Wellesley College in Massachusetts. This further
literary connection ties Auden to a female artist who was very active
and influential in China, in spite of all the patriarchal expectations
of the 20th century, and I hope that being called Lee Bing Xin
will point Auden toward being as empowered in the 21st century.
We’re fascinated by the image of “ice in a cut-jade cup.” In a poem
about an emotional parting, what do the sharp, hard images of ice and
Wang Changling’s speaker tells us that he maintains the values of his
upbringing even in a foreign and adverse environment, and the image of
“ice in a cut-jade cup” tells us how: his loyalty to Luoyang may have
the nearly the same chemical formula as river water, rain water, or
tea, but his virtues (he says) keep it hyper-frigerated, crystalline.
For me, the fictional hardness and durability of this fictional ice has
a personal referent. Auden’s mother’s family came to the United States
in the 80s but returned to Taiwan—all except “Plum Frost White,” who
has lived on permanently in America, far from where she was born. She
would never overstate the case the way Wang Changling’s speaker does;
she has never felt she had to. But no doubt some durable part of her
has remained purely Taiwanese.
In this poem, division and order seem paramount: rain creates a wall,
and the city of Luoyang is “pure in me.” What danger do you think there
could be for this speaker in having a heart that “crossed the river”?
My version of Wang Changling’s poem includes strands not in the
original. One is an invented narrative implied by the speaker’s
expressing to his friend the likelihood that his father would refuse to
speak to Xian Jian about his son, that it would be the speaker’s mother
who would ask after him. To me this suggests how unspeakably painful
separation from one’s family can be, even when—or especially if—one
maintains a fiction that one has never left at all.