I grew up among coyote willows and cottonwood, marking veins of water on the Great Plains. The incessant prairie wind blowing through the cottonwoods sounds like the clapping of happy ghosts. Sallow and scanty, the scruffy little willows guard the edges of ponds and rivers even at high altitude. I saw them on winter flattops, just below treeline, stiff like a dead man’s hand jutting up through the ice. If it’s the land of milk and honey you came for, take these bitter tonics instead to ease your way home. All that lies buried under the hummocks and grasses becomes the glory of next summer’s flowers.
I’ve been wondering if commenting on the Chinese poem itself was something I ought or ought not to do. One thing I didn’t realize when I began was how much I would disagree with some of Red Pine’s translations; for example, he translates the third stanza, which begins at the top of the second line in the image above, as “he can’t imagine death,” whereas I would have been more literal, with “he cries out, ‘No death today!'” Although I still intend to do a translation of a poem once every ten days or so, today I thought I’d just walk through some of the associations that led to the particular response I had, because I realize not everyone might read Chinese. For Red Pine’s translation of the poem, see the Google books copy, pg. 41.
The poem in Chinese plays a lot with the opposition between up/down, ephemerality/permanence, and life/death, although these aren’t the only pairs suggested in the poem. I started by noticing the idea of “eminence,” 俊傑, which is further played on by the character for “up,” “upward,” and sometimes by extension “best,” 上. Here, 上 literally means the man is riding “up on” his horse, but the imagery works well, since 俊傑 also means “lofty.” The English “fine young man” doesn’t quite convey the sense that 俊傑 carries, although when I scanned the poem before reading Red Pine’s translation I too picked “fine” as the way to describe the young man. The “willows” 柳楊 in the second line can refer to women, and there’s another way to approach the poem, through male/female, yin/yang, samsara/enlightenment present here. The image of the Great Plains, where I grew up, with willows and cottonwoods lining the banks of streams sometimes cutting down between rises in the land, came strong to me, though, when I thought about being on horses and pointing out willows. Despite being thought of as flat, the Great Plains undulate over the vast areas, and water (marked by cottonwoods and willows) is best seen from an elevation. And that’s where my response began.
It was also a surprise to see “milk and honey” 醍醐/石蜜 used here to denote something similar to our use of “the land of milk and honey” as a kind of ideal world or paradise. I’ve seen 醍醐 frequently in Buddhist texts to mean the refined or clarified butter of the Buddha-dharma (most excellent in quality and taste), but not in other Chinese texts to imagine an idyllic world.