Tuesday, September 12, 2006

""when she jumps in the water"   [Cage / Zhuang-zi's beautiful woman]

This story from Zhuang-zi [Chuang Tzu] is one I don't particularly recall. I think this may mean it's not found in the nei jing. Although I never studied all of Zhuang-zi thoroughly, I think I've read the nei jing through (some parts many times). Those are the seven so-called "Inner Chapters" (rather rambling chapters at that, comprised of many sub-stories embedded within an overall argument) -- the portionn of the larger compendium that is (by some scholarly consensus) said to be more definitely Zhunag-zi's own writing. The 26 other chapters may or may not be from Zhuang-zi's own hand (albeit all are attributed to him). Or that's the general idea. (Burton Watson translated all of them, and it's a shame I've not held the book closer. Must amend my ways. Now that I'm 50, I should begin to show some stray marks of the wise.)

[hmm, actually the whole English text was put online (with dubious copyright-legality) by Hungarian Orientalists. The good Watson (in his early 80s) remains alive; I wonder if he sanctions this? I think I'll omit the link. However, look at this! James Legge's original 1891 translation (all 33 chapters) is online. Who'da thunk it? Complete with the old weird spellings (prior to the Wade-Giles system of transliteration; way before pin-yin). Likely (partly on that basis) this is the version used by John Cage. As a teenager I read from Legge's Confucian books, but I don't recall knowing of his having translated Zhuang-zi. That old Jesuit Sinologist was a translation-pioneer. But Arthur Waley was the man who began to pull things into modern English with finesse. Though not Zhuang-zi. But he did translate Lao-zi (Lao Tzu). More important perhaps were his translations of Li Po, Po Chu-i and other such poets. I read a bit from those when I was in the 4th grade (9 years old), thanks to a good Texan teacher at my Quaker school. But one needs a bit more of life experience to grasp the groove of such poetry. It's possible I'll return to Chinese studies at some point, inshallah.]

A few weeks ago, out late at Kramerbooks in DC, I was lucky to stumble into the rather new version of Zhuang-zi done by Sam Hamill and Jerome Seaton, published by Shambhala (1999). I took particular interest, as this Seaton guy had (to my surprise) turned up on this blog, posting a comment, a week or two earlier. His comment is appended to my translation of a poem by Han Shan. In the comment thread, I replied to his kind remark at some length. But at some point I should track down an email address and write to the guy as well.

Sam Hamill I have met and had some exchange with. I met him at Chapters Bookstore, probably around 1993 or so. He had been the publisher at Copper Canyon Press for so many years; but just a couple months ago I was shocked to (belatedly) learn he'd been booted out of that role (by the board of directors of that press he founded), I think within the past year or two. Terri Merz (proprietor at said bookstore) explained the background a bit, but really both of us were mystified by the judgment of this board of directors.

Hamill evidently had been very absorbed and busy with the Poets Against War project, travelling and reading and whatnot. When he returned (to Port Townsend, Washington), they evidently determined he was expendible. It seems foolish, since really all that travelling and reading amounted to a form of good publicity for the press. Terri said that when he was there (I guess to give another reading -- unfortunately I didn't know about it), she pleasedly pointed out to him a Copper Canyon poster, and he basically made a somewhat snide remark. Thus it came out he was no longer the publisher! Life is strange.

    Life is strange   and filled with strange reversals
    the king becomes   a pauper down the lane
    the gatherings are followd by dispersals
    dispersals flow into gatherings once again
    who can distinguish performance   from rehearsal?
    one remembers the Buddha's conclusion   "all is pain"
    whosoever desires to see the tale terse will
    do well to peruse the cloud or read the rain

While embedded amid a Cage story rumination, I will also count the above as no. 8 in my series of "Chinese poems, late summer". Let's entitle it Shi for Sam Hamill on a September morning.

Written Sept. 12 morning, though most of this sprawl was written on the 11th evening. I'm dawdling over the prospect of getting out to cast my local vote this morning. I'm sure Sam would encurage me do to so. As too would the other Sam -- i.e. my father. It requires getting out the door more hastily. Last night, after lingering long at office, I finally showed up at Amsterdam Falafel around 1:30 a.m., and was surprised to find them already closed. Turns out they close "early" (at midnight) Sundays and Mondays. Scott, the proprietor, reeled out to me the whole weekly cycle of closing times -- rightly knowing I could take this info in, and correcting for his cohort who had mumbled some vague nonsense about "closing early during the week". So dinner became a jumbo slice of pizza; those places remain open late. Amusingly, this guy from Milwaukee (or some such place) remarked to a fellow strolling down 18th Street with a jumbo slice, "You should have ordered the big one!" The slice was really outsized; hence the bon-mot, thought the stroller didn't wit the joke of it. He received the utterance literalistically rather than (as intended) ironically -- and thus could make neither heads nor tails of it. And why? Because he failed to imagine anything more than a banal meaning in such an utterance. To recall our Zhuang-zi anecdote (about which, more anon), the Milwaukee guy was like the beautiful woman; but all the pizza-stroller perceived was banal splashing. I humor among the fine qualities of the human mind? Or is it more a kind of sign of existential irritation? This seems an important question!

Anyway: I also procured espresso and carrot juice at Cafe Tryst (superb friend of the nocturnal wanderer, still open at that hour). I also picked up a copy of the Washington City Paper there -- and was startled, browsing while on the bus home, to espy an ad for Art Editor at that worthy "local alternative" paper. I'll disclose: I'm pondering applying for the position. If I were actually to nab the gig, it could perchance renew my interest in life in America. At present, I'm otherwise generally inclined to go live in India and study music for the next decade or so. (More perhaps on this little conflict and related matters, in later posts.)

Now I must tell you about the one note I got from Sam while he was in that high role of publisher. I had done a version of 50 quatrains from Omar Khayyam. I was very happy with this collection of rubai. So far as I recall, I showed it to three poets: Sam Hamill, Gary Snyder, and W.S. Merwin. Snyder I never heard from about it; -- but he did remark, "That's where I want to go next -- to Samarkand". A remark which really should prompt us to recollect the verse from Hafez....

    O if that Shirazi maid   surrendered her heart into my hand
    I'd happily squander the treasury   of Bokhara and Samarkand

-- a verse that, making the rounds, came to the attention of the relevant monarch (of Bokhara or Samarkand? I vaguely think the latter. One could look it up somewhere in Wilberforce Clark's tome.) He hauled in Hafez and asked: "What's up about this? How come you're promising my treasure to some girl?" Replied the poet: "Yes Sir -- it's precisely striking such damn fool bargains that keeps bringing me to such sorry straits in my life." The king laughed and let the matter pass.

But the exchange with Snyder, too, was at Chapters Bookstore, he'd come thru town to give a reading around the time I'd finished this little Khayyam volume. Actually, I'm now remembering a letter I got from Snyder many years earlier. It's odd that I can't quite recall the reason for it, the circumstances. But it was a cordial little letter on some slightly arcane topic.

Oh, I remember. I had written a review of a Bharata Natyam performance in Berkeley. There had been three female dancers -- one of them being Gary Snyder's then-wife (the Japanese woman named Masa). I must have mailed a copy of the review to them in Grass Valley. In reply, I got Snyder's nice note, along with a copy of an essay he had written about Bharata Natyam (the classical South Indian dance form). This may have been as early as 1982, when I was just making my way into performing arts journalism. The dance event had been at the Julia Morgan Theatre. Some nostalgia comes to me, thinking of that theatre. Once we enjoyed the great Ali Akbar Khan's performances there; another time, at the nearby St. John's Church. Another time, at Zellerbach. Another time, at the vast Berkeley Community Theatre. The little places are in a way more charming. The Julia Morgan Theatre appears perhaps to have been a church before it was a theatre. I'd not thought of the place in a long time.

    There's a little theatre   where the cosmic dance unfolds
    if you pay six bucks   you can see the full performance
    this step is life   and this one's death   each holds
    a balanced place   in the play we call "appearance"
    the drum   of Rudra's tandava   is resounding!
    the feet that fall   are fell with deep report
    the dancer   always steady in her grounding
    conveys the heart's complaint   and the Lord's retort

[tandava is the name of Siva's cosmic dance; and Rudra is an epithet for Siva -- meaning or suggesting, "the destroyer of sorrow."] Since I'm doing this today, I'll deem this one, too, as belonging to the "Chinese poems, late summer" sequence. So this would be no. 9, and we can say it's entitled For Gary Snyder, thinking of the Julian Morgan Theatre.

So: I mailed a copy of the Khayyam to Sam Hamill. The note I eventually got back from him (accompanying the returned MS) had an amusing aspect to it, though not intended as such. He said something like, "Unfortuantely, since Newt Gingerich has taken over the Congress, we have to be much more careful what we publish." I believe what he really meant was, now that the cultural conservatives were becoming a formidable force, money (presumably from the National Endowment for the Arts) subsidizing some of their publications, would be harder to come by. Or something along those lines. At any rate, I hardly would expect the blame to go to Newt that Sam chose not to publish my renderings of Omar!

Actually, I did also send a copy to one other publisher -- Jack Shoemaker. Later, at a Library of Congress reading (possibly Bob Hass's), I asked Jack about it -- since I had never gotten any response. He simply said, "Oh yeah -- but we don't publish that sort of thing," or the like. This was when he was running Counterpoint Press in DC. (I had dropped off the MS at their offices, come to think of it.) More lately, I've learned he left that press and is running a new one back in California. What he had done with North Point Press in the 1980s was wonderful. The volumes he published of poetry from W.S. Merwin (Finding the Islands (1982)), Wendell Berry (including The Wheel (1982)), Leslie Scalapino (3 volumes, her formative work, beginning with Considering how exaggerated music is (1982)) and Michael Palmer {Notes from Echo Lake (1981) and First Figures (1984) -- a very unusual mix of poetry (far too ecclectic for some publishers or poetry-partisans) -- made a big impression on me in gone years. Many other good things they brought forth as well . . . [This is an unrelated aside -- but I've just stumbled on the How2 special feature on Scalapino.] This -- the early 1980s -- was a time when I was beginning to discover that good things could be done with poetry in English by contemporaries. (This, after I'd been sunk in reading and translating Chinese poetry for a few years, and was just starting to surface into an awareness of my more immediate literary surround.)

But returning to my Khayyam MS anecdote. The copy that went to Merwin, had a happy ending. I had handed it to his wife, Paula, at the Folger Shakespeare Library? No, I believe it was up in New York, at the New School. Anyway, Merwin, you know, lives on Maui; this was an East Coast trip he'd taken, sometime in the mid-1990s. I have attenede his readings every chance I've gotten, beginning with a reading at Black Oak Books in Berkeley, in 1988s. (I also enjoyed a seminar with him at the Poetry Society in NYC, around the time he was preparing to publish his version of Dante's Pergatorio. I think that was after the incident I'm amid relating . . .) At any rate, I entrusted this slim MS of renderings from Khayyam to Merwin's wife, asking her to give it to him. I heard nothing about it for many moons. Maybe 9 months or more later, I got a postcard from WSM. It made an impression; I'm most grateful to have received it. He remarked that, as I knew, I had given him this MS while hie was travelling -- which can be a good way for things to get waylaid. But he was now reading it, and enjoying it . . . simply like that.

We were talking about the rendering of Zhuang-zi done by J.P. Seaton and Sam Hamill. It struck me (kind of crouching on the floor by the Philosophy section at Kramaerbooks, around midnight, a couple weeks ago, reading through the introduction) as unexpectedly good. I will certainly buy a copy and give it a proper study. It is rare for a translation of one of these classics to be better than prior versions! -- so often, it's some folks who don't know Chinese simply reworking what's already been published. Ursula LeGuin did that with Lao-zi, and her work is probably better than many; at least she has absorbed the work through various translations over many years, -- and she has the kind of depth and genius to maybe do something with it. [On further stray investigation, I note that in fact LeGuin collaborated with none other than J.P. Seaton (presumably in the manner of Hamill's collaboration with same). One must congratulate a scholar gifted with such collaborations. Now back to the dangling thread...] Considering I likewise did this version of Khayyam without knowing Persian (but I did work from a very literal, dry-as-dust translation done in the '70s, which is the best kind to work from), I cannot too much complain about others poets' "versions" of Asian classics. Still and all, -- back when I was at UC Berkeley in the '70s, it was a bit of a joke in the Oriental Languages Department that that nice fellow famed for his translation of Rilke, had received such a hefty advance on a "translation" from Lao-zi (considering he doesn't know Chinese). He 's a friend of a friend, and it may be he did a decent job under the cirumstances. Still, one wants to read the original, if at all possible! I had not intended this long detour. But let me continue it just a bit. I'm referring here to Stephen Mitchell. I never was minded to read further into his Lao Tzu, for the reason that in the very first chapter, I noted he had misunderstood a crucial word. It annoyed me, so I felt it not worth reading further. You can't quibble about that sort of thing if the guy doesn't even know the language. I do hope someday to properly study Farsi and thereby amend my own "rendering poetry" sins. I actually began a beginning class at Georgetown University about a year ago! -- but my life was too hectic and I didn't follow through with it, alas . . .

But so: yes, the Hamill and Seaton Zhuang-zi [perhaps Chuang Tzu to you] looks to be wonderful (as said). I look forward to perusing their version of this little tiny tale (almost, one may say, a remark -- but a strong one) that Cage gives. Cage's version (elsewhere in Indeterminacy) of the butterfly story is a bit too truncated, for my taste. That's a story (hmm, the one story of Zhuang-zi's) I've enjoyed in the original. In fact it was like the 2nd short text we studied, in Classical Chinese 101. I was pleased and astonished to find we were studying Zhuang-zi right off the bat. ;-) And an important mini-classic of spiritual literature it is.

But consider now the arresting utterance at hand.
points out

that a beautiful

  who gives
  to men

serves only
  the fish

  when she
  in the water.

I'm sure there are many ways this can be read. Naturally, it suggests what fine ranges of qualities can go entirely unappreciated, if one is not prepared in form and nature to appreciate them . . .

The way I'm inclined to read it at this stage of my life is: it means, one should seek the right friends, the right audience, the right readers, the right companions, the right associates -- those who can appreciate one's finer qualities. Else, although one may be (within the realm of one's activity) exceedingly developed, it will all seem mere splashing and noise to those who lack the sensibility to get it.

So I'm proposing that the story is more a critique of the fish, than of the woman.


This is my Cage story rumination no. 6

ps: At the beginning of this item, I passingly referred to Zhuang-zi's "argument" -- which word might suggest to the reader the notion he has a philosophical ax to grind, a concept to espouse, etc. That's not quite what I mean. The word "argument" might or might not be suitable here. It would seem more correct to suggest that Zhuang-zi has a level of experience to share, and all the stories, cogitations, ruminations, asides, discursions, statements, propositions, riddles, images, bon-mots, etc., amount to various gestures of thought and language that together point to, describe, suggest, nudge toward, hint at, delineate, spark, or give various sorts of flashes from the overall gestalt of his spiritual vantage. In this respect, and I think in some others as well, there could be interesting points of comparison between the Zhuang-zi [as his book is called], on one hand, and a work like Jelaluddin Rumi's Mathnawi, on the other. Somewhere back in gone years, for a certain time I imagined myself writing academic tomes or screeds of comparative mystical poetics. Now I merely throw these thin paper airplanes in virtual space, an idle amusement; -- perhaps more notable for their novel origami than for the reach of their trajectory. Effecting little in the way of splash, and thus not really disturbing many fish after all.


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