A translator offers two poem cycles—supposedly uncovered in two scrolls—that involve the politics of love and reading in ancient China.
This book includes a mysterious explanation about the unearthing of the Xian scrolls. The translator of these poems from Old or Classical Chinese into English, known only as E.O., relates that the anonymous archaeologist who found the two scrolls died under “mysterious circumstances.” This requires “circumspection” about the details of the scrolls’ location and the identity of E.O. and his contacts in China. These two collections of verses—“The Poems of Cangjie” (circa 2650 B.C.E.), by the Chinese historian, and “Visions of Cangjie” (circa 213 B.C.E.), by a poet and translator called the Sculptor—share vivid styles and themes. Both poets write in shimmering free verse about Cangjie’s forbidden love for the Yellow Emperor’s favorite courtesan and the consequences. The “furious emperor” forbids Cangjie to speak to the woman, and the historian, to circumvent the order, invents the written word to deliver his message to the object of his affection: “What you hear / is not what I hear. / I grieve / as at death.” Over 2,000 years later, the Sculptor demonstrates a similar ingenuity when he translates Cangjie’s poems onto a silk scroll. He hides that treasure, along with his own poems on a second scroll, in one of the hollow bodies of the terra-cotta army figures he labors to create. He thus saves both his and Cangjie’s work from the First Emperor’s massive book burning. Cangjie’s images are more concise (“Like your lashes / your hands flutter— / quails in a bush”) than the Sculptor’s: “One woman walked / as a falcon in soar.” The parallelism of the two collections remains pleasing in its symmetry. For readers who can let go of their need for undisputed proof that these are indeed lost poems, gems await, including this line from Cangjie: “Sly slip / of moon, / you made me wait the night / to see you.”
Evocative and lyrical free-verse poetry.