Thursday, May 8, 2008

On Love and Separation: Western vs. Eastern

While I am on the subject of love and poetry by western and eastern poets, here are two more poems that offer another kind of contrast. A week ago in a Fresh Air segment on NPR, I heard and was impressed by an unpublished poem Breakfast Song of Elizabeth Bishop. Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), the 1949 Poet Laureate of U.S., published less than a hundred poems in her lifetime. She is famous for her perfectionism and is extremely economical and precise with words. According to a Meghan O’Rourke 2006 article Casual Perfection, Robert Lowell, another great poet and her contemporary, once wrote to her: "Do/ you still hang your words in air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your notice board, with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase—/ unerring muse who makes the casual perfect?” That explains why some were upset when publishers put out her unpublished or draft collections. But this particular love poem, written in 1964, in my opinion, is too beautiful to be left buried. The setup is “the morning after”; it is so intimate and tense on one hand but calm and casual at the same time. By the way, she was very shy and known to be a lesbian.

早餐 Breakfast Song

親愛的, 我的至愛, My love, my saving grace,
你的眼睛如此的藍. your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
和那帶咖啡味的嘴脣. your coffee-flavored mouth.

Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I've grown accustomed to?

- Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it's true.
It's just the common case;
there's nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.

Half a century earlier in 1926 across the ocean in China, young and famous poet Xu Zhimo 徐志摩(1897-1931) wrote the poem Encounter 偶然. Xu Zhimo, leader of New Poetry and the Crescent Moon Society in early 20th century China, invented new poetic forms in Chinese vernacular and had huge and lasting influence on modern Chinese literature. He was well-known for his unrelenting (often considered overly carefree in those days) pursuit of love, freedom and beauty. The romantic elegance of his work is incomparable and serves a stunning contrast with those full of raw emotion and energy. Here is the poem with my English translation.

偶然 Encounter

我是天空裡的一片雲, I am a cloud in the sky,
偶爾投影在你的波心, By chance cast a shadow on your wavy heart.
Don't wonder or joy;
在轉瞬間消滅了蹤影。 In a moment it vanishes without a trace.

We met on the sea in the dark of the night,
You were on your way, I was on mine;
Remember me if you will, yet
better though, to forget
the flare of our beaming light.

Given the popularity of this poem in China, there have been multiple attempts by composers to write music for it. Below are three most popular ones in progression of time, each is about one generation apart. The earliest one that we sang when I was kid is by Li WeiNing 李惟寧. The second one is composed by Chelsia Chan 陳秋霞 in 1970's and a 2006 performance by her can be seen here.

The most recent one is by Yiu-kwong Chung 鍾耀光 in 1990's. Enjoy and talk to you soon!

1 comment:

Lydia Lin said...


Dear Sir or Madam,

This poem, "Chance", written by Mr. Xu Zhi-Mo, is one of my favorites.
I feel the English translation posted on your website does not do the original Chinese poem full justice. I would like to contribute my own translation for you to post on your website. This translation will enable the English-speaking people to better appreciate the beautiful sentiment in the original Chinese peom. Please note that it can be sung to the same tune as the popular song based on the original Chinese poem.
You have my permission to post the translation on your website with proper acknowledgement as presented below.

Sincerely yours,
Lydia Lin
Oregon, USA

By Chance

I am a lone cloud drifting in the sky,
Stumbling upon your shimmering waves.
Do not be frightened, nor feel excited.
Soon all this shall pass, without a trace.

By chance we meet on this dusky evening.
You'll take your way, and so I shall take mine.
Will you remember? Best to forget it -
In that spellbound moment, two fond hearts did shine.

(English Translation provided by Lydia Lin)