Saturday, May 23, 2009

Readings: Han Shan by Red Pine

I will now take a break from flacking the writings of Simone Weil via Flannery O’Connor’s proxy, in order to promote on my own account another truly fine book that I’ve picked up. The book is The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, translated by Red Pine.

Both “Cold Mountain” and “Red Pine" have other names. “Cold Mountain” is the Chinese Taoist/Buddhist poet and mountain hermit, Han Shan (circa 730-850). And “Red Pine” is American translator and sinologist, Bill Porter.

I first encountered Cold Mountain through some translations by Gary Snyder. These few poems, or songs, led me to purchase the volume presently under consideration, some years ago. It was a mail-order purchase, and by the time it arrived, I had been distracted by other readings and never did more than just leaf through it a bit. My recent infatuation with the poetry of my erstwhile classmate, Jane Kenyon, and the concomitant discovery that she had been inspired early-on by the translations from the Chinese of Witter Bynner, led me to pull this book off the shelf and add it to my “on-deck” stack. I’ve now gotten around to it.

The book features an informative and engrossing Translator’s Preface, followed by the Introduction of Chinese Taoism and Buddhism expert, John Blofeld, which alone is worth the price of the book, imho.

Red Pine’s translations are particularly valuable in that he provides richly concise notes on each of the songs for which such notes are conducive to an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the songs. For example:


Since I came to Cold Mountain
how many thousand years have passed
accepting my fate I fled to the woods
to dwell and gaze in freedom
no one visits the cliffs
forever hidden by clouds
soft grass serves as a mattress
my quilt is the dark blue sky
a boulder makes a fine pillow
Heaven and Earth can crumble and change

26. Line three suggests Cold Mountain may have been a refugee or a wanted man. I see the An Lu-shan Rebellion in the background. Kuan-tzu-tzai (gaze in freedom) is also the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattava whose unhindered view is the point of departure of the Heart Sutra. Heaven also refers to the emperor and Earth to the empire. Thus the last line also implies unconcern with the fate of the dynasty.

If this book doesn’t take your mind far beyond the televised ravings of Dick Cheney, nothing will.