Villanelles: ‘Putting a Question to Spring’

by Jacqueline Osherow

II. At Yueyang Tower,

Water  sky
one  color
My daughter tries to translate on the fly.

She says the poem’s by Li Bai.
Eight characters. She makes out four:
water  sky

one  color. What might the other four words be?
We’ve made a pilgrimage to Yueyang Tower;
my daughter tries to translate on the fly.

Poor Du Fu has to hold the rail and cry
in his, “Climbing Yueyang Tower”
(it too has water and sky;

he’s on a boat old and ill and lonely).
I never find the poem — did she mistake the author? —
my daughter tries to translate on the fly.

Still, except for a cement barge, behind me
lake and sky are one consistent silver.
My daughter tries to translate on the fly:
one  color  water  sky

IV. The Orchid Pavilion Gathering, 353 CE

A wine cup in a swirling, splashing stream
(poets along boh banks, the Orchid Pavilion)
Whoever it reached would drink and write a poem.

The calligrapher Wang XiZhi recalled this game
in his Preface from the Orchid Pavilion
(lofty peaks, luxuriant trees, the swirling stream).

It was buried with an emperor in his tomb.
We only have copies, but they, too, stun
with the ever-out-of-reach, the waylaid poem

escaped as brushstroke, ideogram.
Scroll after scroll depicts the scene:
drunken poets sprawled along the stream

each waiting for the cup to come to him,
some greedily and some in desperation.
Who is ever sure to reach a poem?

When future generations recall my time
they’ll feel what I feel about generations gone. . .
A wine cup in a swirling, splashing stream;
whoever it reaches drinks and writes a poem.


from the poet

These villanelles come from a series of sixteen, which I began after visiting China for the first time, when my daughter was teaching English. To a poet from a country with little time for poetry, the integration of poetry into Chinese life is exhilarating and astonishing. Great poems are everywhere: on signs at national parks (here is the great poem written thirteen hundred years ago on this spot); in the names of pavilions at the ancient garden (the “Putting a Question to the Spring” pavilion gave my series its name and my first villanelle one of its repeating lines).

On my second visit, with the rest of my family, my daughter taught her sisters and me a short Li Bai poem to recite for her teacher. When we practiced in a taxicab, the driver, amazed, joined in and tried to correct our tones. Over the years, I’ve written many long poems I’d describe as poems of place. I could hardly write such a poem about a country whose greatest poets achieved so much in so few words. I hit on the villanelle in the hope that its enforced repetitions and refrains might enable me to achieve some partial echo of the extraordinary resonance that—even in translation—distinguishes the great Chinese poems. Eight is an auspicious number in China; I had a lot to say and so wrote sixteen. These two villanelles published here come from visits to important sites for Chinese poetry.

So many great Chinese poets wrote about Yueyang Tower, on Dongting Lake, that when you visit the tower—built in 1880 on the site of the original third-century tower—you can also visit a kitsch rendition of what in my memory was called “The Poets’ Tea Party”: life-size wax models of great Chinese poets across centuries. (Imagine wax versions of Edward Taylor, Emily Dickinson, John Berryman and Adrienne Rich toasting one another at Madame Tussaud’s.)

My daughter did indeed translate the first half of the great Li Bai poem, which, I just found on the Yueyang Tower Wikipedia page, where I went to check my dates. (Was it up when I visited in 2017? Who knows?) At the site of the Orchid Pavilion in Shaoxing, the drinking game described in the second of these villanelles really did take place, in 353 C.E. It was immortalized in Wang Xizhi’s “Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion,” quoted in the villanelle, a piece of calligraphy so highly prized that Emperor Tang Taizong is said to have had it buried with him; what remain are precious copies.

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