Oct/Nov 2014 Reviews & Interviews

getting free isn't luck

The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse
Translated by Red Pine.
Copper Canyon Press. 2004. 210 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-455-7.

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! After many years of scraping-by from book to book, Bill Porter, who writes under the pen name "Red Pine," is at long last receiving the attention he deserves. His new found financial stability still does not come from the product to which he is most attached: translations from classics of ancient Chinese poetry. The real money comes from his Chinese travel books published for a growing Chinese middle-class that clearly finds them delightful reading.

In the U.S., Porter is still best known for the poetry translations. Amongst the connoisseurs of such literature, his reputation is high. While few (including myself) are qualified to speak to the fidelity of the translation, those who are do not seem inclined to publicize any objections.

Not being a reader of the Chinese language, I have only been able to check the various translations of Red Pine against renderings of the same poems by others. By this measure, he seems the best of the lot. Porter's own humble descriptions of his work, together with his ability to speak fluent Chinese, make a still more compelling case.

All of this said, surely the best review of the translations can be found in the introduction to The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse:

A translator has to go through a different process to bring a poem from one language into another. I don't know how others do it, but when I've tried to think of a metaphor for what I go through, I keep coming up with the image of a dance. I see the poet dancing, but dancing to music I can't hear. Still, I'm sufficiently enthralled by the beauty of the dance that I want to join the poet. And so I try. And as I do, I try not to step on my partner's feet (the so-called literal or accurate translation), but I also try not to dance across the room (the impressionistic translation or version—usually by someone who doesn't know the poet's language). I try to get close enough to feel the poet's rhythm, not only the rhythm of the words but also the rhythm of the poet's heart. I love Stonehouse's heart. So I've hit the dance floor one more time. I like to think I've become better at this over the years. But just as there is no perfect dance, there is no perfect translation. It can always be better. But not today. Today it feels perfect. Just don't ask me tomorrow.

As always, Red Pine's translations are accompanied, here, by an introduction that is a pleasure to read in its own right and by brief commentaries on the pages facing each of the poems. In this volume, we are treated to a narrative of his attempt to determine the precise locations of Stonehouse's two hermitages. It is an entertaining travelogue and makes clear why his Chinese-language travel books are so popular.

The first book Red Pine translated from the works of Stonehouse was self-published under the colophon of the Empty Bowl press. Porter seems to have learned of the press by meeting one of its founders in Taiwan, where he still lived at that time. According to the press's history, in the Poet's Encyclopedia, the Taiwanese expat sent the then struggling Port Townsend, Washington, press

P'u Ming's Oxherding Pictures & Verses (1983), From Temple Walls: The Collected Poems of Big Shield and Pickup (1984), The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse (1986), and the first English translation of The Zen Teaching Of Bodhidharma (1987), the Buddhist patriarch, all translated into modern English and bearing our logo, the half circle of the bowl.

The Empty Bowl was a Bohemian affair, the product of the lingering hippie communities in the Port Townsend area, which, in turn, had begun to attract an influx of summer tourists. The press's audience was small. The annual list of titles was alternative and very much in line with Porter's predilections.

Among the many books of Red Pine translations was a second version of the writings of Stonehouse, The Zen Works of Stone House (Mercury House), published in 1999. Comments by the translator suggest that the poems were much revised and that translation from prose was also included. The present edition of The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse, by Copper Canyon Press, a larger non-profit press which has given him a stable U.S. outlet for his work, for over a decade now, has again undergone revision in light of the translator's subsequent growth.

As for Stonehouse (the English translation of the Chinese name Ch'ing-hung), the author of the original poems, his poems are unusually honest about the life of the Zen hermit. He has his good days and his bad:

snow-filled nights a fire is my lone companion
frost-covered dawns I hear a gibbon howl
my tattered monk's robe isn't easy to mend
I cut a new patch when a cloud rolls in

While patching one's robe with cloud is the sign of an Immortal, it is also the ultimate symbol of his lack, at times, of even the bare necessities of life.

Regardless, he is entirely pleased with his choice to be a Zen hermit. His sense of release is palpable.

From outside my round pointed-roof hut
who would guess at the space inside
all the worlds in the universe are there
with room to spare for a meditation cushion

Never was a hut smaller. Never less filled with physical objects—objects chosen entirely for their utility. Yet, the grandest of homes couldn't begin to contain all that it contained. It contained the possessions of a free man: the universe. Stated from a different perspective,

nothing in life is better than being free
but getting free isn't luck

His struggle and his hardship were possessions composing an untold wealth.

Scattered throughout the poems is a sense of humor about Stonehouse himself and his lifestyle. While the humor is muted by the distance of the lifestyle from our own, it begins slowly to reveal itself, generally in retrospect, as the source of the buoyancy in the poems. It is so inherently connected to the poems as a whole that examples cannot survive being removed from their context. It seems likely that most readers will need, as I did, to return to certain poems to assure themselves that the possible humor that slowly dawned upon them, several pages later, is not solely in their imagination.

The poems are filled with references to the small stove which provided him a tenuous heat during cold days and the luxury of a cup of tea, and the tripod that held the pot which cooked his meager meals each day. He speaks of planting and harvesting his small plot—of scarcity and plenty.

a mountain recluse doesn't have many interests
all he talks about are his provisions

In the succinct commentaries, on the facing pages, Red Pine glosses the simple wild roots and crops referred to by their modern names, informing us of their dietary value, their taste, their prevalence in the Chinese hermit's diet.

Not the least attempt is made, in the poems, either to romanticize his life or to invoke sympathy for its hardships. Nor is there any attempt to mythologize his practice.

lots of idle thoughts occur during meditation

These poems are genuine, the life they portray is without ambition—even the ambition to impress a reader. The commentaries inform us of some of the more exotic references, such as the fact that "A kalpa is a unit of time equivalent to the existence of a world, from its creation to its destruction."

Stonehouse's goal is the state of "no-mind," the pure state free of active consciousness.

with no-mind you respond like a pond to the moon

He does not dwell upon it, however. It appears scattered throughout his humble poems and humbler experiences however much it is the constant goal of them all. Strangely, no matter the vast distance from our own experience, something about the life and poems cannot help but touch the reader deeply.

As is the pattern in all of Red Pine's exceptional books of ancient Chinese poetry, The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse are generally four or eight lines in length (to match the length of the original), two to a page, with commentary beneath the Chinese version of the poem on the page facing. The Chinese poems are presented in the original ideograms not transliterated. The book is an understated work of art in itself.

As has been the case in all of Red Pine's books of translations, The Mountain Poems of Stonehouse are fine and entertaining reading, and the closest experience a reader can have to reading the original work.


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