In preparation for a writing workshop based on the idea of translation—isn’t writing always a form of that—inspired by a recent collection of W. S. Merwin translations, I ask my friend and longtime student Alice Tao if she knows this 8th century Chinese poem by Niu His Choi and if she would read it aloud to the group in the original. Alice, who just turned 80, has written with me for many years. A few days after her birthday she gave her first public reading as the fine poet she is. After her portion of the event, the applause and the shouts of “brava” erupted from the audience!
Alice’s reply to my query was, “The last two lines are so well known that few bother to remember the whole poem, me included. I did find the Chinese original online with my brother’s help.”
Those lines read:
“My skirt of green silk woven loosely
The new grass will remind you of it everywhere”
Alice continued, “The image of the ‘green silk skirt’ reminds me of the passage, (or rather, when I read the passage forty five years ago, I immediately thought of the ‘green silk skirt’ poem in Chinese) quoted in John Ciardi’s The Act of Language—the beginning of Herrick’s Upon Julia’s Clothes:
“Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows
The liquefaction of her clothes.”
The Niu His Choi lines didn’t make me think of Herrick’s poem but they did bring back a sweet plaintive song I heard Cleo Lane sing once live and have listened to often in recording, I Know Where I’m Going—“I’ll wear stockings of silk, shoes of fine green leather.” Which can’t help but lead me to Lorca’s line, “Verde, que te quiero verde.” “Green, how I want you, green.”
The swish of the silk is audible. The green of that old Irish song always reminds me of a green suede choker necklace a boy named Brian gave me when I was in the 8th grade.
It’s that flare of color and the brief touch of silk in song and poems that brings them to life—love that’s long gone and love that wakes me up each morning.
August 15, 15