Two Tang poems on homesickness

When I moved to Maryland I was so excited about starting my PhD research that I didn’t give much thought to the new climate I would be moving into. But, halfway through my first winter here, homesickness has set in hard and fast. A curious, bifurcated kind of homesickness: for the lush winter warmth of California, its blue skies and the snowcapped San Gabriel Mountains framing a land of icy cold boba tea spots and spicy veggie hot pot restaurants; and also for my more recent home in Colorado, where the majesty of the snowcapped mountains sat in even closer relief, and I enjoyed the company of so many friends so close at hand.

Best of all was the warmth of quiet summer drives between these two homes of mine. I listened to all of the Earthsea books on tape, and then started them over again, making my way between camps across the Four Corners region. I remember the sheer aesthetic delight of the greens and browns of the high Colorado plateau shading into the vivid red earth of Red Mesa, the deeply furrowed canyons of Chinle, and the scrub-pine and juniper rich highland steps of the Grand Escalante. I remember the dry-baking warmth of the desert sun, while walking on land that is rough, scattered through with the natural monuments of its ancestors – land that mostly still belongs to its people, the Dine’h and the Hopi.

Maryland, with its long-colonized, rain-dampened forestland crowding around islands of crumbling concrete, has nothing like the majesty of the southwest, and is obscured by the ghosts of centuries of subjugation. I feel them when I walk. I feel them lurking around the margins. The United States is big, but not all parts of it resonate equally large. Not all of its spaces allow one to take a deep breath, nourished by the vastness of open country.

The poems that follow are far removed from the American Southwest in time, space, and memory. Yet, these poets share in my knowledge of what it is to be homesick, particularly for good friends. In honor of the full moon tomorrow, I present my humble translations of two classics.

The first, “Thoughts on a Still Night” 靜夜思 , is by the high Tang poet Li Bo 李白 (701-762, also known as Li Bai), and is one of the most well known poems by the most deservedly beloved poets in Chinese history:

Before my bed the moonbeans shine,

I wonder if it might be frost blanketing the floor.

I raise my head, gazing at the shining moon;

I lower my head, longing for my old home.

床前明月光,疑是地上霜

舉頭望明月,低頭思故鄉

It wasn’t only Li Bo, however, who knew the pain of separation from loved ones. Nearly every Chinese poet did. Another Tang poet, Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751-814), wrote “Narrating My Troubles on an Autumn Evening in Poor Lodgings,” 秋夕貧居述懷, venting his own feelings of loneliness, poverty, and displacement:

Bedded in the cold, without my distant dreams,

I give my ear to autumn, pained by my estranged love.

High branches and low branches [are blown by the] wind,

[Giving] thousands and tens of thousands of leaves voice.

臥冷無遠夢,聽秋酸別情

高枝低枝風,千葉萬葉聲

A shallow well will not provide me with a drink;

A barren field [after] a long time destroys plow.

New associates are not old associates,

And listening to poor conversation is always a slight.

淺井不供飲,瘦田長廢耕

今交非古交,貧語聞皆輕

I’ve always loved the epic burn Meng Jiao planted in this last paragraph. This kind of open angst at superficial conversation with unknown humans is so very endearing to me – the world needs more people like Meng Jiao.