Wednesday, February 29, 2012

1Q84 Foods

Cooking was not a chore for Tengo. He always used it as a time to think -- about everyday problems, about math problems, about his writing, or about metaphysical propositions.
"Does this mean we’re going pretty far from the city?”
“What were you just doing,” she asked, ignoring his question.  
“Making dinner.”  
“Making what.”  
“Nothing special, just cooking for myself. Grilling a dried mackerel and grating a daikon radish. Making a miso soup with littlenecks and green onions to eat with tofu. Dousing cucumber slices and wakame seaweed with vinegar. Ending up with rice and nappa pickles. That’s all”  
“Sounds good.”  
“I wonder. Nothing special. Pretty much what I eat all the time,” Tengo said.
Fuka-Eri stared straight at Tengo again for a time. She seemed to be having some kind of thoughts about intercourse. What she was actually thinking about, no one could say.  
“Hungry?” Tengo asked.  
Fuka-Eri nodded. “I have hardly eaten anything since this morning"
“I’ll make dinner,” Tengo said. He himself had hardly eaten anything since the morning, and he was feeling hungry. Also, he could not think of anything to do for the moment aside from making dinner. Tengo washed the rice, put it in the cooker, and turned on the switch. He used the time until the rice was ready to make miso soup with wakame seaweed and green onions, grill a sun-dried mackerel, take some tofu out of the refrigerator and flavor it with ginger, grate a chunk of daikon radish, and reheat some leftover boiled vegetables. To go with the rice, he set out some pickled turnip slices and a few pickled plums. With Tengo moving his big body around inside it, the little kitchen looked especially small. It did not bother him, though. He was long used to making do with what he had there.  
Sorry, but these simple things are all I can make,” Tengo said.  
Fuka-Eri studied Tengo’s skillful kitchen work in great detail. With apparent fascination, she scrutinized the results of that work neatly arranged on the table and said, “You know how to cook.”  
“I’ve been living alone for a long time. I prepare my meals alone as quickly as possible and I eat alone as quickly as possible. It’s become a habit.”  
“Do you always eat alone.”  
“Pretty much. It’s very unusual for me to sit down to a meal like this with somebody. I used to eat lunch here once a week with the woman we were talking about. But, come to think of it, I haven’t eaten dinner with anybody for a very long time.”  
“Are you nervous.”  
Tengo shook his head. “No, not especially. It’s just dinner. It does seem a little strange, though"
Either I’m funny or the world’s funny, I don’t know which. The bottle and lid don’t fit. It could be the bottle’s fault or the lid’s fault. In either case, there’s no denying that the fit is bad. Aomame opened her refrigerator and examined its contents. She hadn’t been shopping for some days, so there wasn’t much to see. She took out a ripe papaya, cut it in two, and ate it with a spoon. Next she took out three cucumbers, washed them, and ate them with mayonnaise, taking the time to chew slowly. Then she drank a glass of soy milk. That was her entire dinner. It was a simple meal, but ideal for preventing constipation. Constipation was one of the things she hated most in the world, on par with despicable men who commit domestic violence and narrow-minded religious fundamentalists.
Tengo chopped a lot of ginger to a fine consistency. Then he sliced some celery and mushrooms into nice-sized pieces. The Chinese parsley, too, he chopped up finely. He peeled the shrimp and washed them at the sink. Spreading a paper towel, he laid the shrimp out in neat rows, like troops in formation. When the edamame were finished boiling, he drained them in a colander and left them to cool. Next he warmed a large frying pan and dribbled some sesame oil and spread it over the bottom. He slowly fried the chopped ginger over a low flame.
I wish I could meet Aomame right now, Tengo started thinking again. Even if she turned out to be disappointed in him or he was a little disappointed in her, he didn’t care. He wanted to see her in any case. All he wanted was to find out what kind of life she had led since then, what kind of place she was in now, what kinds of things gave her joy, and what kinds of things made her sad.
Thus began Tengo’s days at the cat town beside the sea. He would get up early, take a walk along the shore, watch the fishing boats go in and out of the harbor, then return to the inn for breakfast. Breakfast was exactly the same every day -- dried horse mackerel and fried eggs, a quartered tomato, seasoned dried seaweed, miso soup with shijimi clams, and rice -- but for some reason it tasted wonderful every morning. After breakfast he would sit at a small desk and write. He hadn’t written in some time and found the act of writing with his fountain pen enjoyable.
--Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Jazz Opinion

As I say, I’d listened to a bit of jazz here and there—not a great deal. I think I used to like the early Stan Kenton records and things like that. And one day a friend of mine played me a record of Garner playing The Way You Look Tonight. I was just bowled off my feet by it—I’d never heard anything like it before. There’s something so complete and rounded in his playing that it struck me immediately I heard it. In fact, he is, and will probably continue to be, one of the most complete of all pianists. And ever after that I chased Garner records all over the place, and spent hours and hours trying to play like him— copying his style quite slavishly, because I just feel, as I felt then, that his sense of time is so unique and so extraordinary that it was a very good basis to start from. It’s more extraordinary than, say, somebody like Fats Waller, or even Art Tatum. Somehow, Garner has a special time conception that is all his own.
--Dudley Moore
When Miles Davis died, Rolling Stone put out a big article looking back at his work, and I kept dodging them - I told them, 'I don't like Miles Davis. I don't think you want to ask me questions'. And the guy was like, 'No, I think we should. That's even better'. So I said if it's going to be smooth I'd rather listen to Chet Baker, if it's going to be funky I'd rather listen to Sly Stone. He does a bunch of things all of which I think are done better by somebody else. They printed it, and people wanted me dead.
--James Murphy of LCD Sound System

Vanity Fair

The defects in the book according to the taste of to-day are obvious enough. Artist as he is in details Thackeray lacks the power or the will to make his novel as a whole a work of art. We do not like to have the author poke his head out from the pages every little while and moralize over his characters; we grow tired of the frequent comparisons of life to a pantomime; we find the characters Pitt Crawley, George, Amelia, Dobbin exaggerated, out of drawing, distorted. Thackeray does not hold a mirror up to life; he holds up a warped and twisted reflector that gives the life it reflects a half comic, half satirical aspect. Thackeray's admirers are many and devoted, but for most readers he is too much occupied with the superficial relations of life, with social distinctions, with the envy and vulgarity of those below and the snobbishness and vulgarity of those above. Greater men, such as Shakespeare or Tolstoi, do not find their attention drawn to such matters, they find their interest in experiences, emotions, passions, of a kind more deeply human, they delineate men and women as more occupied with the larger matters of life, love, work, discipline, excellence and so forth, and less concerned with the meaner failings of ill-adjusted social classes.

And yet despite these defects ‘Vanity Fair’ is a novel that represents some manifestations of human society, with remarkable truth...

-Henry Dwight Sedgwick III on Vanity Fair, The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)

Bad Dream <=> News Story

Man faints at sight of blood, dies

A federal agency is investigating the death of a worker at a Savannah recycling plant, who died after a chain of events that begin with a cut to his hand.

Authorities say the worker died Tuesday after a Sunday accident at Southern Metals Recycling's plant on Tremont Road. Michael Day, owner of the temporary staffing firm StaffCo, tells The Savannah Morning News that 26-year-old Fernando Aburto cut his hand while stripping insulation from wire at the plant. Day said the worker then fainted at the sight of the blood, hit his head on concrete and was taken to a hospital.

Day said StaffCo provides workers for Southern Metals Recycling. The recycling company referred questions about the matter to StaffCo.

-The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, February 24

Literary criticism in translation

["The Story of Ying Ying"] is about the deep and melancholic personal bonds between a man and a woman. Their sublime passion, though deep, has no beginning and no end, as a single burst of love and affection creates endless despair and infinite sorrow. The romance emphasizes Scholar Zhang’s faithful character and irregular constancy; underscoring in every part how his captivation with Ying Ying is different from the ordinary philandering of a lecher. Ying Ying is able to turn Zhang upside down, which highlights how Ying Ying is different from other beauties. Ying Ying is an intelligent unflappable young lady. She loves Zhang’s talent and is moved by Zhang’s foolish passion (chiqing). That she arranged the private rendezvous with Zhang in the western chamber, yet scolded him once there, is perhaps a matter of changing her mind at the last minute, or perhaps she really only wanted to see him and speak with him. In any case her “speaking of principle sharply and defensively” (yan ze min bian) is believable.…If Yuan Zhen’s “The Story of Yingying” was really about Yuan’s own feelings, then Scholar Zhang’s restraint answers not only to the personality (gexing) of the character (renwu), but also the needs of the story. The old matron, knowing the boat has sailed, is not obstructing the marriage, so Zhang and Ying Ying can enjoy what they desire and don’t need to remain mired in melancholy. It is Zhang who restrains himself before the marriage can be completed. Zhang’s restraint is not what Yuan Zhen wants, but only a rule of the story, an internal requirement of it.…Neither Ying Ying’s meandering soliloquy, her sorrowful qin playing, nor her plaintive-without-complaining (yuan er bu nu) love letters can make Zhang bring his passion to a head. And even though she breaks up with Zhang in a poetic letter, still there is a lingering passion left unsevered (yu qing wei duan), a cavity of the heart filled with a deep depression that manages to win the reader’s empathy. Yuan Zhen’s “love ’em and leave ‘em” (shiluan zhongqi) story is clearly not meant to promote some grand moral involving “restraint,” but rather to write out a kind of infinite melancholia. This is not just a matter of failure between Zhang and Yingying, but also a statement about how common failure is in this world; moreover, it makes manifest the conflict between intellect (lizhi) and passion (qinggan). Knowledge from the intellect is a defect that can’t be patched; passion, though, is unwilling to submit, can never rest, and yet is also no guarantee of success. These feelings (qinggan) are the universal human experience (rensheng pubian de jingyan). It really proves a statement from western literary theory: “A particular fiction can lead towards a general truth.” That’s why this little story is so moving, and later generations never stopped praising it, and in Record of the Western Chamber, even gave it a happy ending.
--Yang Jiang, "Shishi, gushi, zhenshi" 实事、故事、真是 (Fact, Story, Reality)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Islam, 0.5

Notes on a guest speaker from Twin Ports Islamic Center in my class
The root s-l-m, from which the word Islam is derived, means "safe and unharmed, unimpaired." Its derivatives include words meaning both "peace" and "surrender."...It is the latter meaning that is uppermust in the use of the term Islam, meaning "to surrender oneself, to commit or resign oneself to the will of God." Islam is the state or act of submission; Muslim is the one who submits. It is in this sense, of total surrender to the will of God, that the terms Islam and Muslim have always been understood in the Islamic lands and communities.
--Barnard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, Islam: the Religion and the People (Pearson, 2009)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Struggles of the Writer, 1

"I never mean to be slow," Joseph Conrad wrote to David Meldurm of the Blackwood publishing house in 1899, but "The stuff comes out at its own rate [and] too often -- alas! -- I've to wait for the sentence -- for the word." The process of writing involved long hours of incapacitating doubt that left him caught like a ship in a calm, an unrestful paralysis in which his mind remained "extremely active," producing "descriptions, dialogue, reflexion -- everything -- everything but the belief, the conviction, the only thing neeeded to make me put pen to paper." Days would pass without his writing a line, and Conrad would take to his bed, sick of a labor so great that it should have given "birth to masterpieces" instead of what he termed the "ridiculous mouse" his struggles would sometimes produce. ...Conrad also had a history of nervous collapse at the end of most of his major books. Under Western Eyes (1911) in particular, a novel that involved a prolonged psychic immersion in the Russia he both hated and feared. Few of his letters are without some plaintive or even desperate note. "My brain reduced to the size of a pea seems to rattle about in my head," he wrote to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in 1900, and if it wasn't the fight with words then it was his worries about money or housing, the illnesses of his wife and children, or the crippling attacks of gout with which his working life was spiked.
--The Portable Conrad, introduction by Michael Gorra

Implied Author, I

As [the author] writes, he creates not simply an ideal, impersonal "man in general" but an implied version of "himself" that is different from the implied authors we meet in other men's works. To some novelists it has seemed, indeed, that they were discovering or creating themselves as they wrote. As Jessamyn West says, it is sometimes "only by writing the story that the novelist can discover -- not his story -- but its writer, the official scribe, so to speak, for that narrative."
When Fielding comments, he gives us explicit evidence of a modifying process from work to work; no single version of Fielding emerges from reading the satirical Jonathan Wild, the two great "comic epics in prose," Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, and that troublesome hybrid, Amelia. There are many similarities among them, of course; all of the implied authors value benevolence and generosity; all of them deplore self-seeking brutality. In these and many other respects they are indistinguishable from most implied authors of most significant works until our own century. But when we descend from this level of generality to look at the particular ordering of values in each novel, we find great variety.
Our sense of the implied author includes not only the extractable meanings but also the moral and emotional content of each bit of action and suffering of all the characters. It includes, in short, the intuitive apprehension of a completed artistic whole; the chief value to which this implied author is committed, regardless of what party his creator belongs to in real life, is that which is expressed by the total form.
A great work establishes the "sincerity" of its implied author, regardless of how grossly the man who created that author may belie in his other forms of conduct the values embodied in his work. For all we know, the only sincere moments of his life may have been lived as he wrote his novel.
We too easily fall into the habit of talking as if the narrator who says, "O my good readers!" were Fielding, forgetting that for all we know he may have worked as deliberately and with as much detachment in creating the wise, urbane narrator of Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones as he did in creating the cynical narrator of Jonathan Wild. What was said above about the relation between the author's own values and the values supported by his second self applies here in precisely the same sense. A great artists can create an implied author who is either detached or involved, depending on the needs of the work in hand.
--Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction

True Character

TRUE CHARACTER can only be expressed through choice in a dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is -- the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character.
The key to True Character is desire. In life, if we feel stifled, the fastest way to get unstuck is to ask, "What do I want?," listen to the honest answer, then find the will to pursue that desire. Problems still remain, but now we're in motion with the chance of solving them. What's true of life is true of fiction. A character comes to life the moment we glimpse a clear understanding of his desire -- not only the conscious, but in a complex role, the unconscious desire as well.
Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


As I am a wretched bad writer, many of my friends have advised me to practise more, to do which I have made many attempts but allways forgot or got tired so that it was never atended to. I am now about to write a sort of journal, to note down some of the chief things that come under my observation each day. This, I hope, will induce me to make use of my pen every day a little. My account of each subject will be very short - a sort of multo in parvo - as my book is very small and my time not very large.

Diary of William Tayler, Footman, 1837 (Thanks to The Diary Junction)


One of the remarkable attributes of American slaves was how little each of them appeared to have internalized a lack of her or his self-worth. The sense of value in the self kept alive their hopes for release from undeserved bondage and fueled the fires of their efforts to struggle against slavery. For slave women their realization of the interlocking nature of race and gender oppression forced them to greater self-dependency in order to survive. Central to the will to survive was the knowledge that others, especially children, could not survive unless they did. This sense of responsibility for the future of the race, handed down from one generation of women to the next, together with the support that emanated from within the women's community, was among the most important of internal resources on which slave women drew to sustain themselves and help those who depended on them.

--Nellie Y. McKay, "The Narrative Self: Race, Politics, and Culture in Black American Women's Autobiography"

die Tropfen meiner Zähren

"Do you have any hobbies?"
"Listening to music."
"What kind of music?"
"I like Bach."
"Anything in particular?"
"BWV 846 to 893."
Tengo mulled that one over. "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Books I and II."
"Why did you answer with the BWV numbers?"
"They're easier to remember."
The Well-Tempered Clavier was truly heavenly music for mathematicians. It was composed of prelude and fugue pairs in major and minor keys using all twelve tones of the scale, twenty-four pieces per book, forty-eight pieces in all, comprising a perfect cycle.
"How about other works?" Tengo asked.
"BWV 244."
Tengo could not immediately recall which work of Bach's had a BWV number of 244.
Fuka-Eri began to sing.
Buß’ und Reu’
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei
Daß die Tropfen meiner Zähren
Angenehme Spezerei
Treuer Jesu, dir gebären
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei
Buß’ und Reu’ Buß’ und Reu’
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei
Buß’ und Reu’
Buß’ und Reu’
Knirscht das Sündenherz entzwei
Buß’ und Reu’
Buß’ und Reu’
Tengo was momentarily dumbstruck. Her singing was not exactly on key, but her German pronunciation was amazingly clear and precise.  
“‘St. Matthew Passion,’ ” Tengo said. “You know it by heart.”  
“No I don’t,” the girl said.  
Tengo wanted to say something, but the words would not come to him. All he could do was look down at his notes and move on to the next question.
--Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
Translation of the German text:
Guilt and pain
Break the sinful heart in twain,
So the teardrops of my weeping
A most soothing precious balm,
Jesus, thee doth offer. (Minnesota Public Radio)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Literature Humor

Nation Watches In Envy As 15-Year-Old Jots Notes In Margin Of 'To Kill A Mockingbird'
'God, Those Were The Days,' Longing Citizens Announce

FEBRUARY 16, 2012 | ISSUE 48•07 WACO, TX

—The nation gazed wistfully at high school sophomore Eliza Baker as she took notes in a dog-eared copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird at a municipal bus stop Thursday. “What pure, tender joy—not to have a care in the world beyond identifying themes in a classic American novel,” said bystander Jeanne Copley, 24, adding that she envied the 15-year-old’s seeming engrossment in the book and the unrestrained eagerness with which the girl turned from one page to the next. “I think I just saw her write ‘Scout = American Dream?’ in the margin. Ah, I just want to tell her to cherish this moment. Cherish every last precious second of it while you still can.” Sources said Baker later wrote an emotionally laden breakup letter to her boyfriend of two weeks, hurtling the nation into a rapturous fit of fond reverie

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Proud Foolish Bird

A good example of the literary affect of Xu Zhimo 徐志摩 (1897-1931):
I have nothing more to say. I just want you to remember there is a kind of bird that heaven made to sing until it spits up blood. Its song contains the happiness of another world it alone knows, and a tragedy and pain it alone knows. A poet is such a foolish bird; he places his tender heart firmly upon a bed of thorny roses, and in his mouth he sings of the brilliance of the stars and moon and the hope of mankind, and he doesn't stop until the blood of his heart drips out and makes the white flowers completely red; his pain and happiness are all mixed up together.
From the preface to Menghu ji 猛虎集 (Ferocious tiger, 1931), translated by Charles Laughlin in The Literature of Leisure

Sea Levels in the Maldives

Novel prospects for the Maldives do not include a condemnation to future flooding. The people of the Maldives have, in the past, survived a higher sea level of about 50–60 cm. The present trend lack signs of a sea level rise. On the contrary, there is firm morphological evidence of a significant sea level fall in the last 30 years. This sea level fall is likely to be the effect of increased evaporation and an intensification of the NE-monsoon over the central Indian Ocean.

--Nils-Axel Mörner et. al., 2004

Here, we determine rates of sea-level rise from tide gauges in the region. We also examine sea-level data from the TOPEX/Poseidon satellite altimeter and from a reconstruction of sea level...We find no evidence for the fall in sea level at the Maldives as postulated by Mörner et al. (2004). Our best estimate of relative sea-level rise at Funafuti, Tuvalu is 2 ± 1 mm yr− 1 over the period 1950 to 2001. The analysis clearly indicates that sea-level in this region is rising.

--John A. Church et. al., 2006

We find that sea level has decreased substantially in the south tropical Indian Ocean whereas it has increased elsewhere.

--Weiqing Han et al., 2009

Global sea levels have risen through the 20th century. These rises will almost certainly accelerate through the 21st century and beyond because of global warming, but their magnitude remains uncertain.

--Robert J. Nichols et al., 2010

The Northwest Passage

Arctic ice has been melting slowly for two decades as temperatures have climbed, but in the summer of 2007 that gradual thaw suddenly accelerated. By the time the long Arctic night finally descended in October, there was 22 percent less sea ice than had ever been observed before, and more than 40 percent less than the year that the Apollow capsule took its picture. The Arctic ice cap was 1.1 million square miles smaller than ever in recorded history, reduced by an area twelve times the sive of Great Britain. The summers of 2008 and 2009 saw a virtual repeat o the epic melt; in 2008 both the Northwest and Northeast passages opened for the first time in human history. The first commercial ship to make the voyage through the newly opened straits, the MV Camilla Desgagnes, had an icebreaker on standby in case it ran into trouble, but the captain reported, "I didn't see one cube of ice."

--Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

Xi Jinping 习近平 in Washington

The New York Times
Until now, the Chinese government has successfully deflected international pressure for change largely because a group of money-grubbing Western investors, desperate politicians and opportunistic scholars have fawned over China’s vast foreign reserves and market potential. One can only hope that the American government will see past the money and unequivocally support the voices of reform and push for political change from within. Despite China’s tough talk, pressure from the West matters and can make a difference.

--Ho Pin 何频, founder of 明鏡网, a Hong Kong dissident publishing house. This essay was translated by Wenguang Huang from the Chinese.

Hiddenharmonies has a full retort.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

"How to Memorize a Poem"

Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering EverythingMoonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

From chapter 6, "How to Memorize a Poem:"
Of the ten events in the World Memory Championship, the poem has bred the greatest number of different strategies. But broadly speaking, mental athletes take two general tacks, which happen to segregate the pool of competitors fairly neatly by gender. While Gunther and most of the other men on the circuit subscribe to a methodical strategy, the women tend to approach the challenge in a more emotional way. Fifteen-year-old Corinna Draschl, an Austrian in a red T-shirt and matching red socks and red baseball cap, told me she can't memorize a text unless she understands what it means. Even more than that, she has to understand how it feels. She breaks the poem into small chunks and then assigns a series of emotions to each short segment. Rather than associate the words with images, she associates them with feelings.

"I feel how the writer feels, what he is meaning. I imagine whether he's happy or sad," she told me in the hallway outside the competition hall.

View all my reviews

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Story Structure: Creating a Step Outline

As the term implies, a step-outline is the story told in steps.

Using one- or two-sentence statements, the writer simply and clearly describes what happens in each scene, how it builds and turns. For example: "He enters expecting to find her at home, but instead discovers her note saying she's left for good."

On the back of each card the writer indicates what step in the design of the story he sees this one scene fulfilling -- at least for the moment. Which scenes set up the Inciting Incident? Which is the Inciting Incident? First Act Climax? Perhaps a Mid-Act Climax? Second Act? Third? Fourth? Or more? He does for Central Plot and subplots alike.

He confines himself to a few stacks of cards for months on end for this critical reason: He wants to destroy his work. Taste and experience tell (the writer) that ninety percent of everything he writes, regardless of his genius, is mediocre at best. IHe may sketch a scene a dozen different ways before finally throwing the idea of a scene out of the outline. He may destroy sequences, whole acts. A writer secure in his talent knows there's no limit to what he can create, and so he trashes everything less than his best on a quest for a gem quality story.

This process, however, doesn't mean the writer isn't filling pages. Day after day a huge stack grows on the side of the desk: but these are biographies, the fictional world and its history, thematic notations, images, even snippets of vocabulary and idiom. Research and imaginings of all kinds fill a file cabinet while the story is disciplined to the step-outline.

Finally, after weeks or months, the writer discovers his Story Climax. With that in hand, he reworks, as needed, backward from it. At last he has a story.
Robert McKee, Story: Structure, Substance, Style and Principles of Screenwriting, 1997

A conjecture about multiplicity: it's probably possible for successful writers to have multiple step-outlines active at any one time.

A conjecture about collaboration: writers' best chance at collaborating on story is in the stage of step-outline.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Film: Political Satire in "Being There"

Being There is the deepest political satire I think I have ever seen in film.
Besides humor and deep political content, the film has hair-raising sound engineering:
That last track is by Eumir Deodado -- an ingenius rendition of "Also Sprach Zarathustra."

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Game of Poems: Sikong Tu, Act 1

In the late Tang, there was once a young man from a small town called Yuxiang 虞乡 who specialized in doing nothing. Though he came from a family of minor officials, he did not even try taking the examinations until was thirty-three years old, in 869.
In my youth I used to waste my life,
The time pushed me hard, but I was always at leisure.

Nobody knows what Sikong Tu was doing in the years before 869, but he probably spent a good deal of his time in the Zhongtiao mountains, a place of Buddhist institutes where students and scholars gathered for study and teaching. Tu took the public examinations the same year his patron, Wang Ning 王凝, became the Chief Examiner. When he ranked fourth out of thousands of candidates, disgruntled young men said Tu only succeeded because Wang Ning helped -- but Wang Ning actually opposed corruption in the government, and his crackdown on favoritism cost him his own job the following year. Wang Ning's enemy, Wei Paoheng, married the daughter of Emperor Yizong 唐懿宗 -- that was how Paoheng gained the influence to retaliate against Wang Ning. Purged from the capital, Wang Ning was assigned to a series of minor posts in different outlying locations until his death in 877. Tu stayed with Wang Ning till the latter's death in the South, gaining experience as an exile that would mark his poetry:
The sun brings with it the roaring of the tide to the evening.
The smoke is soaked with the color of trees in the autumn.

From ancient times, the worthies and the talented have been tragic and sorrowful.
Everlastingly the powerful families controlled the important positions.
Henceforth I will get myself drunk whenever I hear a song,
And live as an idler without helping the world.
But such lines belie Tu's devotion to Wang Ning, who was fighting the rebels Huang Chao 黄巢 and Wang Xianzhi when he died. After Wang's death, Tu answer a summons to the capital for a new assignment, but as punishment for tardiness he was demoted and sent to Luoyang, the less important Eastern Capital. This city was a gathering place for all the men of talent currently out of power -- Lu Xi, one such official, came to admire Tu's character. When Lu Xi was summoned back to the capital a year later to head the Department of War, he shared his good fortune with Tu. By 879, Lu Xi was a Chief Minister and Tu was given a post in the Ministry of Rites. While in the capital, he lived in Chongyi Ward, two blocks from the palace; he was soon promoted, and even earned the purple-fish-bag (feiyudai) for meritorious service. But in the winter of early 881, the Tang capital of Chang'an was under attack; Wang Xianzhi was dead, but the rebel Huang Chao pressed on. On January 4, rebel forces took the Tongguan pass, the capital cities last defense. Eunuchs made accusations; officials committed suicide. Emperor Xizong fled in secret to a provisional capital set up at Chengdu, leaving most of the government and royal family behind. Rebels entered on January 8. Panic ensued.

Sikong Tu hid in a friends house in the gentry neighborhood of Chongyi Ward. He was just about to leave for Changpinglin, a government store-house of salt and iron, rebel soldiers burst in; one soldier blocked the door with a great spear. He stared at Sikong Tu. Then, he approached and took Sikong's hands. "I am Duan Zhang 段章, your former servant." Duan Zhang explained that he had been captured and forced to join the rebels, but now knew that Heaven had arranged events so that he, Duan, could save Tu's life in repayment for Tu's kindness. He suggested that Tu seek parlay with Duan's commander, General Zhang, who respected scholars. No! Tu would rather die than surrender and be disgraced. Moved by his decision, Duan lead Tu to the road, and escape.

Tu slipped out of the city through the Kaiyuan Gate under the cover of darkness, heading east. When he reached Xianyang Bridge, a boatman named Han Jun took him south, to Huxian. From Huxian, we lose track...

Paraphrasing Wong Yoon Wah, Ssu-K'ung T'u: A Poet-Critic of the T'ang, pp. 7-18

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"Note on a Calligraphic Screen"

In "Note on a Calligraphic Screen" 书屏记 (900 AD), Sikong Tu 司空图 relates that when his father settled down in Yuxiang, Tu's calligraphy master, Pei Xiu 裴休,  received a present from Li Rong, who was "also famous for his calligraphy in scribbled 草 and clerical 隶 styles." Li Rong's present was a screen 屏, consisting of forty-two panels of calligraphy by Xu Hao 徐浩 (703-782), a great Tang calligrapher. According to Sikong Tu's account, his father so appreciated the masterpiece of Xu Hao that he studied it every morning and so enjoyed it that he even neglected to eat or sleep. Tu might have been exaggerating, but his account indicates his father's enthusiasm for the art.

Sikong Tu's account of Li Rong and Xu Hao's screen is the only information we have of them in Chinese art history. According to Tu, Xu Hao wrote in all styles, including the "eight styles" (bati) and most of the poems he wrote were quotations of five-syllable poems from Wenxuan, an anthology compiled under the patronage of Xiao Tong (501-531). The screen included two lines of a poem 杂诗 written by Wang Can of the Jin 晋 dynasty (265-420):
Winds from the north move the autumn grasses,
Horses at the border have their minds on return.


Screen paintings from a Tang tomb, discovered in 1987 and exhibited here at the Xi'an Expo, May 2011 .
Sikong Tu remarked that these two lines, together with some others, which were written in clerical or scribbled styles, were the outstanding portions of the masterpiece 或草或隶,尤为精絶. He also added that on the lower margin of the screen someone noted a very poetic comment on Xu Hao's calligraphy:
Mad beasts gouge stone,
Thirsty horse races to the well.
They can see all the blue sky.


The first two lines of this comment have become the most often quoted description of Xu Hao's calligraphy. Unfortunately, the screen was burnt to ashes in 869 by a fire.
-Wong Yoon Wah, Ssuk'ung T'u: Poet-Critic of the T'ang (poetry translations meddled with)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Poem: Cat in an Empty Apartment

As we got in the van, someone asked about favorite poets, and the girl who had talked about translating Jackie Kay into Polish said she for one liked to read Wislawa Szymborska. I remember feeling a pinch of anxiety that I had not read Szymborska, but looking back, wasn't it wonderful to have met a reader of hers?
Cat in an Empty Apartment

Die - You can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.

Footsteps on the staircase,
but they're new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.

Something doesn't start
at its usual time.
Something doesn't happen
as it should. Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.

Every closet’s been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken:
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.

Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.
--tr. Clare Cavanaugh and Stanislaw Baranczak