Here’s something you don’t see every day: A book of verse by an eighth-century Chinese poet, translated by a master and published by a small press as devoted to the beauty of the page as to the beauty upon it. And, hey, it’s only 14 bucks.
The book is The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan. The translator is David Hinton, who knows philosophy as well as he knows poetry, having translated the Tao Te Ching and other major works of Chinese thought. The publisher is Archipelago Books, a relatively new press on the scene that is based in New York and determined to do things right — even its paperback editions, such as this one, are sturdy in their construction and artfully designed.
But enough of that noise. Listen to the words of Meng, so simple in their power and so eloquently lovely, flowing down to us, via Hinton, through the centuries: “Autumn begins unnoticed. Nights slowly lengthen,/and little by little, clear winds turn colder and colder,/summer’s blaze giving way. My thatch hut grows still./At the bottom stair, in bunchgrass, lit dew shimmers.”
Many writers have tried to capture the atmosphere of the season that comes at last to free us from summer’s humid tyranny; few have succeeded so well, or especially with such concision. The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jin is filled with such charms. Not a one of the poems here is more than 24 lines long, and many are much shorter. According to the publisher, this is the first English translation of Meng’s work. Sometimes, 1,200-plus years is a very, very long time.
Meng’s stanza never varies much: It is always two lines, though those lines can stretch into double-digit-syllable range. And his subject matter displays little change; he writes of nature, of humans’ place in it, of observations that bring to the individual some sort of clarity or appreciation of splendor.
Certainly there is an element of sadness in these poems, bound up, as such melancholy often is, with intimations of mortality — which Meng at one point refers to as “the inevitable dark.” For the most part, though, these are poems of great serenity, great satisfaction, great joy. The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jin can be read in an evening, revisited for a lifetime. Find time for it.