Michael Andrews Arts

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A Lone Black Gull

by Michael Andrews


Artist Book - Pamphlet Edition

Three poems; an introduction to and translation of Tu Fu's Night Travels and 2 related poems plus associated photography. First Printed 2005. 8 5x7 inch pages of text using Centaur and Carolus Roman typefaces, integrated with 2 photographic illustrations.




Travels by Night
Thinking About Writing and Writing About Thoughts

a translation of Tu Fu

On shore a small breeze bends fragile grass.
I am alone. My mast brushes the belly of the night.
The stars fall down into the mud on the sad, vast plain.
The moon leaps up from the great river's flow.
Words cannot save me. My name is lost with my poems.
I am old. I am sick. I have been retired from office.
My loved ones are lost on the river's current.
My words, my name and my self adrift, floating

between mud and stars –

a lone black gull.



Tu Fu

Late in life, circa 760, Tu Fu wrote one of the great gems of human art, a poem variously titled Travels By Night, Night Thoughts, etc.
     It is the quintessential poem about the despair of a great artist who produced his work in good faith only to find his life over and all his artistic endeavor a failure. Additionally, Tu Fu did not himself have long to live. He was old, tired, sick and on a fixed and dwindling income.
     The poem is essentially imagistic, that is the work of conveying the meaning of the poem is borne by the images rather than by statements of fact. The poem is also Chinese, which is to say that Tu Fu uses images that are predefined and commonly used in Chinese literature to convey his meaning in a brief, telegraphic manner. This use of image depends on a high-context culture. High-context assumes that here is a great deal of information commonly assumed within the cultural context itself. For example a high context statement such as "Get the muffin bowl." assumes that someone already knows what the muffin bowl is and where it is at. A low-context statement assumes that such information must be conveyed as well; for example "Get the medium sized, green bowl on the left side of the third shelf in the cupboard to the left of and above the kitchen sink."
     Contemporary American literature is low-context and traditional Chinese literature is high-context. Now, poetry itself tends to be high-context with much of its information implied and therefore extremely inherently difficult to translate from one culture to another. On the other hand, a book of chemical formulae or a book of recipes tends to be low-context and all the information is stated explicitly.
     In addition, the impact of this particular poem by Tu Fu assumes that the reader knows something about his life, as well as his contemporary cultural milieu and current events. These are components that cannot really be translated other than through the use of unobtrusive hints.
     The one component of the poem that can be translated, or recreated, from the traditional Chinese to contemporary American English is the use of imagery. The Chinese tended to use abstract images that were predefined and commonly known to be metaphors or symbols that represented certain specific concepts. For example the phrase 'between Heaven and Earth' means, in the context of Tu Fu's poem, that he does not belong to life on earth among the living and he has no expectation of any reward after death, and it also can be taken to imply that his poetry and reputation will probably also disappear into oblivion. Contemporary American literature tends to follow Wallace Stevens advice on the use of concrete imagery. A specific example of a class is taken to represent the entire class. For example a mouse can represent all rodents, or all mammals, or all life for that matter. Concrete imagery makes the poem more accessible by asking its audience to actively experience a specific thing rather than being passively told about an abstract concept. It is the difference of actually having an experience as opposed to being told about an experience. This is one of the most powerful tools available to a contemporary American poet. The power is bought at the risk of being imprecise, the risk that the audience will not make the connection from the concrete example to the correct abstract class. But then poetry is a risky business.
     Although no one can translate the sum total of Chinese culture or even Tu Fu's life in a single poem, we can hope to translate the imagery into the contemporary American idiom in order to make Tu Fu's poem accessible and alive to an English speaking reader. This is the reason that I chose to use the concrete images of 'between the mud and stars' instead of the traditional image 'between heaven and earth.' The traditional image has a more Chinese feel, but the concrete has a more powerful impact.
     I also chose to suggest some of the facts of Tu Fu's life within the poem, so that there is some hint of the conditions that brought Tu Fu to such a state of despair, to a non Chinese speaking audience who may not be familiar with his biographical history.
     Tu Fu was, in a certain sense, far more fortunate than most poets. His work was preserved, later rediscovered and accorded it rightful place in the canon of the poetic arts. Most poets simply disappear into oblivion and, of course, Tu Fu was simply too dead to derive any satisfaction from such post mortem acclamation.
     Still, his poem remains one of the great monuments to the human and artistic spirit. Tu Fu toiled at his art in good faith in spite of the world's indifference and in spite of every other sort of misfortune.

And that is heroic in anybody's language.