Du Fu (712–770) is one of the undisputed geniuses of Chinese poetry—still universally admired and read thirteen centuries after his death. Now David Young, author of Black Lab, and well known as a translator of Chinese poets, gives us a sparkling new translation of Du Fu’s verse, arranged to give us a tour of the life, each “chapter” of poems preceded by an introductory paragraph that situates us in place, time, and circumstance. What emerges is a portrait of a modest yet great artist, an ordinary man moving and adjusting as he must in troubled times, while creating a startling, timeless body of work.
Du Fu wrote poems that engaged his contemporaries and widened the path of the lyric poet. As his society—one of the world’s great civilizations—slipped from a golden age into chaos, he wrote of the uncertain course of empire, the misfortunes and pleasures of his own family, the hard lives of ordinary people, the changing seasons, and the lives of creatures who shared his environment. As the poet chases chickens around the yard, observes tear streaks on his wife’s cheek, or receives a gift of some shallots from a neighbor, Young’s rendering brings Du Fu’s voice naturally and elegantly to life.
I sing what comes to me
in ways both old and modern
my only audience right now—
nearby bushes and trees
elegant houses stand
in an elegant row, too many
if my heart turns to ashes
then that’s all right with me . . .
from “Meandering River”
Not a biography, but instead a very coherent book of free translations, this new volume translated by Young (Black Lab) gives the sense of a life as lived, a life that belongs at once to Du Fu (712 770, also called Tu Fu) and to any sympathetic reader who has experienced beauty in nature, disillusion in politics, or love and trouble at home. These 168 poems, along with clear footnotes, also create a sense of the poet s own times. Du Fu began his poetic career as a bachelor writing beautiful seasonal poetry, a close friend of the great, and slightly older, poet Li Bai (Li Po). Autumn again and you and I/ are thistledown in the wind, he told his friend in one early poem. But Du Fu married and began a family, and then, seeking noble patrons, had to travel through war zones. He wrote, in consequence, poems about conscription, battle, poverty and loneliness: on my face new tears/ are running down familiar tracks. Search for secure employment later on brought him to far-flung provincial towns, where he produced his most tranquil verse: here comes some tea and sugarcane juice/ brought down from the house.