Translator Robert Dorsett studied Chinese at the Yale-in-China Program at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. He received an M.D. degree from the State University of New York and completed his training in pediatrics at Cornell. He also has an MFA degree from New York University, where he subsequently taught creative writing. Robert has translated many individual poems and essays from the Chinese. With David Pollard, he translated the memoirs of Gao Ertai, In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp (HarperCollins, 2009). Stagnant Water is his second book of translations. His own poetry has been published in The Literary Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. Formerly a senior physician at Kaiser Hospital Oakland, he now writes full time.
Recently, Robert was interviewed by Anthony Tao of Beijing Cream, an arts and culture website, for a post titled “Wen Yiduo: A Masterful Poet Is Revived In New Translation.”
And if you’re in the SF Bay Area April 30, stop by Poetry Night at 7pm at Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA. Robert will be reading from Stagnant Water. Also reading: Raphael Block and Neal Grace.
Excerpted from Stagnant Water & Other Poems
By Wen Yiduo
Translated by Robert Hammond Dorsett
© Robert Hammond Dorsett 2014
This simple, touching, though ironic, lullaby, as the aggrieved father puts his child to sleep for the last time, was written on the death of his infant daughter.
Perhaps you’re tired crying.
Perhaps you need to rest awhile.
I’ll tell the owls not to cough,
frogs not to shout, the bats not to fly.
I won’t let sunlight pry your eyelids,
a breeze touch your brow. Nothing
will disturb you. The umbrella
of a pine tree shades your sleep.
Perhaps you hear earthworms
chew the soil, grass rootlets sip water.
Perhaps you find this music more
pleasing than our quibbling voices.
Then tightly close your eyes…
I’ll let you sleep; I’ll let you sleep.
I’ll cover you gently with yellow earth,
burn paper offerings so they softly fly.
This poem contains images of China’s ravaged countryside during the reign of the warlords.
IMPRESSIONS OF AN EARLY SUMMER NIGHT
(May 1922, the time of the warlords)
Sunset bequeaths a troubling night.
The poet forces night to give up its secrets:
Dew scatters beneath the sky’s purple vault;
the poet thinks: beads to be strung for the chests of the dead.
An icy wind rakes the desiccated hair of a starving willow.
Lamplight reflected in a pond twists like a snake.
Hanging mid-mountain, a horribly crippled cypress
stiffly shakes its black, skinny fists, challenges air.
The frogs haven’t slept. Shouldn’t they be tired?
They croak the swamp’s battle hymns even louder.
All those village dogs bark with such agony.
Why can’t they break the courage of the thieves?
A dragon chews fire, spits smoke, claws up an iron ladder.
An army train lugs its war cargo, screams as if alive.
The night watch clangs his bronze-tongued, stone bell,
tells everyone, “Relax, go back to sleep.” And they believe it!
Hey God! Can’t you see this degraded universe?
Can’t you feel its chill? Hey, Benevolent God!
This poem, striking, premonitory, was written before the poet was cut down by the guns of government agents.
My soul’s soul,
my vitality within life,
—but a life of delinquency, a life in arrears—
now I must make requital
but what do I ask?
Let me drown in your eyes’ tempest—
Let me be consumed in your love’s refining furnace—
Let me die drunk of your music’s mellow liquor—
Let me suffocate in your breath’s fragrant ether—
Or let your pride destroy me with disdain,
your brutality paralyze me,
your jaws gnash me piteously,
your scorpion blade slash me.
If you grant happiness, I die happily.
If you bestow suffering, I die in pain.
Death, the only requirement,
priceless, all I can give.