FEBRUARY 15, 2016
IN FINDING THEM GONE, the translator Red Pine, a.k.a. travel writer Bill Porter, calls on more than 40 ancient Chinese poets in 30 days. With three small porcelain cups and a flask of expensive bourbon, he crosses the country in search of places associated with the authors of his most beloved poems: usually their graves, but also former homes, memorial pavilions, and famous landmarks. Once located, regardless of the poet’s station in the literary afterlife, Porter pours his libations into the ground and then sips some himself.
To begin his literary pilgrimage, Porter embarks on a bullet train from Beijing. His first stop is Chufu, where he pays respects to Confucius, who compiled The Book of Poetry in the fifth century B.C. and whose “efforts helped to give poetry an importance it has never enjoyed in the West — and probably never will.” He continues:
Confucius made speaking from the heart an essential part of Chinese culture. Ever since then, no one was allowed to serve in government in China who could not write a poem. It was part of the entrance requirements.
Moving on from there, Porter selects a list of “poets whose poetry I loved.” His journey, he admits, is propelled by gratitude: “It didn’t matter that they were dead. I wasn’t. And what was life for if not to thank those who made our lives happier?” In composing this extended thank you note, Porter shares his own translations and offers a primer on ancient Chinese literature accessible to general readers but also detailed enough that fellow pilgrims might follow in his footsteps.
His roster includes lesser-known writers as well as luminaries that anyone with a passing familiarity with Chinese poetry might recognize, such as Tu Fu, Li Pai (or Li Po), Wang Wei, and Han Shan (or Cold Mountain). He discovers their poems hanging on the walls of schools, carved on cliff faces, and lodged in the memories of the local inhabitants. For example, at Tu Mu’s trash-strewn and neglected grave, the farmers who have led Porter there recite with him by heart:
Purification Day and the rain keeps falling
travelling on foot I feel like I might collapse
ask a herdboy if he knows where there’s a tavern
he points in the distance to Apricot Flower Village
Due to poetry’s central place in Chinese culture, literary remembrance is big business there, with cities competing for the honor of being the hometown of noted literati. Most poets, especially the famous ones, are commemorated with statues, museums, and pavilions fit for emperors. However, Porter doesn’t loiter in lush exhibit halls. Instead, he roots out hidden and forgotten spots, and sometimes locates remarkable convergence zones where the many layers of Chinese history seem to collide. At one point, while exploring the countryside around the former residence of Meng Hao-jan, a founder of the Mountains and Rivers School of poetry, Porter happens upon an execution ground used during the Cultural Revolution. Another time he approaches a ginkgo tree that Wang Wei planted beside his home in the eighth century, now adjacent to a nuclear weapons factory, getting close enough to photograph the tree until an unhappy official marches out, asks him to stop, and then deletes most of his pictures.
Nor does Porter only honor men: his second day is devoted to Li Ch’ing-chao, a master of lyric poetry from the 12th century, who spent most of her life wandering the Yangtze region “looking for a home she never found.” Calling herself the “Easily Contented Scholar,” Li Ch’ing-chao left behind poems that conjure wistful moments — drunkenly rowing a boat through lotus blossoms and startling a flock of egrets — as well as others that evoke bleaker moods:
the geese overhead
a newly broken heart
and yet these are old friends
The ground is covered by piles of chrysanthemums
flowers that withered and fell
no one can pick now.
An empathetic imagination appears often to be an ingredient of great literature regardless of culture. Porter profiles several writers committed to what today we might call social justice: they enacted humane reforms in their government positions, while at the same time they expressed a deep concern for the human condition in their verse. Fan Ch’eng-ta is one such inspiring figure. He rose to a high court post by relieving the tax burden on common people in his district and wrote poems like “Chingyuan Inn,” about a servant whose owner had carved the character for “escapee” into both cheeks:
A sweat-drenched servant girl follows a felt-curtained carriage
she says her father and brothers live down along the Huai
killing slaves or servants isn’t questioned here by officials
tattooing words on their faces is still considered light
Like many other great poets who also held high positions, Fan eventually fell into disfavor for being on the wrong side of political intrigue. Yet literary careers in ancient China often flourished after banishment to the hinterlands.
Porter organizes Finding Them Gone as if it were a diary of purposeful wandering. This approach allows him to interweave descriptions of his surroundings, translations of poems, snippets of history, and black and white photos, all revealing the intimate relationship this literature has to landscape and memory:
The graves of the poets I’d been visiting were so different. Some were simple, some palatial, some had been plowed under by farmers, and others had been reduced to trash pits. Their poems, though, had survived. They were still fresh in the minds of cigar-smoking farmers who most likely never attended high school. The same couldn’t be said for the pronouncements of the high and mighty. Poetry is transcendent. We carry it in our hearts and find it there when we have forgotten everything else.
And as with Porter’s other books, the real pleasure of this travelogue is his persona and style. Wearing his fluency and knowledge of Chinese culture lightly, he makes an epic journey seem like a delightful ramble, even when misadventures — a broken ankle, for instance — delay him.
There are very few westerners who could successfully cover so much territory in China, but Porter pulls it off. Finding Them Gone uniquely draws upon his parallel careers as a translator and a travel writer in ways that his previous books have not. A lifetime devoted to understanding Chinese culture and spirituality blossoms within its pages to create something truly rare. By most accounts, the long engagement western writers have had with the form and style of Asian poetry began with Ezra Pound, and since then, poets rather than prose writers have tended to be the ones producing mature literary work informed by deep engagement with the ideas, practices, and literary traditions of the East. Gary Snyder succinctly describes the attraction:
Chinese poetry, at its finest, seems to have found a center within the tripod of humanity, spirit, and nature. With strategies of apparent simplicity and understatement, it moves from awe before history to — a deep breath before nature.
This literature is somehow able to render the evanescent and ineffable in songs of ordinary moments — just flip through Finding Them Gone and find a poem like Pai Chu-yi’s wonderful “Complaining about Losing My Hair.” Or Meng Hao-jan’s “Spring Dawn”:
Sleeping in the spring oblivious of the dawn
everywhere I hear birds
after the wind and rain last night
I wonder how many petals fell.
Or you can look to Porter himself, who has a similar knack for capturing such moments. One of my favorite examples comes when he considers asking caged thrushes for directions to a poet’s grave. “I used to speak thrush,” Porter confesses and tells this anecdote: when he lived on a mountain near Taipei, a thrush would perch on his window calling until Porter answered back in kind. One day it showed up with two fledglings. They too learned how to participate in this inter-species dialogue:
And it continued like that for six years, until the landlord raised my rent, and I moved to another farmhouse farther up the mountain. I never saw the thrush family again. I saw other thrushes, but they never answered. Different dialect, I guess. Seeing the thrushes in the park clinging to the bars of their cages, I sighed and walked on.
Finding Them Gone represents an outstanding example of what can happen when a prose writer has fully integrated and absorbed the sensibilities of Chinese poetry. And we are fortunate that Porter found in Copper Canyon Press, which normally publishes only poetry, a partner in creating such a vivid record of this journey. The exquisite production quality of the book effectively highlights both his talents as translator and his vision as a travel writer. But Porter is more than a gifted guide: he ultimately becomes a teacher of sorts — a sage in the tradition of the ancient poets themselves — though he would probably deny any such status and point us instead to the next destination, whether that be T’ao Yuan-ming’s drinking rock or Han Shan’s cave.