The Life of You Too? On Eliot Weinberger’s “The Life of Tu Fu”

By Forrest GanderApril 2, 2024

The Life of You Too? On Eliot Weinberger’s “The Life of Tu Fu”

The Life of Tu Fu by Eliot Weinberger

AT SEVERAL of my favorite bookstores around the country, Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing has remained face-out on the “Staff Recommended” shelf since its publication in 2007. With that book and its predecessor, Karmic Traces (2000), Weinberger helped to launch what has since become known as “the new essay,” a welding of documentary prose, deeply poetic sensibilities, and imaginative formal structures. In his hands, it has been, perhaps, the most exciting genre innovation in half a century. Before that time, Weinberger was best known, probably, as the translator of major Latin American poets: Octavio Paz (whom Weinberger accompanied to his Nobel Prize induction), Xavier Villaurrutia, and Vicente Huidobro, among others. Weinberger wrote everyone’s favorite book on translation, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei (recently republished in an expanded edition). And this same Weinberger is indeed the guy that James Laughlin, editor of New Directions, claimed was the best-read person he’d met since Ezra Pound.

Although literary critics have managed to enthusiastically embrace a few other writers—Anne Carson, for instance—whose work is utterly sui generis and refuses traditional genre categories, they haven’t really known how to address Weinberger’s many books of singular writing. And so he is still something of a beloved cult figure in the United States, better known abroad. In Germany, for instance, he has won major literary awards and his public readings are mobbed. His overtly political books, such as What I Heard About Iraq (2005), have been widely translated and have generated international public discussions, conference papers, and at least one opera.

Still, a great deal of what Eliot Weinberger writes, translates, and talks about is concerned with poetry. That’s why, no doubt, he gets invited to more poetry festivals than to festivals of other kinds. It’s why there’s a page for him on the Academy of American Poets website. It’s why contemporary Chinese poets all know him. But in his long writing life, Weinberger has never actually published a book of poetry. With The Life of Tu Fu (2024), that has changed.

Although the legerdemainish title—The Life of Tu Fu—might make you imagine a book of translations of the titular writer’s classics or a mini-biography of Tu Fu’s life, it is instead Eliot Weinberger’s first published book of poems. The expectations are pretty high. We don’t have to read far to see what we’re getting into. Here is the first prose poem:

They say this is the only tree in the world that has these pears, for these pears have no desire to propagate elsewhere.

I thought of The Old Man Who Called His Chickens. He had hundreds of chickens, each with its own name. He could call its name and the chicken would come. I thought of him when all the candidates, including me, failed the exam.

There’s an ever-so-subtle correspondence between the first and second stanzas, between the singular pears, the individually identifiable chickens, and the group of nameless candidates. And there’s another numinous correspondence between the start and end of the second stanza; that is, between the Old Man, his particularized chickens, and the indistinguishable flock of failed candidates. But what are those correspondences? Can we pin them down?

In his discussion of Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō’s style as a writer of haikai no renga or linked verse, the scholar Haruo Shirane calls our attention to “‘link by scent’ (nioi-zuke 匂付), a phrase intended to suggest the way in which a verse carries the atmosphere of its predecessor much as the fragrance of a flower is carried by the wind.” As Bashō explained it, rather than creating lexical or content links, “[t]oday, it is best to link by transference, reverberation, scent, or status.” Such links may not be immediately clear to a reader; they may be more difficult to explain than to intuit. And Weinberger’s correspondences are of this sort. They project overtones or shared connotations; they remain suggestive but elusive.

The great classical Chinese poet Tu Fu—whose name is more often spelled these days as Du Fu—lived between 712 and 770 CE. Bashō, the renowned Japanese poet, lived almost a thousand years after him. So why have I brought up the Japanese poet’s poetics in a discussion of The Life of Tu Fu? Because The Life of Tu Fu is a book of poems, not translation. We’re reading “American” poems written by a writer deeply engaged with international literatures, a writer who has both co-translated contemporary Chinese poet Bei Dao and published his own notable solo rengas.

A book reviewer, it seems to me, often feels responsible for articulating why a book succeeds or doesn’t. But in the case of The Life of Tu Fu, I can’t help but feel more inclined to quotation than exegesis. Maybe that’s what happens with the best of art. As in that story (related by David Markson) of Robert Schumann who, after playing a piece on the piano for friends, was asked to explain the music and so sat back down at the piano without speaking and played the same piece again.

Cycling throughout the poems of this collection are references to aging, to privation, to wars—the constants of human existence. This poem, for instance, could as easily reference Chang’an, where Tu Fu lived in the Tang dynasty, as Ukraine in 2024:

An abandoned courtyard: an old tree:
A temple bell lying on its side:
The world I live in.

They win and we lose; we lose and they win.
Vines wrap around the rotting bones.

She knows he won’t come back from the army, but patches the clothes he left just in case.

It’s hard, too, to talk about the subdued fluctuations of tone in these poems. Without exoticizing, Weinberger draws from the bank of dictions that often characterize early-20th-century translations of poetry from previous centuries and formally prescriptive literary traditions. By doing so, he can suggest the echo (or “scent”) of another time. For instance, he’ll develop a sequence of very straightforward subject-verb-object sentences that, minus the contractions and transitions that we come to expect in contemporary English, carry markers of distance or “foreignness.” And then he’ll follow that sequence with a line that sounds completely colloquial:

I thought of the scholar Ting Ling-wei from Liaotung, who mastered the Way and became an immortal crane. He flew back to the city and perched on the city gate. Young men tried to shoot at him with arrows. He flew high into the air and sang:

The walls of the city are the same,
but the people are different.
Better to become an immortal.

When I see snow on the pines, I’ll get a boat out of here.

Most of Weinberger’s poems are short, between five and 10 lines long. Even when he’s not writing prose poems, when’s he’s breaking lines at the right margin, he shows little inclination toward enjambment. The individual lines comprise whole, syntactically complete units:

Last autumn I saw some soldier gallop by,
his lance under his arm.
And now I suddenly wonder,
where his white bones lie.
Every day whole regiments die,
and everyone weeps, one corpse at a time.

Many of the poems are double-spaced and stiffly juxtaposed. Their heuristic leaps from line to line can lead us, suddenly, to unsettling emotional depths. The plainness of speech and the evocative but understated detail deliver profound and moving moments, as in this poem:

Soldiers still guard the ruined palace: rats run across the tiles.

A squirrel with folded hands outside his broken nest.

That dandelion in the wind once had roots.

Live like a wren, unnoticed on a high branch, and you’ll stay alive.

It’s been so many years: I imagine her face, looking at me skeptically.

Full sentences and fragments. Historical and personal events. A voice giving advice. An interiorized voice. And every image—the running rats whose patter across the tiles we can almost hear, the squirrel with folded hands, the rootless dandelion, the unnoticed wren, the skeptical face of the absent beloved—summoning emptiness over emptiness. Like blankets of snow. And it’s that “skeptically” that pierces me most. The speaker isn’t remembering the lover’s smiling face, her beauty, or some telling words she spoke. Instead, what he thinks of is her silence and the doubt, the worry, the presentiment in her eyes. Because what she feared has come true. And he’s stricken with guilt.

There are millions of poems about ill luck, the longing for home, loneliness, and poverty. Few I know are as original as this one:

There are cuckoos in West Sichuan but no cuckoos in East Sichuan.
There are cuckoos in Yunan but no cuckoos in Fuzhou.
They say when a cuckoo cries it sounds like the words “You should go home.”

Friends with good jobs have stopped writing.

The five mentions of the onomatopoeic “cuckoo” fill our heads with its sound. The four different locations signal the constant travels of the speaker. What “They say” generally about the cuckoo’s cry applies specifically to the poet who wants to return home. And you well know, without me walking it out, what the last line suggests.

Although the poems avoid enjambment, they are infused with other lyric elements. Sound play, for instance: hear/bear, baboons/bamboo in one poem. Another poem begins with these two icy, O-loaded lines: “No news; snow whirls. / In the street, the bones of the frozen.”

It’s not only the long O sounds that catch in our ears. The “No” of the first line is iterated within “snow.” “News,” with its single soft vowel, its W and S, tries its best to off-rhyme with “whirls.” And the two side-by-side spondees—Nó néws; snów whírls—launch the poem with a drumbeat. It’s that kind of linguistic attentiveness that makes The Life of Tu Fu a remarkable book of poems. And although it’s true that Weinberger makes frequent references to Chinese philosophy, poetry, and idiom, the poems aren’t imitative. In fact, the trajectory they blaze offers contemporary American poetry a distinctive and refreshing approach to what we used to call the human condition. This is a book concerned with mortality, friendship, and regret. The psyche looking back at its life. As such, The Life of Tu Fu sometimes feels like a poetic biography of my own life, or maybe yours.

LARB Contributor

Forrest Gander (1956– ) was born in the Mojave Desert and grew up, for the most part, in Virginia. Trenchant periods of his life were spent in San Francisco, Dolores Hidalgo (Mexico), and Eureka Springs, Arkansas. With degrees in both geology and English literature, Gander is the author of numerous books of poetry, translation, fiction, and essays. He’s the A. K. Seaver Professor of Literary Arts and Comparative Literature at Brown University. A US Artists Rockefeller fellow, Gander has been the recipient of grants from the NEA, Guggenheim, Howard, Witter Bynner, and Whiting foundations. His 2011 collection Core Samples from the World was a National Book Critics Circle and Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, and his 2018 collection Be With won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was long-listed for the National Book Award.


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