Triple Gorge one thread of heaven over
ten thousand cascading thongs of water,
slivers of sun and moon sheering away
above, and wild swells walled-in below,
splintered spirits glisten, a few glints
frozen how many hundred years in dark
gorges midday light never finds, gorges
hungry froth fills with peril. Rotting
coffins locked into tree roots, isolate
bones twist and sway, dangling free,
and grieving frost roosts in branches,
keeping lament's dark, distant harmony
fresh. Exile, tattered heart all scattered
away, you'll simmer in seething flame
here, your life like fine-spun thread,
its road a trace of string traveled away.
Offer tears to mourn the water-ghosts,
and water-ghosts take them, glimmering.
These are some lines from David Hinton's translation of Meng Chiao's Laments of the Gorges. It is a frightening vision of nature, a world away from the contemplative landscapes found in other Tang dynasty poems. This poem (the third of Meng's ten laments) appears on David Hinton's website - I like his description of the poet there: "Late in life, Meng Chiao (751-814 C.E.) developed an experimental poetry of virtuosic beauty, a poetry that anticipated landmark developments in the modern Western tradition by a millennium. With the T'ang Dynasty crumbling, Meng's later work employed surrealist and symbolist techniques as it turned to a deep introspection. This is truly major work, work that may be the most radical in the Chinese tradition. "
There is another translation of this poem by Matthew Flannery, under the title 'Sadness in the Gorges' ('...Hungry maw foamed with danger its naked curling roots encoffin jumbled bones that hang and swing while monkeys whine from icy trees faint unhappy elegies...') However, I think my favourite translation remains the first one that I read, A. C. Graham's in Poems of the Late T'ang (1965). Graham's punctuation is clearer than Hinton's, which I makes it seem less avant garde, but allows some memorable phrases to stand out - 'The shock of a gleam, and then another, / In depths of shadow frozen for centuries.'
The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Poetry describes Meng's poem as an encounter with cosmic malice embodied in the landscape. David Hinton writes that Laments of the Gorges articulates 'nonbeing as a murderous furnace at the heart of change.' A. C. Graham remarks upon the violence of the imagery, e.g. 'the spray on rocks compared with the spittle of the hungry ghosts of the drowned'. Meng Chiao acknowledged the bleakness of his style, especially in comparison to that of his friend Han Yü. He wrote: 'The bones of poetry jut in Meng Chao, / The waves of poetry surge in Han Yü.' The great Song dynasty poet Su Shih described Meng Chao's verse as a 'cold cicada's call'.
The title of Meng's poem has an added poignancy today. His imagery reflected the dangers of the upper Yangtze river, but the inexorable progress of the Three Gorges Dam has gradually been flooding these gorges.