Su Shih's Love Song "Ten Years of Life and Death"
To the Tune of Riverside Town
“Ten Years of Life and Death”
Su Shih (1037-1101 Song Dynasty)
Ten years. Dead and living. Unfathomably apart.
Never have I tried to recall, but forever in mind.
Thousand miles away lies your grave lonely,
No way to tell the desolate heart.
Even if you came around, you would not believe your eyes
At a face full of dust and a head of frost white.
Last night a dream dropped me at our old home,
Finding you doing hair by the window in the inner room.
Our eyes fixed at each other,
Words failing us, but tears dashing along.
Year after year that bowel-breaking spot recurs in my vision—
The dwarf pine ridge, in a moon-washed night.
Word-by-word exegesis 逐字注解
江River城City子a diminutive, a song
十ten 年year 生living 死dead 两two 茫茫vast, at a loss
无no 处place 话talk凄desolate凉cold
纵even使if相逢meet each other应should不no识recognize
小small轩small room窗window正at the process of梳comb妆make up
相顾look at each other无no言words
My reading note: Naming and Being There
This is one of the most famous elegies in classical Chinese poetry, and this song was specially loved as a genuine expression of the author’s love toward his first wife. In this sense, this poem is most marred by the biographical fallacy.
Perhaps it is a Chinese tradition of interpreting poems in terms of the biography. We are told that SU wrote this poem when he was somewhere about a thousand miles (a Chinese mile is half a kilometer) ten years after his first wife’s death. Of course, the thousand and the ten are approximate numbers.
A poem like this, I believe, derives its power from a state of “not being here,” and this state of mind is pervasive in almost all the occasions of longing for someone or something. The misfit or being at odds with the present is one of the most important aspects for this type of poetry, and the anxiety over the presence is essential for the justification of nostalgia or melancholia. Dream is often used to express the escape from the present or transplacement of the body. In the dream, imagination and wish are mingled, and the body absent from the site becomes present in sight. In the process, naming becomes the most important and powerful act. Naming is a way of using words, but by naming the place the body in dream is sent to the place. Naming becomes a way of being there, a way of presence.
汉学家华岑的翻译Burton Watson’s translation:
Ten years, dead and living dim and draw apart.
I don't try to remember,
But forgetting is hard.
Lonely grave a thousand miles off,
Cold thoughts, where can I talk them out?
Even if we met, you wouldn't know me,
Dust on my face,
Hair like frost.
In a dream last night suddenly I was home.
By the window of the little room,
You were combing your hair and making up.
You turned and looked, not speaking,
Only lines of tears coursing down.
Year after year will it break my heart?
The moonlit grave,
The stubby pines.