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On Setting a Migrant Goose Free

April 18, 2016

On Setting a Migrant Goose Free

Snows heavy at Hsan-yang this tenth-year winter,
riverwater spawns ice, tree branches break and fall,

and hungry birds flock east and west by the hundred,
a migrant goose crying starvation loudest among them.

Pecking through snow for grass, sleeping nights on ice,
its cold wings lumber slower and slower up into flight,

and soon it’s tangled in a river boy’s net, carried away
snug in his arms, and put for sale alive in the market.

Once a man of the north, I’m accused and exiled here.
Man and bird, though different, we’re both visitors,

and it hurts a visiting man to see a visiting bird’s pain,
so I pay the ransom and set you free. Goose, o soaring

goose, rising into clouds—where will you fly now?
Don’t fly northwest, that’s the last place you should go.

There in Huai-hsi, rebels still loose, there’s no peace,
just a million armored soldiers long massed for battle:

imperial and rebel armies grown old facing each other.
Starved and exhausted, they’d love to get hold of you,

those soldiers. They’d shoot you down and have a feast
then pluck your wings clean to feather their arrows.

–Bai Juyi, 800; Tr David Hinton, 2000

COMMENTARY: There were three great poets of the Tang Dynasty (600-900 roughly). Li Bai was the hard drinking romantic, Tu Fu was the court wit, and Bai Juyi (mis-Englished as Po Chu-i) was the murmuring elegist. His poems tend to be long, political, and tinged social compassion.

The conceit of this poem, made explicit in the 5th stanza, is fairly transparent. The poet, like the bird, is an exile. While the bird is ensnared in a literal net, the poet is ensnared in unstated but implied troubles and woes. The closing image of the soldiers using the birds’ wings to feather their arrows contains a hint, maybe, of the way poets can be treated in times of war or political turmoil: the sonnets plucked clean to feather propaganda, maybe.

David Hinton has probably been the most prolific translator of Chinese poetry since Witter Bynner. He’s translated a dozen, fairly hefty books, using characteristic “couplets” of long, six-or-seven stress unryhmed lines. Though departing from the strict forms of the originals, they do seem to capture the spare, hard, direct, and imagistic style that’s been associated with Chinese literature since Pound’s and Waverly’s translations a hundred years ago.


One Comment
  1. To build on your observation about the poet’s straits, there’s a kind of bitter commentary in that last couplet on commonplace of the pen’s being mightier than the sword when you remember that pens were made of feathers (pen etymologically deriving from the Latin word for feather).

    I like the winter image in line two and the image of the goose in lines 5 & 6, sleeping on ice, painfully trying to fly (the “cold wings lumber[ing] slower and slower” make a nice contrast to the soaring, freed goose in lines 12-13, where the even the enjambed stanzas seem to soar. The image of armies “long massed for battle,” having grown old staring at each other is pretty good too.

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