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Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei

by Pain Not Bread (Roo Borson,Kim Maltman, Andy Patton)

A book 10 years in the making is, like a good single malt, worth savouring. That’s particularly true for Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, given the time invested by the poets Roo Borson and Kim Maltman and the artist Andy Patton, who form the poetry collective “Pain Not Bread.” Their decade-long project of scholarship and improvisation, aimed at recreating the spirit of Chinese poetry of the late Tang dynasty in new, original poems, has resulted in as rich a collection as you’ll find in this, or any, year.

The poets of the late Tang, Wang Wei (699-759), Li Bai (701-762), and Du Fu (712-770) perfected a formal lyricism, closely tied to the brushstroke paintings of the period, that has survived in a remarkably pure form for over 1,200 years. These poems of rain, silk, and loss have seeped through imagists like Pound and Yeats into the very bloodstream of modern poetry. (The themes cross the millennium with ease, since the Tang poets lived in a time of angst and upheaval remarkably similar to our own.) As they explain in the afterword, Borson, Maltman, and Patton have studied many translations of the original texts, mastered scholarly literature on the poems and their context, and reincarnated the tones and flavours of the late Tang in their own original work.

Part of the delight of these poems is their indeterminacy: they are not grounded in history or translation but draw from both. They are not even rooted in a particular poetic voice, but a hybrid of three. The poems exist in their own realm, but as the double “Introduction” in the title suggests, they also point to the original texts, and share their voluptuous gestures and deep allusiveness. A few passages veer toward sentimentality, and a few others nod too vigorously to critical theory, but overall the book is as poised as an arrow resting in a bow drawn by a zen archer. The three authors write in “Water Chestnut Stems (An Introduction to Wang Wei)”: “In the much-analyzed poem we enter through a gate of dew, / and there is medicine to cool the heart.” Indeed: this book is sweet.