Joe Linker in Befrois (Photograph by Tony Fischer):
Florence showed me what she called the most famous of Chinese poems. She had made her own translation from a Chinese language newspaper clipping. The poem was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing of a man lifting up from a cot, the moon in his face and eyes, the moonlight coming through an open window and shining on the cot and a bedroom floor. Florence explained the poem to me, and wanted me to help her work on her translation of the poem into English, and we enjoyed sharing language lessons. For some time after I left the school, I kept in touch with Florence, but it’s been many years now. I used to hear from her every Christmas; she would send me a long, handwritten letter in impeccable penmanship and flawless English grammar, and usage and sentence structure, and ask me to “correct” the writing for her.
I knew the Chinese poet, Li Po, who wrote the original poem. The poem has been variously translated to describe the speaker awake at night, or awakening, thinking, far from home, or perhaps far from the past, thus perhaps rethinking the past, or what we call remembering, or reflecting. The poem might suggest a bittersweet homesickness; a longing. Usually, in translations, there’s moonlight and frost, one mistaken for the other in the night, and a mountain and a moon, a confused awakening at night with thoughts of home. Just as the moonlight is mistaken for frost, the setting is mistaken for home. Or perhaps there is no mistake. The speaker awakes, and then drops back to sleep and dreams of home. Florence said that most Chinese of her generation would recognize the poem. She invited me over to her place. She wanted to present me with a few books. The books were old and travelled. One was titled Chinese Phrase Book, published by the War Department and dated “December 10, 1943.” Another was titled Chinese Military Dictionary, also published by the War Department and dated “26 May 1944.” They were military vocabulary manuals, small enough for a foot soldier to carry in a pocket. The word poem was not included in either one.
I first met Li Po in a Chinese literature in translation class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. One of our texts was the first Evergreen edition (1967) of the 1965 Grove Press Anthology of Chinese Literature: from early times to the fourteenth century, edited by Cyril Birch. I still have this book, but Li Po’s poem about the moonlight and frost and thoughts of home is not included. It is included in Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (1947). The translation Payne includes of the Li Po poem is the only one I’m aware of that mentions a “couch,” and the speaker’s thoughts are of the “earth,” not explicitly of home. It’s possible to read that the speaker is sleeping outdoors.