Thorn Vine on the Wall


On Poetry


I don’t remember what I was talking about, that day in class, but somehow I found myself explaining about the Shijing. The Shijing, I said, is the oldest anthology of Chinese poetry. The poems date back to the Zhou dynasty, which fell apart in the year 256 B.C.E. They are not the oldest poems in the world, but they are old, old. Most of them—and definitely the ones that everybody loves and quotes—sound like the lyrics to folk songs.

My paddle keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing

Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

That is not a poem from the Shijing. That is a chant the kids did, in canoes, during camping, when my friend Michael Robbins was a ten-year-old nature boy in Colorado (during the Zhou dynasty). I cite it because it is exactly, and I mean exactly, like the poems in the Shijing. Here’s one. Judge for yourself:

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t hack it—
Lord Shao camped there.

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t harm it—
Lord Shao stopped there.

That broad and spreading sweet pear,
don’t hew it, don’t fell it—
Lord Shao rested there.

You’ve probably actually heard of the Shijing, just not under that name. In English, it is usually called The Book of Odes or The Book of Songs or The Confucian Odes or that sort of thing. I’m not fond of any of those Englishings; I think it should be translated literally: The Poetry Classic. (That’s what the jing in Shijing means: “classic.” The Yijing, often annoyingly rendered “I Ching,” is the “changes classic.” The Daodejing is the “way-virtue classic.”) (Don’t try this at home, though. Beijing, for instance, is not the “bei classic.” The jing in Beijing is a different jing. And none of these things is pronounced tching, djing, or žing.)

But I didn’t say any of this in class that day. I had to move quickly because I wanted to show these Texas kids one of my very favorite pieces in the Shijing: number 46 (“Qiáng yǒu cí … ”). And here’s where the story gets good. I thought I knew the poem well enough to recite it from memory in English. I don’t know it in Chinese. In fact, let’s be clear: my Chinese is village-idiot level; I couldn’t possibly recite it in Chinese. I thought I could recite it in English, though, in Burton Watson’s translation, which I’ve read a hundred times, and over which I’ve smacked my silly lips at least ninety of those times.

But I didn’t remember the piece, brief as it is, anywhere near as well as I thought I would. I charged in with complete confidence, but found out right smartually that I was quite unable to retrieve the endings of any of the stanzas. So I just had to make it up as I went along. I had just told these kids, Listen to this, it’s soooo great! So there was no going back. Also I had told them, Okay, this isn’t going to be exact. But the crazy thing is, the invented stuff that came out of my mouth … was good. The kids were impressed. Their faces brightened. They were like, Wait, what was the name of that book again?

Because! What came out of my mouth was basically a legitimate translation of what the poem says—it’s just not word-for-word. In fact, part of what came out of my mouth wasn’t even words

Cheggitout. Here’s the original poem, with Pinyin Romanization, for those of you out there who know what to do with Pinyin Romanization:

And now here’s Burton Watson, never better, never more elegant. The thing I thought I was gonna say:

Thorn vine on the wall
must not be stripped:
words in the chamber
must not be told.
What could be told
would be the ugliest tale!

Thorn vine on the wall
must not be pulled down:
words in the chamber
must not be recited.
What could be recited
would be the longest tale!

Thorn vine on the wall
must not be bundled off:
words in the chamber
must not be rehearsed.
What could be rehearsed
would be a shameful tale!

Right? So the beauty of the thing is they never tell you what happened in the chamber. But if those walls could speak … ! You get the picture. Okay, so now here, carefully reconstructed, using archival footage and oral testimony of eyewitnesses, is what I said, whatever day that was, spring semester, 2017:

Thorn vine on the wall?
must not be stripped.
Words in the chamber … ?
must not be repeated.
’Cuz what could be repeated … ?
Ugkh. You don’t wanna know.

Thorn vine on the wall?
must not be taken down.
Words in the chamber … ?
Shhh. That’s—not for you.
’Cuz what happened in that chamber … ?
[wag finger like no-no-no]
Uh-uh. Uh-uh.

Thorn vine on the wall?
must not be fucked with.
Words in the chamber … uuuhhh.
’Cuz—that … ?
[waving hand in front of your nose in the Mexican manner of waving off a bad smell]
that? … ooh, ugkh.

Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.