I enter a pub in London, thirsty but nearly broke. What’s your cheapest cask ale, I ask the bartender, who happens to be the comedian Margaret Cho. This one’s only a pound a pint, she says, pointing to a handle with an iron cross logo on it. No one wants to drink it because it’s racist. Gosh, I say, I’m not a racist, but that’s really cheap! It’s also very tasty, she says. Classic English bitter. She pulls a pint for me and I take a sip. It certainly slips down easy. But I’ve barely finished it when she announces last call. I order five more pints and start tossing them back. Oddly, I can’t feel the alcohol at all. I mean, sure, I drink mainly for the taste, but I enjoy a bit of a buzz, too. Apparently even where racism is concerned, you get what you pay for. I notice Margaret looking intently at me and writing something down on a small clipboard. I wake up thinking: What excellent casting! Who’d ever have thought to have Margaret Cho play the devil?
among the flowers of evil—
the bees are all dead
In the middle of the flowering grove, one jug of beer.
Drinking alone – no friends or family near –
I raise my cup, invite the moon to join me.
Counting my shadow, we’re a party of three.
But moon’s a lightweight, doesn’t know how to drink,
And shadow simply matches me cup for cup.
For now, though, they’ll do just fine, I think.
Spring is here, my friends! Let’s live it up.
I start to sing; the moon sways to and fro.
I get up and dance – shadow reels in disarray.
Sober, we crave the company of some jolly fellow;
Drunk, each goes his separate way.
Freed of all ties, yet bound forever more,
Let’s get back together on the galaxy’s far shore.
Come April, and the village of Xianyang lies deep in fallen blossoms. Who can bear to be alone with sorrow in the spring? Who can gaze on such sights as these and stay sober? The unseen Maker rolls his dice: for you, wealth and a long life; poverty for you, and a life cut short. But one mug of beer can balance life and death, even out a thousand things that confound the intellect. Drunk, I lose track of heaven and earth, sitting alone on my mat, unmoving, unmovable. I end by forgetting that I ever existed at all: pure joy, then, for the no-one left behind!
If Heaven above be not besotted with beer,
why should a Beer Star appear in heaven?
If Earth, too, be not a tippler,
why do we find a Beer Springs on earth?
With beer thus beloved above and below,
drinking beer can hardly be against nature.
I’ve heard a clear brew likened to a sage,
while the slang term for a cloudy beer is saint.
Since I’ve drunk deep of saints and sages,
what need have I to search for spirit guides?
Three cups, and the Great Way lies open;
a gallon, and everything resolves into Suchness.
Simply strive for beer and find contentment.
Don’t speak of these arcana to the sober ones.
This translates three of the four sections of the original poem. The first section best imitates the rhyme and meter of the original.
“Sage” and “Saint” were code words for strained and unstrained beer during a period of prohibition in the early Tang Dynasty.
The search for universal themes in human psychology and culture tends to focus either on the most basic elements (sex, security) or the most abstract (hero-worship, fear of death). But I wonder if we wouldn’t do better to look at how humans relate to the landscape? Seeing how people of different times and places have related to forests or to mountains, for example, seems to reveal more similarities than differences. But even if this were not the case, the exercise strikes me as much more worthwhile than cross-cultural comparisons that focus on purely human realities. Hell, the latter approach probably does violence to most indigenous ways of understanding, according to which humans are far from the only sentient beings.
All this is simply by way of introducing a couple of translations from the classical Chinese. Poems celebrating cosmic mountains aren’t hard to find in the Chinese tradition. Both Li Bo and Du Fu – revered as the two greatest Chinese poets of all time – wrote poems in which mountains teach us how to see. In Du Fu’s poem, the first four lines of the second stanza of my translation (lines 5 and 6 in the original) have given scholars headaches for centuries. A totally unprecedented expression is, in the Chinese tradition, a very rare thing. Surely the poet couldn’t have meant what he wrote?
Gazing at Tai Shan
by Du Fu (712-770 CE)
This mountain of mountains – how
to put it in words?
Throughout Qi and Lu, a blue
that never fades. The Maker fills it
with power, unearthly beauty.
North face, south face divide
the dark from the dawn.
give birth to layered clouds,
straining eyes join the birds
returning to the peak.
Someday I swear I’ll climb
clear to the summit,
watch all other mountains
Jing Ting Mountain, Sitting Alone
by Li Bo (701-762)