To his dead wife
since you departed
of you remain in my frosted bones.
in a dream I returned to our old home
By the window
you were combing your hair
we looked at each other
Through tear-clouded eyes.
still I see
your lonely grave on the moonlit
A free translation, June 2011
Illustration by Kwan Shan Mei
Through tear-clouded eyes
Song Dynasty poet Su Shi (also known as Su Dongpo, “Mr Su of the Eastern Slope”) wrote this memorial on the 10th Anniversary of the death of his wife. The original in Chinese says a lot more but in my translation, I’ve compacted the poet’s sentiment to its bare essentials.
Su Shi married when he was 19; his wife 16. His wife died when she was only 27. Because of his official assignments, Su Shi moved to many different places in China, all far from his home town. One night in early 1075, about 10 years after her death, Su dreamed of his wife, then composed this famous poem.
The grave is on a hill slope in a forest of stunted pine trees, a desolate place with only the moon for companion.
Most Song lyrical poems (tzu or cí 詞) are set to the word count of specific lyrics, and meant to be sung aloud. I took the drawing from a 1970s book of Chinese poetry, drawn by Singapore’s top illustrator Kwan Shan Mei.
I first read Su’s works in 1973 and this was the first Chinese poem that I was able to memorise by heart. I have since been teasing my mind for a translation that expresses precisely what Su Shi must have felt. A literal, word-for-word or even phrase-for-phrase rendering loses the swing and tempo of the original.
After more than 30 years, I’ve decided the truest rendering is to ignore the syntax or sentence construction of the original and focus on only the sentiment (as what Arthur Waley did in his translations of The Monkey God and Tale of Genji).
Recently, I saw an obituary in the Straits Times newspaper (Saturday Oct 27, 2012) stating that Kwan Shan Mei the illustrator died in May 2012 in Vancouver, Canada.
In 1979 when I wrote a weekly column on Chinese and Indian cultures, literature and philosophy, the newspaper hired Kwan Shan Mei to illustrate my articles. Down the decades, I will always remember those visits to her home in Serangoon Garden each week with my typewritten manuscript for her to read and prepare her illustration. I still retain her original ink drawings which I keep in a biscuit tin together with cuttings of my printed articles.