Taking Leave of a Friend
Li Po (tr. Ezra Pound)
Blue mountains to the north of the walls,
White river winding about them;
Here we must make separation
And go out through a thousand miles of dead grass.
Mind like a floating wide cloud,
Sunset like the parting of old acquaintances
Who bow over their clasped hands at a distance,
Our horses neigh to each other
as we are departing.
It isn’t really appropriate to describe these ventures by Pound into Eastern poetry as “translations.” From Wikipedia, regarding the source of the poem above:
Of great importance too was his work on the papers of Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), an American professor who had taught in Japan, and who had started translations of Japanese poetry and Noh plays, with which Pound became fascinated. Pound used Fenollosa’s work as a starting point for what he called the ideogrammic method. Fenollosa had studied Chinese poetry under a Japanese scholar, and in 1913 his widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, decided to give his unpublished notes to Pound after seeing his work; she said she was looking for someone who cared about the poetry, rather than the philology. Pound knew no Chinese himself, and was working from the posthumous notes of an American who had studied Chinese under a Japanese teacher.
In the spirit of things, we turn to the poem. The first stanza is marked by separation. The mountain is separate from the walls; the river separates either the walls or the mountains from something else, perhaps dead grass. Dead grass is separate from life, loading “here we must make separation” with even more significance than the uncertainty of not meeting again in this life.
“Walls” are the only man-made thing in the poem. Perhaps the first stanza contains a hypothesis: maybe we mimic nature in imposing separation on ourselves. The threats of war and pillaging force civilization to literally set an end for itself. But civilization is rife with division within. Two friends are parting, after all. There’s an even more blunt concern, too: Is nature just the “white river winding?” Do we just move through death?
The second stanza takes an entirely opposite approach. Nature isn’t just the landscape, it’s the sky. A “floating wide cloud” hovers over all. I think Pound intentionally goes to similes (“like”) to indicate the remoteness of what “mind” and “sunset” represent. The immediate and even long-term reality is the landscape of walls, dead grass, mountains, a river. Still, despite the distance of what is in the second stanza, we get a part of nature that images man. We can imagine two men bowing and forming a semi-circle of sorts. Not all aspects of civilization are impositions. The horses “neigh.” The only sound presented in the poem is primitive, but a harbinger of speech, that which probably helped create the friendship and will allow it to continue in some form.