Home > Translation > Two Poems from a Heart-Mind, After Zheng Xie

Two Poems from a Heart-Mind, After Zheng Xie

March 18, 2011

by Roberta Burnett


This very moment
a fisherman, someone unfamiliar,
trails his fishline, a silver gesture,
under the ledge, the cliff.

He pulls up empty, he poles his antique skiff still
searching the cove in all dark water.
Sheer-silk distances speck the gulls on waves.
Umber reeds spell omens in this weak sun.

Yet he sings in our twilight, his notes boom across water,
his spirit moves into folds, the silent gold flashes
that mark each peaking wave…

Aura of the moon, rising first—and out of such deep black!

* * *


The old Taoist, in traveling clothes,
head wrapped, shoulders a heavy gourd
(looks like a two-headed man when
the sun’s behind him). He wears
palm-fiber sandals for rough paths
and goat-wool socks. He’s a healer,
mending qin and tendering herbs
for curing ills, outing bad spirits.
Under clouds and the red-leaf canopy, he threads
home over rocks. Mountain neighbors say
he’s built his hut on an overlook at the base of Three Gorges.
—Who can follow him that far?
Where to find him when we have need?


Note: A qin [prn. cheen, and often spelled “ch’in”] is an ancient, plucked string instrument capable of several octaves and great subtlety of expression. It is highly prized. Those who categorize it in the zither family (played on table or lap) disregard calling it a lute (usually held vertically).

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Zheng Xie (1693–1765) was a bureaucrat, painter, poet, and calligrapher from Kiangsu, in Eastern China. Writing poetry was a required skill for Chinese officials, as intense and pertinent as knowledge of Confucian tenets. While a magistrate’s positions could be ephemeral, subject to the whims of superiors, Zheng’s poetry was second in lasting effects only to his widely admired and respected skills as a calligrapher and painter, through which his poems often were published. His poems are still loved by Chinese, carved as they are into stone in public places. As a man of the arts, the outlook reflected in his poetry seems more Taoist and joyful than the sober Confucianism of a civil servant might otherwise allow, but both perspectives clearly helped shape his poems of witness and delicacy.

Roberta Burnett’s poems have appeared in Soylesi Poetry Quarterly (tr. into Turkish), The November 3rd Club, Lucid Rhythms, Pirene’s Fountain, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Naugatuck River Review. (She guest-edited one volume of NRR.) Her recent book of poems is Trying Not to Look (Flarestack Publishing, UK). She was a solo reader for Tempe, Arizona’s “Poetry in April” series (2006). Her M.F.A. in poetry (2000) is from Vermont College of Fine Arts, with post-graduate work at Arizona State University; B.A. and M.A. (English), Cal State University, Long Beach (CSULB). She taught writing, research, semantics, and literature at colleges and universities for 18 years.

  1. March 21, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    I love these. they are tranquil but dynamic, and with the visuality of Chinese paintings.

    And now I want palm fibre sandals and goat wool socks please!

    • Roberta Burnett
      March 21, 2011 at 12:15 pm

      Thank you, Lucy–I felt the same (except for the scratchiness, ooooooh.)

  2. Alex Cigale
    March 21, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Thank you so much for these two, Roberta. They remind me how much our Modernism (and post-,) Imagism and Deep Image, owe to the Chinese and Japanese models. Particularly liked, also, how they end on an exclamation and interrogations.

  3. Crista Cloutier
    March 21, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    A lovely breath of quiet. Thank you.

  4. Barbara LaMorticella
    March 21, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    Marvelous poems. Yes, a breath of quiet.

  5. Roberta Burnett
    March 21, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    Thank you all so much! I’m astonished to have readers, or a sign that I have readers. It’s all so easy to write. So solitary, so restrained.

  6. March 22, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    No no, the goat wool would be the very soft combed stuff from its belly, like cashmere…

    I would certainly like to read more.

    • Roberta Burnett
      March 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks, Lucy, I was judging from the blankets and a sweater I have here. We have forgotten how to make wool soft in the rush to deal with masses of purchasers, apparently. I also want to say that when I wrote my tnanks of 3-21, I didn’t want to say It’s all so easy to write. Perhaps I had omitted a “not” or other qualifier. Oh well.

  7. alex cigale
    March 22, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    I had recently read Arthur Waley’s Yuan Mei: Eighteenth Century Chinese Poet (a contemporary of Xie, who is mentioned in passing) and highly recommend it to all (one of my favorite poet “biographies;” very terrific translations). http://bit.ly/glNbtB

    • Roberta Burnett
      May 25, 2012 at 3:31 pm

      Alex, I have recently purchased this book. It’s in my bedside stack. Thanks, again.

  8. Roberta Burnett
    March 23, 2011 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks, Alex, I have read translations of Yuan Mei, but I don’t own this book. Yet.

  1. May 9, 2011 at 3:32 pm
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