A Cold December Night by Mu Dan
translated by Huiwen (Helen) Zhang
A Cold December Night
A cold December night, the wind sweeps the northern plains, The northern fields wither; wheat and corn are wheeled into the village, Months and years end, mules and oxen fall asleep, the river outside the village freezes, On the ancient road, amid the field’s crossing patterns, a lamp sparkles, A thick, wrinkled face, Thinking what? Doing what? On this trusted road, pressed to death under the groaning wheels. The wind blows to the east, the wind blows to the south, the wind swirls over the sunken narrow streets, The paper pane of the wooden lattice window piled with sand, we sleep calmly under the muddy grass roof, Whose boy is crying out in fear? wa—wu—wu—, roof to roof, He is about to grow up and, with time, just like us, lie down, just like us, snore Roof to roof, the wind So wide and months and years so long, We cannot hear, we cannot hear. Is the fire out? Is the red coal flame quenched? A voice: Our ancestors are already asleep, somewhere close to us, All the stories are already told, only ashes left behind, In our disconsolate dreams, once they’ve come and gone, At the gate those tired-out scythes, Hoes, yokes, millstones, and carts Quiet, treasuring snowflowers as they fall. 1941
Download the podcast
(thanks to Vic Udwin for the English reading)
Mu Dan 穆旦(1918-1977) is widely considered one of the most significant Chinese poets of the 20th century. He was driven by a passion and a talent for poetry since the age of 13; compelled by the Cultural Revolution to cease at 40, he was reborn as a poet at 57. During the war, he walked a circuitous 3000 miles from Peking to Kunming to attend the provisional wartime university, and joined the Chinese Expedition Army to Burman (now Myanmar). T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden were strong influences on his early work. He translated poetry from Russian and English, developing a Chinese voice for Pushkin, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley.
Huiwen (Helen) Zhang 张慧文 (website, blog) is a curious mind wandering in search of every possible experience and adventure from China through Germany to the United States; a limber voice rendering Chinese, German, and English into one another in quest of the seemingly unattainable congenial; an unyielding spirit striving in the wilderness of philosophy and poetry; and a faithful soul writing under the sign of blue flower and red coral. This translation is a companion to her earlier piece in the issue, “Meditation on the Road: Chinese Wartime Sonnets by Feng Zhi,” which were also written in 1941.