Poetry in translation / July 2011 (Issue 14)

Four Trees and Three Seas

by Aku Wuwu, translated from Nuosu Yi by Mark Bender, with Aku Wuwu. Introduction by Mark Bender

           1. Fir Tree (ssup bbo)

The fir tree top
        seems held up
by a spirit rope tied
to the pillars of
                    Sy sse dix hni's home
                    in the sky.
Below, the roots
            seem held down
by a pair of  spirit rocks.

A tree that won't uproot if pulled,
steadfast as a ndeggu -- the village man of words.
Yet, if pulled, its head won't bow.
It remains as collected as a village elder.
Such a manner ought be forever maintained,
such a manner ought be forever maintained.

The generations, one after another,
have hung how many shaman's drums
on those fir trees?
Those bells
          on the trees ringing
          upon the mountain peaks,
the sounds spreading relentlessly outwards,
like flocks of cheeping birds
                      carried off by the wind,
                      transformed into fir needles.
Thither, the fir spirits
                   grow wings.

These tree branches
seem like ten sons of one mother,
each with its own heart.
Do ten ants follow each one,
going down ten different roads?

White mists are their shuoma flowers,
shuoma flowers become their white felt cloaks.
The countless pleats of the white felt cloaks,
have become the frigid valleys of their memory,
unknowing of when Spring will let the waters rise
                        within these mountain valleys.

One life can make but one road.
whether an easy or difficult one.
One road can bind but one sun:
whether the orb hangs in the sky
or sleeps within the black earth.
The sun above the fir tree
is like a bird's nest;
the sun at the tree's root
is like a nrut mop tuber growing
                             in the cleft of a rock.

If they could spend their lives
sleeping within the heart

of the black earth,
fir roots would be willing to transform
into twisting dreams within
              that earth.
But for ages, landslides have struck without end,
exposing their ribs within the black earth,
                like a boat with no pilot
                floating about the sea,

or like an eagle in the sky
whose claws have been cut off,
and when still dripping red blood,
are taken to make
                   eagle claw wine cups
                   to place upon a family's sacred altar,
or taken to the land of the blue-eyed foreigners
to emit feelings of friendship.

In the realm of the fir trees,
sky and earth have their own worlds,
but will mice chew apart the main post
in the home of the spirit Sy sse dix hni?
Will the spirit rocks holding down
the fir roots
be eaten away by grubs?

The sound of the sunyi's spirit drum
     rings like burning flames;
fir trees transform into a great river's roar.
The waters have no way to smother the flames;
the flames have no way to swallow the waters.
Men cannot repress women;
women cannot devour men.
(A man's power is in his muscles;
a woman's power is in her mouth).

The fir tree's trunk is straighter than sunlight,
surrounded by mixed woods and rock;
the many mixed grasses,
overshadowing them all,
bringing on an early autumn.
Perhaps it alone,
                the fir tree,
survives down til today
from that ancient moment of creation
there among the four wooden pillars,
that the ancestor's brought
             to hold up the sky.

(Those ancients seem like free, wild children,
with "no stones pressing down their heads";
no wonder they could "brace the necks" of
the shifting sky and earth.)

Should the fir one day drift down to lay upon the earth,
then we should be destined to repeat
        those feats
        of those ancient ancestors.


                                               2. Pine Tree (te bbo)

In the three months of spring,
the scats of birds,
pile up on this pine tree
like so many fruits.
The pine cones are thus heavy
in the three months of fall.

Beneath this pine,
people have done many things
they should not have;
but the tree stands heedless
it seems.

A crow has cawed that which
shouldn't be voiced,
yet the pine stands heedless,
it seems.

This pine tree seems like a
fatherless son,
a motherless daughter.
It is enwrapped in
layers of brambles,
the brambles surrounded by
layers of ferns.
     Each year it is this way:
the fern roots netted like hunting bags,
grow like rising steam;
      fern leaves like
red and yellow clouds,
endlessly playing together,
      pretending their weddings.

Such a big, tall tree will be struck
by powerful storms,
b ut why won't the storms
blow this tree into
                       a single green vine?
If the storms blew this tree
                      into a vine,
one could string the vine
with the stars of the sky,
like an amber necklace
to send to one's lover.

Why not blow this tree into a snake?
If the storms blew it into a snake,
that snake could bite and eat
the eggs in all the crow nests.

And why haven't the storms blown
this tree into
a gigantic dragon?
Long ago, there was a son who
                 swallowed a dragon's egg,
and changed into a male dragon.
Abandoning his parents on earth
he drank dry the waters of a great river,
then made the sea, black as night,
as light as

"Those living in mountain shadows are near-sighted,
those living among pines are covered with grime."      

Yet, despite some truth to this saying,
        once cut
a pine tree never sends out new shoots --
it dies cleanly. 

From now on,
all human shoots,
human lines,
will generate
within computers. 


                                          3. Black Sea (shur nuo)

That with roots
chewed off the roots,
that with flowers
swallowed the flowers;
neither bodies,
nor souls
were kept.

The black sea, is like
the wide, open gullet of an owl,
a bottomless cave,
the black bore of a gun,
the blackest, moonless night,
the deep black of plain
and fringed
felt capes --
these constitute the vital head of the sea,
its weapons.

It is said,
the black sea was poison overflowing
from a crock
within the home of sky god
Nge tit gux nzy.
And the sea turned all life within it
into a pot of
boiling water.

In that epoch animals could not blame humans,
and humans could not blame animals:
Animals and people were drawn into one boiling pot.
Six tribes of creatures with blood,
and six tribes of creatures without blood,
all driven within the sea to burn together.

Then, in the place where heaven and earth meet,
the sun became a worm,
ceaselessly groaning behind the black clouds,
like frigid snow on the dark flank of a mountain.
At the bottom of the black sea
earth and feces from a mole's ceaseless tunneling piled high,
But the black sea was unaware.
And the question remains today:
When will the black spots disappear
from the face of this world?

Thus, for this primal black sea,
the black earth of our home place
is richer than elsewhere.
And for this the fir and cypress trees of our place
are taller and straighter
than elsewhere.
And thus the footprints of our parents
are deeper than those of parents elsewhere.

In the future, when
the furrows of my life are as shallow
as spring flowers …

I don't distinguish between day and night awaiting the black sea.

I have heard the roar of my own black blood --
is it not the violation of taboo?


                                                 4. Red Sea  (shur hni)

If lightning doesn't die, then
fire won't die;
if fire doesn't die, then
the red sea won't go dry;
if the red sea doesn't go dry, then
life will not die!

Two pieces of steel stuck together will
make fire, too;
two living beings struck together will
make fire, too.
The red sea looks somewhat like
a burning mountain.
Every creature in the world hopes
to cross over this mountain.
Those that grow hair
will be burned hairless;
those that wear clothing,
will be stripped clean;
leaving only naked,
unclothed beings,
who are forced by the sea to row between
this and the opposite shore.

Now that the red sea cannot be seen by eyes,
and now that it is untouchable by hands,
it is only there in dreams.
When a sleepless, unsettled, endlessly
roaming spirit appears --
it seems to come from the shores of the red sea,
and when leaving goes in the direction of that sea.

When waking you discover that all
the rosy red fruits have become a red sea.
The fiery red fireplace has become a red sea.
The vibrant red thoughts in people's hearts have become a red sea.
The place you are at has become a red sea.
The place I am at has become a red sea.

At midnight, "ghost fire" becomes a red sea.
At noon, a lighting strike becomes a red sea.
Also, in the sky above, the cry of an eagle becomes a red sea.
Also, in the earth below, the growing crops become a red sea.
Also, the country has become a red sea.
Also, the ethnic group has become a red sea.
Also, ants have become a red sea.
Also, dog fleas have become a red sea.
Also, strawberries have become a red sea.

A horse-red steed
stands to one side of the present race track,
its hooves continually beating;
standing on the edge of the earth
a rooster-red cock spreads its wings and tail;
a maiden as lovely as a water flower,
lifts her skirts, runs swiftly from the red sea.

In this era, one cannot find a man who can catch up.


                                5. Cypress Tree (shut bbo)

Cypress trees may grow high in the mountains, but
the smell of cypress is always in my urban home.

Since ancient times,
my ancestors have been chased away like animals,
chased away from our ancestral lands.
Crossing ninety-nine streams and rivers,
passing over ninety-nine great mountains,
the steps of this history are red as blood,
like the tart sup su berries.
This sort of history ought thus become the
blood of the cypress,
the pus of the cypress.

The ritual altar board was ripped from the wall
and became the roof of a dog house.
Leaks within the caves
where they were kept,
caused the ancestors' soul tablets to rot.
Ritualists, the bimo,
were driven into rat holes
to doctor sick rats,

The Book of Divination
was carried by ants to their colonies
to tell the fortunes of ants.
Stories from The Book of History were compared with
those of big black boulders;
As the history of the boulders was considered longer,

The Book of History was burned to
cure the nausea
of the boulders in that era.
All these things,
were incised
by wild wind and heavy rains
upon the brow of the cypress tree.

The clean shuoma flowers on the mountain
say they are the most fortunate of flowers.
The dirty tunneling moles says they are, indeed,
most fortunate.
Yet, the descendants of the Nuosu
say they are the most fortunate.
But, the fringed wool cloaks do not protect from the cold,
and the pleated felt cloaks seem like hanging icicles.
Under such conditions,
the cypress tree should indeed become
the alpha-male of icicles in this world.

If you go to war, yet cannot lead warriors to fight,
to become heroes,
how could the cypress become your spear and arrow?
If you are not willing to fight,
is it because you are unwilling to sacrifice your blood?
When you are setting up a home,
if you are unwilling to make the family prosperous,
then how could the cypress become your farm tools?
Is it because you are unwilling to turn yourself into money?

If the blood is running from your veins,
the blood of the cypress will revive you.
If you lose strength, the strength of the cypress will support you.
But were you are able to pull the hunting bag out from your heart,
the bats from within your eyes,
and the ball of wool stuffed deep in your mouth,
where would you toss them?

The cypress tells it this way;
its shadow tells its way:
Do not allow the grains to enter autumn with heads bowed;
do not allow people to shamefully await the spring. 

Cypress grow in the high mountains,
yet my urban home has always
the smell of cypress.


                                              6. White Sea (shur qu)

 A white cloud in the sky palace broke a taboo
and was driven from the sky clan.
Afterwards, in the human world on earth
a white sea silently appeared,
spreading like wild fire.

All around it the white colored houses grew up faster
than the fir forests.
The fish fry raised at the bottom of the sea
blossomed to be
more numerous than the stars in the sky.
The fir needles left on the branches all became ears,
and white stories made bunches
of pure white roads between those ears.
Mankind, at that time, had not yet walked on the white road.
Though not an ancient
how can I know such things?
      It is because the white sea is forever young, undying.

From far away it looks like a cow's udder,
seeming like a huge, swollen udder.
If a drop of white milk is spilled
it is likely that a life has been lost.
From nearby it is like a fine-meshed winnowing tray,
though no life is of greater or lesser value.

The sea, nevertheless, likely continues its ceaseless winnowing.
Wherever tree roots spread there will be a mountain spring.
Wherever human footprints appear, a rooster will crow.
Down to today, the history of that white sea
is sleeping in what yellowed book eaten by soot?
The world is the white sea of the human heart,
and is also the human-kind of the white sea's heart.

The pure white sea, so white, so white!
It seems humans have changed back into frost and snow.
Yet how is it I have not told of this?

The water inside time, the time inside water,
the life inside of time and water.
Yet how is it I have not been told of this?

Since long ago, my heart has seemed like a long, deep crater
left by a dragon emerging from the mountains
and entering the sea.
No mistaking it, absolutely
no mistaking it.

It is said that in ancient times
the beautiful white bird spirit that
protects the purity of the white sea
was transformed from an eagle.

Should fierce beasts rip apart and devour my meat, my flesh,
then my pure white bones shall change into traps
that can at least capture the small birds among my attackers.

Yet, in these time, those women in the cities,
those most suitable to bear the children,
have come down with the "white blood disease."


                                        7. Love Tree (mgu bbo)

A strange sort of tree –
a love tree

grows deep in the forest
its custom is to live in such deep forests.
I have never been to the deepest forests and thus
have never seen this tree
with my own eyes.

The roots of the love tree grow deep into the earth,
though it grows to a very low height.
Its flowers are like deeply piled snow;
its fruits a light green, with a slightly bitter taste
though all this is known only through dreams.

It is said in ancient times, when the world was afire
the only tree untouched by flames was the love tree.
It is said in the time when floods covered the earth,
the only tree not sunk to the muddy sea bottom
was the love tree, floating there on the waters.
It is said in times of war, when bullets are exchanged like hornets,
the only tree not facing a gun's muzzle was the love tree.
In three hundred stacks of firewood,
there's not a stick of love tree wood.
In three hundred piles of duff,
not one love tree leaf can be found.

The love tree is
a flower at the bottom of the sea,
a bee on the steepest cliffs,
dewdrops in the midst of the heavens,
footprints within the heart.
The love tree is
the winter within the pupils of the eyes.

Not one love tree has ever withered,
and even if one would wither,
it would not  rot,
and even if rotting,
it would not make insects.
Yet, it is said that countless times it has been suddenly
struck by silent bolts of lightning.

All of those who have entered the deep mountains and
placed their dogs on the scents of prey (there, where lightning has struck)
will be infected by diseases of the skin.
It is said, that in every direction
the love tree is mixed amongst the countless trees and shrubs.
Were one to search forever,
a whole grove of love trees could never be found.

Oh love tree!
Is it thus that
Pup mop hnix yyr is one of these trees?
As is Nzy hni shyx si one of these trees?
As is Ax mo hnix sse one of these trees?
As is Ax yi ax rryr one of these trees?
As are A shy mop, A ssat nyop, and Ga mop at nyop
among these trees?
O love tree, if they are all love trees,
how is it that you always grow along with women's tears.
Is it not you whom the people of earth call
the "women's tree"?

Again in my dreams,
it seems as if my fingers can change into love trees;
as if my toes can become love trees;
as if my body, my four limbs can change into love trees;
as if each hair can change into love trees.
My complete self has changed into another person's love tree,
and I know not where my love tree grows.


*Note:  The "t," "x", and "p" ending some Nuosu Yi words are tone markers that represent high or low linguistic tones and should not be pronounced.

Introduction to "Four Trees and Three Seas"
by Mark Bender

The Liangshan Mountains of southern Sichuan are the physical and spiritual home to many poets of the Yi ethnic group – including Jidi Majia (former head of the Chinese Writer's Association and present vice-governor of Qinghai province), Luowu Laqie, Asu Yue'er, Ma Deqing, Jimu Langge, Fa Xing, Enimu Sijia, and the young female poet, Lu Juan. Yi traditions, ethnic pride, and themes of nature thematically unite these poets of what can be called the "Liangshan School" of Chinese ethnic minority poetry.

Among the poets in this poetic "micro-environment, " Aku Wuwu is the sole poet to have written a corpus of poetry in his native tongue, known as Nuosu, or Northern Yi. Like the other poets Aku has written a sizeable corpus of Chinese-language poems, including a collection inspired by a trip to America in 2005. Yet it is his works in Nuosu that open the deepest doors into his vision. Several of his works, including his signature poem about the fate of a mythic Yi culture-hero, "Calling Back the Soul of Zhyge Alu," have been published in English translation (Manao 17).  To date, however, Aku has yet to allow any of his Nuosu language poems to be translated directly into Chinese, stating that he has yet to find a "suitable" translator.

The accompanying poems were all written in the early 1990s and published in a collection of Nuosu language poems called Lat jju, or Tiger Tracks. Seven of the poems in that collection form a complement that can be called "Four Trees and Three Seas."

Trees like the pine, fir, and cypress, along with certain grasses and other plants play important roles in Nuosu myth and ritual. Many are still used in ritual practices today, still gaining legitimacy from their origins as related in the master-text of Nuosu myth, the Book of Origins (Hnewo tepyy). The three "seas" or lakes of which Aku writes – red, black, and white – depend somewhere in the realm between poem and reality. In actuality, there are a number of lakes in the Liangshan area – including "Yi Sea" (Yi Hai) and the "Qiong Sea" (Qiong Hai), though in parts of southwest China even puddle-sized seasonal wetlands are "seas." The forces of nature mix like a wild vortex in the poems: earthquakes, restless seas, floods, landslides, lightning, fire, disease, and the supernatural powers of ghosts and dragons. Subtle details of bundles of pine needles, tree duff, straggling roots, berries, larvae, bees, and birds churn in an imagery of what at times seems a fractured cycle of life, decomposition, and death. Such beings, humans included, are descendants of the primal tribes -- those with blood, and those without -- which were transformed fell from falling snow in ancient times.

Each poem is an ethnographically "thick" vortex of shards of nature viewed through an auto-ethnographic veil. Shaman (sunyi) "ghost-busters" and their drums are mentioned many times, as are the written scrolls of the bimo priests who guide the traditional Yi on their paths through life and into the world of the dead. Quintessential "Yi-ness" is communicated in images involving the color "black" ("nuo"), which plays on the name of the Nuosu ("black people") in their own language. Images of articles such as wool capes of various styles are also loaded with cultural meaning. Finally, layers of oral inter-textuality permeate the lines with references to sky gods and of many heroines of myth and legend such as Pu mo hni yyr (the mother of culture-hero Zhyge Alu) and Ga mo an yo (a runaway bride) which offer readers avenues into the enthralling world of Nuosu folk literature. The poems thus become not only personal statements by Aku about human existence and nature, but fulfill their role as "textbooks" for younger generations of Yi – a goal Aku has acknowledged about his work. The poems also strike chords of cultural and individual survival in times of massive and overwhelming change, – a message that reaches beyond the local to a more global vision by conjuring a unique space of interaction between shifting worlds of dream and unstable realities.

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