Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom could fit neatly into any number of contemporary-sounding categories: hybrid text, art book, lyric essay, etc. It is a book that relies on interdependence of image and text, of history and the present, of evocation and concrete image.
There is a thrill that comes with reading something that feels new, like language and form are moving about in a way you didn’t know they could move about. It’s easy to forget that this thrill, which motivates so much contemporary writing and reading, can just as easily be found in a work that has been around for centuries. That’s one of the many joys that come out of Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, an updated translation of Sung Po-jen by Red Pine, recently out from Copper Canyon.
The history of Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom is fascinating even apart from the text itself. First printed from woodblocks in 1238, the original book is a collection of calligraphic illustrations of plum blossoms, every one accompanied by a brief poem. Descriptive, evocative, and rooted in Chinese history and culture, the poems offer an engrossing lesson on observation, with every slow step of the blossom’s growth deepening the writer’s engagement with the natural world and the people who share it with him. A publishing house recreated the woodblock print in 1261, although its emphasis on Chinese culture made it a political target after the Mongol conquest in 1276. For centuries, the book was passed around in secret. Finally, in 1801, a book collector found a copy that belonged to Wen Cheng-min, a master of literati painting from the sixteenth century. This copy slowly brought the text to a wider readership in China. The book continued to pass from hand to hand, eventually ending up under the intensive study of Red Pine. Out of print for more than a decade, this latest version offers a revised translation, informed by further scholarship on Sung Po-jen in the past years.
Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom could fit neatly into any number of contemporary-sounding categories: hybrid text, art book, lyric essay, etc. It is a book that relies on interdependence of image and text, of history and the present, of evocation and concrete image. It is an endlessly rich effort and a powerful model of the artist as someone who sees the world from a prism of angles. Sung Po-jen offers enough small moments of narrative and concrete imagery to balance the heavy doses of literary, cultural, and political history. As one poem reads,
drunk on a quart drunk on a gallon
the only restriction is avoiding disorder
who would know if you alone are sober
sitting by the river distraught and forlorn
The poem is paired with the image of a single opening blossom, linked by the blossom’s resemblance to the title, “Jug of Spring Perfume.” Red Pine goes a step further, adding beneath every poem a short paragraph elucidating the cultural and historical context. Here, he both describes the process of winemaking and indicates the literary references, with lines from Confucius and the poet Ch’u Yuan recreated in their entirety for comparison.
Red Pine’s explanatory text will be crucial for many audiences. Most importantly, however, he usually manages to provide historical information without instructing the reader on how that information might apply to the poem. This is a complicated act, but one Red Pine handles deftly. Descriptions of ritual objects, historical narratives, the text of other ancient poems—the information he provides is given as is, so that it is free to interact with the poem and the image as the reader sees fit (occasions when he does suggest a particular reading are rare enough to seem unobtrusive). Of course, the very act of inserting explanatory information into the text is a radical act. But considering how deeply Sung Po-jen was engaged with Chinese history and politics, it is a necessary intrusion for most audiences.
Of course, the imagery and emotional core of these poems deserve just as much attention as the book’s history. “I’d rather face the yellow flowers with wine / a black silk hat is no concern of mine,” as one poem has it. Elsewhere, “wings flap three times in the frigid air / wind and rain make no difference / who is this getting up to dance.” Sung Po-jen consistently displays that unique ability to hold a consistent view of the world while still questioning himself, to believe passionately in his home despite knowing there is so much he doesn’t yet understand about it. Of an ancient army mythically turned into gibbons, he notes
where their howls still echo
and gates are few below a winter moon
she asks each crane she meets
why hasn’t my lord returned yet
It’s a fun game, rummaging into the past for something like a legacy, and a productive one, too. It’s at least a part of Sung Po-jen’s motivation, a nationalism and pride that might seem suspect to modern readers, but that remain a necessary component of spirituality and freedom for the artist. And it’s a potent act, a kind of theurgy of history, asGuide to Capturing a Plum Blossom’s long suppression attests.
Released again by Copper Canyon, the book will hopefully find a greater contemporary audience. It deserves a place as a well-read classic of many genres, moving like a ghost through narrative, imagery, evocation, metaphor, and philosophy. Describing a plum, Sung Po-jen notes that “beside a road it languishes / who looks at it with pleasure.” In one of his rare moments of commentary, Red Pine adds that “if a fruit such as a plum needs the right location to be appreciated, the same might be said for our author and his work.”