2022 Windham-Campbell Prize Winner Wong May's Landmark Anthology of Tang Dynasty Poetry
Chinese poetry is unique in world literature in that it was written for the best part of 3,000 years by exiles and refugees. In this anthology we meet Du Fu, Li Bai, Wang Wei, and others less familiar to readers in English. Known as the Golden Age of Poetry, the Tang Dynasty was a time when poems were bartered in the marketplace for wine and tea; and posted in temples and taverns, the words of poets unmissable as street art and signage. Monks, courtiers, courtesans, woodsmen, and farmhands were fluent in poetry. More than reading matter, it was a common currency—whether as a necessity or luxury in times of rampant warfare, droughts, famine, plague, man-made and natural disasters. "Chinese history can be read in the words of the poets. It was left for poetry to teach the least & the most," says the translator Wong May, "a literacy of the heart in a barbarous world." True to the spirit of classics, these poems from 1,200 years ago read like they were still being written somewhere in the world — to be read today, and tomorrow: “In dark times we read by the light of letters.”
"A bird translates silence,” the incredibly thorough and utterly unique Afterword begins. In 70 sections that span the millennia, the translator traverses continents and civilizations to retrieve these texts of Tang Poetry for our century, prompted by the voice of another guide, the Rhino, a magical being and original spirit who held a special place in Tang China. A historical study of ancient literature has never felt so alive and timeless.
"[Wong May's] quirky, individual voice, her own original spirit in translation and commentary, accompanies us on an unmissable journey through her Tang poetry; we can only be grateful for that queasy moment in a Beijing hotel room when the project began slowly but inexorably to announce itself and gradually take hold." — Peter Sirr, Dublin Review of Books
"[An] extraordinary Afterword, titled 'The Numbered Passages of a Rhinoceros in the China Shop,' is a magnificent, peculiar tour de force that spans nearly a hundred pages, and the book is transformed by its existence [...] entrancing, and entirely sincere." —Daryl Lim Wei Jie, Asian Books Blog
"A book very contemporary in its human closeness.... Wong May offers an extensive Afterword on the poetry and its interpreters. No mere translator's note, this capacious essay is historical, critical, comical, personal, structural and mystical by turns, exploring the Tang context of the original poets and the poetry's echoes over the last millennium or so, up through Pound and Mao and Dharma Bums. Wong May hopes 'to return the text to the body of world literature' through her investigations as a translator and critic. Her work deserves this hope, which is better than any reparative aim for poetry, always complicit in and resistant to the politics of its times." — Harry Josephine Giles, Poetry Book Society Translation Selector
Poetry. Anthology. Essays. Translation. Asian & Asian American Studies.
New York Times Best Poetry of 2022Dennis Zhou @ Poetry FoundationFeature @ Circumference Mag
Wong May was born in China's wartime capital, Chongqing, in 1944. She was brought up in Singapore by her mother, a classical Chinese poet; studied English Literature at the University of Singapore with the poet D.J. Enright; and from 1966 to 1968 she was at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Soon after, she left the USA for Europe. Her fourth book of poems, PICASSO'S TEARS (Poems 1978- 2013), was published by Octopus Books. In 2022, she was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize. Wong May currently lives in Dublin. She paints under the name Ittrium Coey, and has exhibited her work in Dublin & Grenoble.