Friday, November 14, 2008

Asian Pacific American Lit.: Maples in the Mist

Ho, Minfong, trans. 1996. Maples in the Mist. Illus. by Jean & Mou-Sien Tseng. NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard Books. ISBN: 068812044X.

In this collection of poems translator Minfong Ho presents poems from the Tan Dynasty.


According to the Note from the Translator the poems written during the Tang Dynasty, the Golden Age of China (618-907 AD), are taught to Chinese children. When trying to teach her own children, she decided to translate the poems into English. Minfong Ho further explains that her translations are more literal translations of the original poems.

Ho’s poems are in free verse and are crisp and are mostly understandable. The sixteen poems range in subjects from animals to seasons to plants and more. There are many poems that have lovely imagery, such as in the poem “Moon”:

When I was little
I thought the moon was a white jade plate.
Or maybe a mirror in Heaven
Flying through the blue clouds.

And in the “Mountain Road”:

Far up the cold mountains is a steep stone path.
Nestled in the white clouds is a little house.
We stop our cart to sit among the twilight maples”
After the frost, their leaves glow redder than spring blossoms.

The colorful watercolor illustrations fill the pages; several of which are in a double-page spread. It is through the artwork that the cultural markers are seen. The pages are filled with sceneries of China and houses. The children and the adults are wearing traditional clothing and have traditional hairstyles. In the illustration for the poem “New of Home” readers see a traditional greeting between two people: a man has placed his hands on top of another and is about to bow. Overall, the illustrations also recall the traditional artwork from China that one may find in a museum. There are also Chinese characters in the margins of the each poem and illustration. However, it is unknown what they are and although they add to the overall appearance of the book, the readers are left wondering what they mean.

At the end of the book, Ho provides brief biographies the poets who wrote the original versions of the poems. This is a lovely book of translated poems that were written over 2000 years ago and provides a unique glimpse into the culture’s poetry that is taught to its children.

A collection of tiny poems set against watercolors painted in the Chinese tradition.

These Tang Dynasty poems, translated from the Chinese, were traditionally memorized by children learning to read. Ho (Hush!, p. 227) tells readers in the brief, intimate introduction how the book grew out of her desire to pass these vivid four-line verses on to her own children. The poems are immediate and accessible: "When I was little/I thought the moon was a white jade plate,/Or maybe a mirror in Heaven/Flying through blue clouds." In "News of Home," the poet asks, "The day you left, was the plum tree/By my window in bloom yet?" The sound of a bell at night, the snow-white hair on an old man, frosted leaves "redder than spring blossoms"—these seemingly artless images compress a depth of feeling nicely reflected in the pictures. The dreamlike world of recognition and memory in the watercolors is firmly yoked to the images in the poems. More mature poetry fans will recognize many of the names here; an "About the Poets" section offers brief biographies.

Gr 3 UpA beautiful anthology of 16 short, unrhymed poems written 1000 years ago in China. Although the poems Ho has chosen reflect timeless themes and her translations are fresh and informal, most are too introspective for a young Western audience. An attentive fourth-grader might relate to "On the Pond," in which two boys foolishly leave a trail betraying their mischief, or "Goose," a straightforward observation of a paddling goose, humorously illustrated. But the metaphoric images of a rainstorm en route to ancestors' gravesites, an empty boat tossed in a twilight storm, birds in flight against the vastness of time and space, and even homesickness ("How can a blade of young grass/ever repay the warmth of the spring sun?") seem a bit sophisticated for pre-teens. In her introduction, Ho admits she memorized these poems reluctantly in childhood, coming to appreciate them only years later. Even young children, however, will enjoy the illustrations that complement the lean, moody text. The Tsengs' watercolors are reminiscent of traditional T'ang brush-paintings. Stylized contours of huts and pagodas, birds, blossoms, and children in ancient dress are set in airy, expressive washes of landscape, spring or autumn foliage, and mountains floating in the mist. Chinese characters printed in the right and left margins of each page are offered, unfortunately, without explanation. The three-page appendix, "About the Poets," is a useful lead-in to further research on the 14 men and their work.Karen L. MacDonald, Fairmount Public Library, Sandwich, MA

*Read more books by Minfong Ho: Hush! A Thai Lullaby, The Clay Marble: And Related Readings, and Peek!: A Thai Hide-and-Seek.

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