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Translating fire into poetry.

Paradise burned.


In the year before the pandemic, I began writing a series of poems about fire. This is something I had wanted to do for a while, to write about the growing threat of cataclysmic fire. As a Californian, I have lived with the fear of fire for decades. I remember being just 19 and walking along the beach near the college campus in Goleta, ash from a fire a hundred miles away falling like snow from the dull looking sky. Each year wildfires increase, here and across the globe. In Siberia, the fires never stop, but rage on all year long through the untouched primal forests. In 2018, eighty-five people died in California as the entire town of Paradise burned to the ground. The firestorm moved so fast people could not escape and nothing could be saved.

Even so, we live with our fires, just as we live with our earthquakes. I still find the British fear of fire incomprehensible. How can a people who live on an island where it rains almost every day be so afraid of fire?

Notes and CommentWriting about fire seems one of the necessary practices, we need to hear our voices echoing each other as we count out the disasters we have created across our beautiful planet, although writing alone cannot free me of the dread collecting in my heart. And so I read books, did research, tracked the weather, listened to reports, and stared at a hundred photographs. I finally settled on images as the guide to my thoughts. Images don’t speak but convey, immediately, emotionally, travelling through the eye, to mind, then the body and the heart. Writing from them was a kind of ekphrastic act.

One of the first intensely moving images I fixed in my mind came from the Black Summer, the 2019–2020 bushfires in Australia that burned for over six months. In the photo a group of people are seated at a table (a picnic table? my memory shimmers like heat waves) and the sky and land behind them are entirely red, a dark turgid red, lacking clarity, charged with smoke. There was an everydayness about the expression on everyone’s face. As if a burning world was nothing to notice much less think about:

The red that stretches across the full horizon to the sky’s apex
Forms a membrane in the shape of an overturned bowl,
Beneath which we wait, seated, backs bent, legs crossed.
Red is oblivious to our existence, and though we are separate,
We feel in the next second we will disappear into redness,
The membrane will drop like a veil
Becoming lighter and thinner until it sinks into
Our skin …

You can only write so much about disaster. I knew I could not fill a book with these images. Even a book that could be laced with verbatim stories about those fires. And there are other fires in the body, as poetry has made its business to record in detail over the centuries.

To address the body and its simplest needs, that of moving, I walked every day during the isolation of the pandemic. I started taking online dance classes from the San Francisco–based choreographer Joe Goode. What draws me to Joe’s choreography is his sense of the specificity of movement as a form of language. His choreographic movements, gestures, are usually small and unelaborate, but their meaning is clear, or more precisely, it’s clear they have meaning, that they are translating emotions and ideas. In one of his combinations the dancer covers her face with her hands and then she turns her hands outwards as if they were doors or gates opening to a garden, through which you must enter. Between the open hands the dancer’s face is revealed and with it the lines and planes of human experience are emphasized. These dance moves began to enter the poems.

She frames her face with her open hands –
A threshold, her fingers the feathers of wings
One on each side

The Chinese conspiracy thriller, The Longest Day in Chang’an (长安十二时辰), takes place during the New Year, in the capitol of the Tang Dynasty. As the sky of the city darkens, lanterns float upward, lofted by flames. At midnight the Emperor’s spectacular 40-foot lantern will be released, but it has been sabotaged so that within its bamboo structure is an explosive fire like napalm that once released will continue to burn until the city and its inhabitant are extinguished. In one scene, shown here, the dancer Xu Hezi, accompanied by a flutist and a team of drummers, sings a partial version of a Li Bai poem while the entranced audience sings with her, the women’s eyebrows penciled in the shape of willow leaves, red painted on their lips in the form of blossoms. The dancer’s movements also convey a story, though they are exquisitely abstract. The poem is typical of Li Bai, within its references to gods and wine is a profound sorrow and loneliness. What the filmic sequence reminds us is that some Chinese poetry, like some Western poetry, was often sung.

There have been so many translations of the Li Bai poem. I settled on this, though nothing in English matches the concision of the original, or its rhythmic pulse:

How short the day is.
A hundred years of suffering quickly pass.
The vast sky stretches beyond what we can see,
A thousand cycles of change have gone by.

In her temple the goddess Ma Gu’s tresses hang down,
White, as if covered in frost.
The Ruler of Heaven laughs to see his Jade Girl,
He has laughed a million times over and over.

I want to ride with the sun’s six dragons,
Bind them to the Fusang tree,
Pour them a cup of good wine to drink from the Big Dipper.
Wealth and fame are not what I want,
But to stop time for all and remain forever young.1

China is connected to California through the Ring of Fire, the circle of volcanoes and earthquakes the follows the line of the Pacific Rim, including the western edge of California and the eastern edge of Asia. Here those cultures mingle, at times as volatile as fire.

Before the pandemic, I was reading and studying Asian poetry in translation. While scanning the shelves of a bookstore I had found a book with an amazing title: Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poetry.2 The image of geese, with its soaring remoteness and inhuman beauty, was enough to capture my interest, but add to that the unthinkable view of language as reversible, and the book became irresistible. Sinologist and poet Michèle Métail’s book is a collection of most of the reversible poetry from a tradition of over a thousand years. The most remarkable of these poems was rendered as a piece of embroidery on silk that Su Hui, an eighth-century Song dynasty woman, made for her husband when he was sent by the government to the outer lying provinces of the country. Rather than take his wife with him, he had taken a concubine, and in protest and as a form of seduction Su Hui composed an elaborate poem of 840 characters set on a grid so that the lines formed could be read forward, backwards and diagonally. It is believed that, read in these many ways, the poem can generate 2,000 poems. In the preface the translator points out that it is a unique feature of the Chinese language, with its lack of cases and clauses, that lines of poetry can be written so that they can be read in more than one direction.

What kind of a language is that? I could not grasp that as a possibility. This was not a small quirky Oulipan poem, though Métail has the distinction of being the first woman admitted to the Oulipan circle and the concept of reversible poetry certainly resonates with Oulipan play. The poem is a spider’s web of characters, each of which holds particles of pictographic meaning that have changed in association and allusion over centuries. Much has been written about this poem in the few short years since Métail’s book was published. And deservedly so.

Su Hui’s Armillary Sphere Map

The implications of the language pursued me, and two years later I began to study Chinese, a language both telegraphic and intuitive, historic and semaphoric. The most difficult part of learning the language, besides the fact that there are no cognates, has been the ideograms, which for the most part look like twigs dropped helter-skelter on the ground. The shapes are always startling, even in repetition.

When I was an undergraduate I read (as so many of us were required to do) the Fenollosa essay with Pound’s foreword, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. Being a doubting Thomas–kind of student I went to the then Oriental Languages department and asked the secretary there if she could recommend a professor who specialized in Chinese poetry. Now that I think about it, the man she sent me to must have been Shih-Hsiang Chen, who would have been one of the professors Gary Snyder studied with a decade or so before. He died of an unexpected heart attack about the end of the Vietnam War, thus ending the life at 59 of one of his generation’s most respected scholars of Chinese literature.

Shih-Hsiang Chen was in his office. I remember him as a biggish man, but that might be simply a reflection of how he impressed me, intellectually rather than physically. The room was lined with books and full of papers, the atmosphere was unlike any I had ever felt – it radiated quiet seriousness, an intellectual depth. I was nearly speechless. I imagine he must have asked me to sit down because I was sitting when I asked him if what Fenollosa had written and Pound believed about the Chinese language were true, if for example one could see birds winging across the page when reading a text about birds flying. He said, No, it wasn’t true, the essay was the result of misunderstanding the language. He paused and waited for a question that did not come. I thanked him and left, overwhelmed by the meeting.

Not long after reading Métail’s collection of reversible poems I read François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing. In a way this book carries on the tradition of Fenollosa and Pound, explaining how the characteristics of the language allow for poetic device; it’s easy to imagine it as a handbook for poetic practice. While reading it I kept thinking, This can’t be right. I’ve never questioned Shih-Hsiang Chen’s statement, as I questioned both Fenollosa and Pound. In five minutes he turned me into a believer whose beliefs ran counter to a central modernist doctrine. I have never believed anything else about The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.

Métail’s book moved me to read more Chinese poetry, from classical to contemporary. I began watching the Chinese dramas that were proliferating Netflix and the Internet, where a large population of netizens congregates to comment on their favorite films and just about everything else without the censorship of the government.

The two threads – fire in its most passionate forms and Asian poetry – intersect in the third section of the series of Fire poems. In a way they are meant to balance the catastrophe that is portrayed in the section on the cataclysmic fire of climate change. Though fire rituals take different forms and significance and have lost much of their ritual meaning and practice over time, enough of them remain to show the depth of our elemental awe of fire.

In Japan, ancient fire rituals mark the end of the harvest season: fire is paraded down streets in some villages and carried down mountainsides as huge blazing 200-pound torches. From a distance the torches look like lava flowing down the mountainside. In another ritual the devout write prayers on sticks that Shinto priests throw into fires, the prayers subliming human wishes into air and melding with the divine life force that permeates rocks and forests and every substance of the earth. Across Asia fiery lanterns float down rivers guiding the souls of the dead back home. Lanterns once floated upward at the end of Chinese New Year, rising on the heated air from the fires they carried.

According to one of my tutors, met via satellite on zoom, lanterns wafted into the sky through their fiery lights are no longer part of the New Year’s festival. Too dangerous, too frightening. For me also, fire has slowly departed my writing, replaced by poems about the ideographic Chinese language. The following poem is based on a word for friend, péng, 朋, which is the character for moon repeated. Within its images and sound I hear Li Bai’s poetry, and I am glad, moved and grateful.

The moon follows earth’s orbit for millions of millennia
Unlike the sun that whitens the sky, he is silent,
A curtain of space unchangeably dark behind him.
His passage is alone despite the stars decorating his path.
Write his name like a ladder,
A small hook at the end of one leg,
Does it anchor him to earth or sky?
The charged brush skims over surfaces, paper wraps rock.
Two ladders side by side writes friendship in black ink.

JAIME ROBLES is a writer and visual artist. She has recently published work in Conjunctions, Black Sun Lit, Shearsman Review and New American Writing. She has two collections out from Shearsman Books, and she recently edited and designed Cobalt Blue: Writings from the papers of Sam Francis, a collection of poems, essays and dreams by the abstract expressionist painter.


  1. This translation is a composite. The Li Bai original is:
  2. Wild Geese Returning: Chinese Reversible Poetry. Michèle Métail, trans. by Jody Gladding. New York: New York Review Books, 2017.

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