Issue IX, Volume IV : May 2013
Su Dong-Po (1036-1101 A.D.) was one of the three major poets from the Song Dynasty. He was known for his writings at an early age, which led to prominent government positions. Because of his poetry, he was arrested and then demoted many times (the last time was one year before his death) by political rivals.
Yun Wang's second book of poetry, "The Book of Totality", will be published by Salmon Poetry in 2014. Her first book of poems, "The Book of Jade", was published by Story Line Press 2002. Her poetry chapbook, "The Carp", was published by Bull Thistle Press in 1994. She has published poems in numerous literary journals including the Kenyon Review and Cimarron Review. Her translations of Su Dong Po's tune poems have been published in Willow Springs and Confluence.
Here ``tune poems" refer to ``Ci", poetry originally written to fixed tunes, with strict tonal patterns and rhyme schemes in fixed numbers of lines and words. The lines are generally uneven in length. ``Ci" has been regarded as the dominant form of lyric poetry in classical Chinese poetry; it originated in the Tang Dynasty and was fully developed in the Song Dynasty. These five poems are from a book length manuscript that contains the Chinese original face to face with Yun Wang's translations.
Yun Wang Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
I cannot tell you how excited I am to be able to interview someone who is not only a poet but who specializes in studying dark energy. I am fascinated by physics; I wish I’d studied it more. I hope you don’t mind answering some cosmology questions! I have a seemingly boundless desire to understand how all of the craziness of the universe works. I hope, though, that I’m not asking completely unanswerable questions. First: I’m in the middle of watching a series of documentaries about the universe, and it said that we’re not really sure what dark energy (or matter) is or whether it exists, but that there is clearly something very powerful force acting on the galaxies. Is dark energy the same thing as dark matter? Would you explain what dark energy is – or might be – in at least semi-lay (not expert) terms? If we don’t really know what it is, do you have a theory?
I am always happy when someone wants to learn about the universe. I am endlessly fascinated by the universe myself, which is why I became a cosmologist, against all odds and active discouragement from some of my college professors.
Dark matter and dark energy are two separate mysteries about the universe which may or may not be related. Most of the matter in the universe does not emit light, so is invisible, hence the name “dark matter”. We know it’s there, because all that dark matter increases the gravitational pull experienced by luminous matter (e.g., stars) – the stars have to rotate much faster around the center of galaxies to avoid falling in. The evidence for dark matter is this much increased rotation speed (compared to that in the absence of dark matter), first measured conclusively by astronomers in the 1970s. Dark matter keeps galaxies from flying apart.
Dark energy refers to the observation made by astronomers in 1998 that the expansion of the universe is accelerating today. This could only happen if the universe were dominated by something that does not gravitate (i.e., not matter-like), or if our understanding of gravity is fundamentally flawed. Matter gravitates, so galaxies would fall toward each other, and a matter dominated universe should be decelerating in its expansion today. The unknown nature of this cosmic acceleration is dubbed “dark energy”, even though it may be caused by either an unknown new form of energy that permeates the universe, or a modification in our theory of gravity. My research specialty is dark energy, with the focus on the observational probes of the nature of dark energy. I think that dark energy is most likely the manifestation of the quantum effects in gravity (poorly understood at present). My hope is that the observational efforts that I contribute to will help unravel the mystery of dark energy.
The facts that we may not really know what dark energy is or what the physics controlling it are made me wonder: in scientific research, how much does belief overlap with science? Is there some element of belief at all? For instance, need you have a belief that dark energy exists (as opposed to something else) – or need you just have the understanding that there is a force and attempt to figure out what it is (and, in the meantime, call that force “dark energy”)? Is there a difference? Is there anything you have to routinely trust or believe in order to be successful in your research?
In my experience, top scientists separate belief and science. It’s important to differentiate between belief and intuition; belief may be disconnected from evidence, but intuition is based on evidence and the scientist’s past research experiences and expertise. I would not say that I believe that dark energy exists. I would say that the evidence for dark energy is conclusive, we just have to figure out what it is. I may say that I believe that the human race is destined to explore the stars and live on Earth-like planets beyond the solar system. You see the difference – it’s the objective versus the subjective. My success in my research has been solely based on my passion for the research and my intuition for what is interesting and important, and what would solve the problems.
I heard that one theory says that dark energy can pass through our bodies, and everything we know, as if we were not even here – and yet it is forceful enough to keep galaxies together. What is the most fascinating theory or fact you know of (or, if you want to indulge me, what are a few fascinating ones)? Do theories like these affect the way you understand art? Life?
I turn to be very professional (or clinical) in evaluating and responding to possible theories for dark energy. Many models that might be most fascinating to the general public may seem ludicrous to me and not deserve being published in an astrophysical journal, because they are based on pure speculation and not based on known or plausible physics. But I think quantum effects of gravity (which I think might be behind dark energy) are actually pretty fascinating too, right? Some facts about the universe do affect how I see the human world. For example, the universe is mostly empty, and it would take light more than 4 years to travel here from the nearest star from the Sun. And the universe is expanding, and its expansion is accelerating today. The nature of dark energy will determine the ultimate fate of the universe – will it expand forever, or will it stop expanding and collapse? This big picture allows me to step back now and then. I think it also affects how I view art and life in some subtle ways. For example, I am not drawn at all to art (including poetry) that seems completely self-centered to me.
Does anything you’ve come across help explain what we think of as ghosts or aliens?
I have not seen any convincing evidence for either ghosts or aliens. I do think that consciousness is the ultimate mystery and should be explored scientifically.
Do you think it is possible that our laws of physics do not operate everywhere, or in every plane or dimension, or in every time? In other words, is it possible that our laws of physics only govern the things we know, and a different law of physics (or something else) governs something (or place / time / plane / dimension) else that exists?
Almost all of our laws of physics have their limits of application. If there are extra dimensions to the ones we know, then the laws of physics would have to be modified. But given that our laws of physics have been validated to extremely high precision, these modifications would have to be subtle and small in our observable universe.
I feel really ignorant, and I’m afraid this question is difficult to answer, and if so, you don’t have to answer it: Can you – and would you, if possible – explain, in somewhat lay terms, what energy is?
That’s a hard one. I think of energy as being different from matter – matter gravitates (clumps of matter are attracted to each other), while energy does not. There are different kinds of energy, for example, kinetic energy and potential energy. An object that moves fast has a high kinetic energy. An object on top of a hill has gravitational potential energy, which is converted to kinetic energy if it rolls down a hill, because the total amount of kinetic plus potential energy it has is conserved. Then there is dark energy, which we don’t know the nature of.
I think if I studied cosmology, I would be constantly inspired to write poems. Is your writing affected by your scientific studies and understanding?
I love the poems you’ve shared with us – they are so full of life and “living for the moment” and yet they also have a calm, soothing timelessness to them. I get the sense that the writer felt deeply, like young folks do, but had the wisdom of someone elderly to contextualize those feelings. What draws you to Su Dong-Po’s work?
I have known these poems since I was a child growing up in China. Su Dong-Po has always been one of my favorite poets of all time. I am drawn to his work by the feel of both the intimate and the infinite in his poetry, and the Chinese originals in their effortless beauty and music. I was disappointed by some of the translations of his poetry that I have come across, so I felt duty-bound to try to do better, since I know the Chinese originals intimately, and I also write poetry myself in English.
Do you know of a current-day equivalent of Su Dong-Po’s work – that is, is there a certain kind of poet or musician who does something similar to what he did? Is there a modern artist like him whose work you particularly love (and, if so, why)?
Sadly, no. In fact, I think if Su Dong-Po were alive today and sending his poems out, he would get rejected almost all of the time. My translations of his poems have been rejected many times, often with the rejection addressed to “Dear Su Dong-Po”. Then I had to reply that he has been dead for over a thousand years! I think in the rush of technology and industrialization, many people have lost the ability to appreciate Su Dong-Po’s kind of timeless aesthetic. I am delighted that my friend Richard Jarrette suggested that I send my translations of Su Dong-Po to you.
To theTune of ManTing Fang [The Court Fills with Fragrance]
Fame fits in a snail's horn
Profits balance the weight of a fly's head
No calculation justifies the toil
Destiny tracks all
The meek outlast the strong
Before my body ages in boredom
I allow myself
to go a little wild
One hundred years
could mean getting drunk
thirty six thousand times
Examine the length
of our existence
The wind-tangled rain of sorrow
erodes half of it
Why invite death with endless
commentaries on the short and long
With luck we face crystal wind and lustrous moon
A carpet of moss spreads into infinity
Clouds weave a tall tent
South of the Yangtze River presents
a thousand goblets of divine wine with the tune
“The Court Fills with Fragrance”
There was a Governor Wang, who abandoned the office of Huang Zhou for thirty three years. The people of Huang Zhou called him Master Wang. He accompanied my friend Chen Zao to the South of the River to see him off. They passed Huang Zhou and visited with me. I composed this poem in his honor.
The passage of thirty three years
by only you and the Yangtze River
A juniper in cool green
Its frosted trunk unmatched in endurance
They say in an ancient county
by streams mirroring clouds
your windows open from bamboo walls to pines
Journeying to South Shore
to see off our friend
you stop by my humble home
Sparse and brief
The forest breaks into a wind dance
beneath smoke canopies and cloud banners
With this cup I invite you
Drink to empty the jar
Old Dong Po faces you
A dream comes true as the lamp wanes
The singing stops
The traveler does not rise
Boat drums beat in earnest
Mid-autumn night of the year Bing Chen, happy drinking tilldawn. Utterly drunk, composed this for my brother Zi-You.
How long has the bright moon existed?
I raise the wine cup to ask the sapphire sky
What year is tonight
in celestial palaces?
I could ride the wind to return there
but fear the unbearable chill
high in jade towers with jeweled eaves
I dance with my crisp shadow
in delight known only to mortals
Circles painted pavilions
Seeps over carved doors
Shines on the sleepless
The moon has no regrets
Why does it glow in full over parted humans?
Misery and joy cycle as we separate and reunite
The moon wanes and waxes
Time forbids perfection
Let us live long to share moonlight’s spell
though a thousand miles apart
To the Tune of Jiang Cheng Zi [From the River City]
Ten years one alive one dead we share no light
I do not dwell on it
Can never forget
A thousand miles away a lonely tomb
I could tell no one about my sorrow
Even if we should meet you would not recognize me
Dust covers my face
On my temples hair white as frost
That night a serene dream took me home
Facing the little window
you were combing your long hair
We gazed at each other wordless
Tears fell in a thousand lines
Each year grief shall twist my innards
The moon-infused night
Your knoll with short pines
* underlined characters could not be found on the translator's Chinese input program.
To the Tune of Shui Diao Ge Tou [The Water Tune]
For Zhang Wo-Quan, at Crisp Pavilion, Huang Zhou.
Roll up brocade curtains at sunset
Water blends with sky beneath the pavilion
You have built this for me
Blue and vermilion paint still wet on windows
It invokes the Ping Shan Mansion in the South
where I leaned on pillows to watch smoky rain
A single goose flew into dark heights
Just as the line from the Drunken Old Man:
“The mountain there and not there”
A crystal mirror spans
ten thousand acres
inverts jade peaks
Sudden billows rise
toss the leaf of a boat of a white-haired fisherman
I laugh thinking of young Lord Lan Tai
lacking Zhuang Zi’s lore of heavenly flutes
elaborating on male wind and female wind
It takes a little air of vastness within
to ride a thousand miles of crisp wind