Chinese verse translated into mellifluous Scots with an English crib is a personal triumph for the Sino-Scottish makar Brian Holton who is the creator of Staunin Ma Lane (Standing Alone) [Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2016]. An interest has to be declared. I pushed my cousin Brian in his pram and it has clearly done him a great deal of good.
Brian Holton’s passions for language and languages, for the poetic and the pawky, his musicianship which adds rhythm, melody, counterpoint and grace notes to his translations are all sweetly evident in the poems in this beautiful book. It not only reads well; it looks good, such is the care taken in the design.
Brian is working in the tradition of Hugh MacDiarmid whose drunk narrator gazed at a thistle and Lewis Grassic Gibbon whose Scots Quair caught the language and the land fair and square. A long time ex-pat, my own knowledge of Scots needs this stimulus. The book and the poems should be on the syllabus of Scottish schools teaching Scots and Chinese.
I have a favourite Chinese character 兮 nowadays pronounced xī (light /sh/ initial, high flat tone) and variously described as an exclamatory particle, a verbal caesura, or an extension of the previous syllable by one syllable-length or so Brian tells me). You can find it in every single line of ‘The Nine Sangs’ of Qu Yuan (329 BC – 299 BC), the first named poet in Chinese history. Brian translates it as ‘See’ which has phonetic merit, but varies it with ‘Ay’, which has the right Scots note.
My favourite poem has to be the title poem from ‘The Sage of Poetry’ by one of the greatest of Chinese poets, Du Fu (712 – 770).
Staunin Ma Lane
hyne awa i the lift, an eagle hings
inben the braes, a pair o pickie-maas
scovin an tovin, handie for the onding
dandie an cantie, playin back an forrit
the gress wi dew is fair droukit yit
the ettercap’s wab still no soupit awa
providence is neaurhaun by aa the warks o man
A staun ma lane, hertsair wi monie sorras
High in the sky an eagle hangs;
within the valley slopes, a pair of terns.
They play around, open to any attack,
and fly to and fro at their ease.
The grass is still drenched in dew,
the spider’s web unbroken;
heaven is close to the affairs of men:
I stand alone, heart-sore with many sorrows.
Staunin Ma Lane is a poetic, linguistic and visual treat.