Rhapsody in Black: Poems

Rhapsody in Black: Poems

by Jidi Majia

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An indigenous poet of the Nuosu (Yi) people of mountainous southwestern China, Jidi Majia is well known and celebrated among the Chinese. But his lyrical and worldly work, though widely published and honored, has not found its voice in English translation in the West. The poems in Rhapsody in Black, presented in Chinese and deftly translated by the gifted

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An indigenous poet of the Nuosu (Yi) people of mountainous southwestern China, Jidi Majia is well known and celebrated among the Chinese. But his lyrical and worldly work, though widely published and honored, has not found its voice in English translation in the West. The poems in Rhapsody in Black, presented in Chinese and deftly translated by the gifted and respected Denis Mair, at long last introduce the English-speaking world to this remarkable Chinese writer.

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Chinese Literature Today Book Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Rhapsody in Black


By Jidi Majia, Denis Mair


Copyright © 2014 Jidi Majia
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4557-0



Wind blows over a ridge, speaking softly to a child at twilight. The wind goes off into the distance, where a tale awaits it. Leave your name on this land, child, for your time will come to die proudly.

    I am history written on this land in the Nuosu tongue
    I was born to a woman who could hardly bear to cut the birth cord
    My pain-racked name
    My beautiful name
    My name full of hope
    Is a poem of manhood
    Gestated for a thousand years
    By a woman at her spindle
    My tradition-bearing father
    Is a man among men
    People call him Zhyge Alu
    My ageless mother
    Is a singer upon this land
    She is its deep-running river
    My eternal beloved
    Is a beauty among beauties
    People call her Gamo Anyo
    In each of my thousand deaths as a man
    I lay down to rest facing left
    In each of my thousand deaths as a woman
    I lay down to rest facing right
    At the end of a thousand mourning rites
    I am the kind words of a guest from afar
    At the high point of a thousand mourning rites
    I am a mother's quavering syllables
    Though all of this includes me
    In truth I am the millennial conflict
    Of justice against evil
    I am the millennial descendant
    Of love and fantasy
    Truly down through the centuries
    All the mislaid wedding plans
    Have been mine
    All the treachery and loyalty
    All the births and deaths
    Have been mine
    Ah world, let me give an answer


    Do you still remember
    The little road to Jjile Bute?
    A honeyed twilight hour
    She said to me:
    I've lost my embroidery needle
    Hurry up and help me find it
    (I looked everywhere on that country lane)

    Do you remember
    The little road to Jjile Bute?
    A heavy twilight hour
    I said to her:
    Something is stuck deep in my heart
    Isn't that your embroidery needle?
    (She was moved to tears)


    If the forest is a sea of loden green
    His weight is borne afloat there
    And he breathes at the shoreline
    In the boat of his hut
    Beached at the southern edge of the forest
    Beached at the northern edge of the plain
    Run aground in a harbor
    A curled-up hunting dog dozes
    Like a cozy, heaving question mark
    For the night beyond the stove's warmth
    The man lies in the little room
    Redolent of a woman's hair
    And a child's milky breath
    A dream-current slips in winding course
    Past the obscured crown of his head
    No sooner does the pretty shape
    Of a doe glimpsed in daylight drift by
    Than he gives pursuit, and onto his shoulders fall
    Many golden leaves of autumn
    He does not shoot the doe. He sees her
    Dancing on a mountain in southwest China
    Whereupon he too wants to dance
    But his wife is pillowed on his left arm
    His child is pillowed on his right arm
    With these two coves on either side
    It seems that only in spirit
    Can he sound a long, haunting whistle
    And tread the gliding step of old-time hunters
    A forest nocturne that knows no end
    Quietly slips past his forehead


    Give us blood, give us land
    O power stretching beyond antiquity
    Give us revelation, give us solace
    Let the latter-born glimpse their forebears in a trance
    You bestow warm care, you give succor to life
    May we feel your benevolence, know your kindness
    You have safeguarded our self-respect
    Kept us from harm at others' hands
    You are forbidden pleasure, you beckon to us in a dream
    You give us limitless joy
    You let us sing with abandon
    When we leave the human world
    Not a trace of sorrow will you show
    Whether we lived in poverty or in wealth
    You will dress our souls
    In eternal garments of flame


    I have no goal
    Suddenly the sun behind me
    Warns of oncoming danger

    I see my other self pass through
    The crown of darkness and duration
    Nursing on the coolness of buckwheat
    I do not see his hand here before me
    It is in the black depths of the land
    It is holding up flowers of bone
    So my tribe in its rituals will know
    The presence of the ancestors' souls

    I see an earthen wall, ancient under the sun
    All proverbs have been preserved in wine
    I see rhythms snaking over a drumhead
    A singer loosens his flaming tongue
    To seek surreal terrain

    I am not here, for there is another one of me
    Walking in an opposite direction


Among the Nuosu, when a mother dies, her body is laid out facing rightward to be cremated. People say this leaves her left hand free so that she can continue spinning yarn even in the spirit world.

    In this right-facing pose she goes off to sleep
    The sleep of a long river
    The sleep of a far-stretching ridgeline
    Many people have seen her
    Laid out in those places
    Whereupon those highland sons and daughters
    Go to the shore of an unseen ocean
    And where the waves of land subside
    A mermaid remains on the shore
    Behind her is a brooding shoal
    Where only an ancient song is heard
    Bearing up the purest of crescent moons
    In this right-facing pose she goes off to sleep
    In the clear-aired wind
    In a hazy rain shower
    She is enveloped in thin mist
    She is enwreathed in white clouds
    Whether at tranquil daybreak
    Or at enchanting twilight
    All else turns to chilled sculpture
    Only her left arm floats free
    Its skin surely gives off warmth
    Its veins surely flow with blood
    In this right-facing pose she goes off to sleep
    How like a mermaid she is
    How like a crescent moon
    How like a brooding shoal
    She sleeps between land and sky
    She sleeps on the heights of birth and death
    Only thus do rivers keep flowing beneath her
    Only thus do forests keep growing beneath her
    Only thus do boulders keep standing beneath her
    Only thus do my sweet, suffering people
    Keep weeping and shouting and singing
    In this right-facing pose she goes off to sleep
    All things in the world will fade away
    In the vast vault of heaven
    In undying memory
    Only her left arm still floats
    So tender, so beautiful and free


    If I could ask a bimo to send off my soul
    During the days of my lifetime
    If I could trace the route back to my ancestors
    During the days of my lifetime
    If all this could be done
    And were not a dream
    And if my elders who have gone
    To their eternal rest
    Were to ask me what I do each day
    I would say truthfully
    This fellow has ardent love
    For all races of people
    And for the fragrant lips of women
    He often stays up late writing poems
    But he has never done harm to others


    Again I survey the vista
    Of that marvelous domain
    In truth it is in the sky realm
    It opens out onto vastness
    It leads somewhere magical and timeless
    In that place of emptiness and cold
    Echoes of hooves fade into silence

    The crescent horns of the male
    Are set off against a scudding cloud
    And behind it is a black abyss
    Its childlike eyes stir
    Like blue elusive waves

    Within my dreams
    I cannot do without this star
    Within my soul
    I cannot do without this lightning flash
    I fear that if it is lost
    From the heights of Greater Liangshan
    My dreams will dissolve to nothing


    In moments of tranquility
    I can also detect
    The desire it stirs
    Snaking through my soul
    Bringing on storms

    Even when I stroll at ease
    I still have a sense
    Of its energizing impulse
    Coursing inside my body
    Trying to goad my legs
    Into making a mad dash

    At times of sweet slumber
    I notice it tugging at my thoughts
    Until they coil in my brain
    Filling the night with restless dreams

    Ah, I also know
    All these years
    It has been this marvelous force
    In a state of slight melancholy
    That makes my right hand
    Write down poems about the Nuosu


    I deeply love the land around me
    Not only because we are born on this land
    Not only because we die on this land
    Not only for all the ancient family trees
    Our relations we have seen and have not seen
    Who one by one have passed away on this land
    Not only because this land is crossed
    By hundreds of deep-set wild rivers
    And ancestral blood trickles night by night

    I deeply love the land around me
    Not only because of dreamy old songs
    That strike the heart with such sorrow
    Not only because a mother's caress
    Carries an extra measure of kindness
    Not only because this land holds
    Our warm tile-roofed cottages
    For centuries our yarn has been spun
    By women who sit at low wooden doors
    Those now dead and the grandmother still living
    Not only because of the ancient millstone
    That still hums at dusk on this land
    Suffusing the air with a rich amber scent
    Seeping into each woman's dark breasts

    I love this land around me deeply
    Simply for what it is on ordinary days
    No matter how tearfully we sing to it
    It remains as wordless as a boulder
    Yet in times of sorrow and suffering
    When we lie down at a certain spot
    We feel this land—father of the Nuosu
    Lightly rocking us in its heavy cradle


    Among dreams, where life and death are joined
    Where soil and rivers have their rendezvous
    When somnolent stars beam in silence
    In the deep-blue sky of night
    When the singer's lips are set in a pensive line
    The wooden door does not creak, the millstone does not hum
    The lullaby's last notes leap up like fireflies
    And all weary mothers have entered dreamland

    Far away on the other side of the clouds
    Atop the highest crag
    Eagle talons tread on a dream's edge
    And here, in this faraway land
    Where the eyes of death are sealed
    Hundreds of rivers race beneath moonlight
    Their forms head off toward nothingness
    And far away in the forest
    Next to tempting pine-needle pillows
    The panther no longer preys on the mountain goat
    In this moment of stillness
    O nameless river in the chasm of Gunyilada
    Give me the rhythm of your lifeblood
    Let the roof of my mouth resound with your voice

    Oh, hurry, male mountain Vupuo of the Greater Liangshan range
    Embrace the female mountain Agajjumu of Lesser Liangshan
    Let my body be your embryo once again
    Let me gestate in your womb
    Let vanished memory swell again

    Ah black dream, at this silent moment
    May you soon cover me, envelop me
    Let me disappear under your lover-like touch
    Let me turn into air, into sunlight
    Into boulders and quicksilver and privet flowers
    Let me turn into iron, into bronze
    Into pearly shells, into asbestos, into phosphor
    Ah black dream, may you soon engulf and dissolve me
    Let me vanish under your benign protection
    To become a grassland and its herds
    To become a muntjac or a lark or a fine-scaled fish
    To become a firestone, to become a saddle
    To become a mouth harp or a mabu or a kaxi-jjuhli
    Ah black dream, as I fade away
    Pluck lute strings of sorrow and death for me

    Let the pain-racked, burdened name Jidi Majia
    Be tinged by the sun's spectral colors, even at midnight
    Let every word I speak, each song I sing
    Give truest voice to the spirit in this soil
    Let each line of poetry, each punctuation mark
    Flow forth from the blue veins of this soil
    Ah black dream, just as I disappear
    Let me converse with a monolith of rock
    With my suffering, high-minded people behind me
    I trust that their centuries of lonely sorrow
    Were it heard, would draw tears from a boulder
    Ah black dream, just as I disappear
    Let the bright, warm star of my people rise
    Ah black dream, let me follow you
    To enter death's country at last


    They are shaped like the faces of Nuosu people
    Who live in the loneliest mountain regions
    These seemingly lifeless objects
    Swarthy brows scrabbled with marks of eagle talons
    (When the feelings of the years overflow
    And pass through all the illusory seasons
    Unbounded dreams and stray memories
    Survey the ageless sky and soil
    Only after the sun's fire has kindled them
    Can they approach the sleep of death
    But who can tell me what human misfortunes
    Are contained in all this)

    I have seen many lifeless objects
    That are shaped like the faces of Nuosu people
    Century after century of silence
    Has done nothing to ease their agony


    Following the sun it comes
    Harbinger of fate
    It has no head or mouth
    It makes no disturbance or fanfare

    It trails a feathered cape of light
    From a hidden place emerging
    To comfort the weariness and longing of all beings
    And to the sheep's knuckles a diviner will throw
    It imparts a nameless presentiment

    This is the spirit of freedom
    The talisman that guards the Nuosu people
    Those who lie in its quiet embrace
    Will dream of stars coming out at dusk
    Will find respite from screeching steel


    Lighten your footsteps
    To pass through freedom's forest
    Let us advance in company with wild beasts
    Let us plunge into the original mystery

    Do not startle them
    Those mountain goats, river deer, and panthers
    Those faithful children of the white mist
    Stealing away among pale wisps

    Do not disturb the eternal stillness
    An air of divine presences is all around
    Departed elders draw near on all sides
    They are fearful of unfamiliar shadows

    Walk with light footsteps, still lighter
    Though fate's glance may be overgrown with greenery
    Often at this time of utter stillness
    We hear the sounds of another world


    Buckwheat, you make no sound
    You vessel of the earth's richness
    You are drinking the milk of starlight
    As you remember the blazing light of day
    Buckwheat, you push your roots down
    Into the land's most fertile zone
    You are a primal metaphor and symbol
    You are the roiling sun of the highlands
    Buckwheat, you are full of spirit-nature
    You are the direction ordained in our fate
    You are an ancient language
    Your fatigue is an encroachment of dreams
    You are the only prayer by which
    Our invocation can reach the side
    Of nature spirits and ancestors
    Buckwheat, your invisible arms
    Are tender and long
    We yearn for your caress and sing of you
    Just as we sing of our own mothers


    In a mysterious place
    Someone is calling my name
    But I do not know
    Who it might be
    I want to carry his voice with me
    But it is unfamiliar to my ear
    I can affirm
    That among my friends
    No one has called me this way

    In a mysterious place
    Someone is writing my name
    But I do not know
    Who it might be
    I try to construe his writing in dreams
    But on waking I always forget it
    I can definitely say
    That among my friends
    No one has written me such a letter

    In a mysterious place
    Someone is waiting for me
    But I do not know
    Who this person might be
    I wish to fix my gaze on his silhouette
    But aside from emptiness there is nothing
    I can definitely say
    That among my friends
    No one has followed me this way


    —Dedicated to a Nuosu ritualist

    When a bimo dies
    The road of the native tongue is cut off by flash floods
    All of its words, in an instant
    Become pale and weak, their inherent meaning lost
    Stories that once moved us
    Solidify to stone, subside into silence

    To keep vigil for a bimo
    Is to keep vigil for a culture
    Is to keep vigil for what edified us
    Because time has already proven
    That in fact we have no room for choice
    On the afternoon he faded away
    It seemed as if tradition had been torn apart
    The notes of an epic turned icy

    Keeping vigil for a bimo
    We are not only mourning
    For the inner essence of one people
    Our eyes shimmer with tears
    Because we grieve for departed wisdom
    And for the life of the mind

    To keep vigil for a bimo
    Is retrospection of an era
    It was so rich in mystery, affection, and tears!


    —Dedicated to a Nuosu ritualist

    When you hear it
    It seems above all illusion
    Like a faint wisp of bluish smoke
    Why just now are the ranged mountains
    Felt to be filled with a timeless stillness?
    Whose voice drifts between men and ghosts?
    It seems to have left the body
    Yet between reality and nothingness
    In tones both human and divine, it utters
    A praise song for birth and death
    When it invokes sun, stars, rivers, and ancient heroes
    When it summons deities and surreal powers
    Departed beings commence their resurrection!


    I offer wishes for honeybees
    For golden bamboo and the great mountains
    I offer wishes that we the living
    Can be spared any terrible disasters
    And that the ancestors who have gone to eternal rest
    Will arrive at peace in the other world
    I offer wishes for this expanse of land
    Which is our mother's body
    Even if I were falling-down drunk
    I could not possibly forget

    May each seed of corn that is planted
    Grow into beautiful pearls
    May every sheep turn out as bold
    As the lead ram Yogga-hxaqie
    May every rooster be as formidable
    As the fighting cock Vabu-dajy
    May every swift-footed horse
    Win the fame of Dalie-azho
    May the sun never be extinguished
    May the fireplace burn warmer
    I offer wishes for roe deer in the forest
    And for fish swimming in the rivers
    Spirits of the land, I make these wishes
    Being confident that you surely know
    This feeling is closest to a Nuosu's heart


    It was from the bronze of her complexion
    That I first discovered the color of the land around me
    I first discovered the pale yellow tears of the sun
    I first discovered the teeth marks of seasonal winds
    I first discovered the timeless quiet of a glen

    It was from the touching riddle of her eyes
    That I first heard the muted thunder of the highlands
    I first heard dusk push open a wooden door
    I first heard the sweet sigh of a fireplace
    I first heard a watery kiss beneath a headscarf

    It was from her calm, placid forehead
    That I first saw twining currents in a storm front
    I first saw boulders bloom with lush flowers
    I first saw how the moon dreams of her lover
    I first saw a pregnant river in April

    It was from something about her that has faded
    That I first felt real sorrow and loneliness
    But I will never forget the day
    In Greater Liangshan, on a rainy morning
    A child's first love was taken to far places


Excerpted from Rhapsody in Black by Jidi Majia, Denis Mair. Copyright © 2014 Jidi Majia. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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