John Snelling commends Martyn Crucefix’s poetic version of Daodejing

Laozi (trans. Martyn Crucefix)
Enitharmon Press, 2016
ISBN 978-1-910392-26-3
112pp       £9.99

In producing a modern English version of Daodejing, Martyn Crucefix starts with the advantage that he is a poet and a good one. This is an advantage because the work tells us that words are inadequate to express what it seeks to convey. The problem of trying to use words to say what, essentially, cannot be said, is one with which poets have grappled down the centuries. In Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer tells us that when the spirit of Troilus looks down from heaven and sees the woe of those mourning his death, he laughs. Chaucer does not tell us why in an explicit way, does not need to, and probably couldn’t. The slight shock of reading of laughter in such circumstances jolts us into understanding. Hamlet’s last words are, ‘The rest is silence.’ In Four Quartets, T.S.Eliot writes directly of the difficulty,

…Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still…

This propensity of words to slip and slide is something that a poet can turn to advantage by using them to convey multiple meanings and ambiguities. Martyn Crucefix does so to very good effect as can be seen in the beginning of his version.

 – that the path I can put a name to
cannot take me the whole way

words I am capable of using
are not the words that will remain

heaven and earth spring from wordlessness
what can be named is no more

than the nursery where ten thousand things
are raised each in their own way

There are noticeable differences here from earlier English renderings of this passage. Apart from the dash that opens the passage, apparently in the middle of a sentence, there is no punctuation. This is deliberate and allows the reader’s mind to move between meanings and escape limiting conceptions of what is being said. The unusual opening works in at least two ways. In using the relative pronoun, ‘that’, our minds are led to ask what the path is being related to. The dash suggests that something has been omitted. The words that follow convey that, if we could relate it to anything, it would not be the path that the work is about. We instantly get a sense of why certain questions about Dao are futile and of the kind of thinking that will not serve us here. The other way in which the opening works concerns a distinction between ‘that’ and ‘this’ used consistently throughout the version. Martyn Crucefix explains the distinction in a note to his Introduction, which is useful as it enables the reader to pick up on one layer of meaning on first reading. The distinction is that, in his words, ‘The former implies a divided world (self and other – “that” out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one.’ Thus, the path that can be named is ‘that’, the divided, the incomplete. This use of words in more than one way, simultaneously, is characteristic of how the slippery nature of language is used to point beyond a single circumscribed meaning. The line, ‘what can be named is no more’, needs to be read both as following the line before it, and, with a different sense, as preceding the lines that follow.

When read with the preceding line, we have,

heaven and earth spring from wordlessness
what can be named is no more.

The sense is that what can be named is ephemeral, transient rather than enduring. With the two succeeding lines it reads,

what can be named is no more

than the nursery where ten thousand things
are raised each in their own way. 

Here, the sense is that what can be named is not the ultimate source but the immediate source of all the diversity of the world we experience. This immediate source is the ‘heaven and earth’ that springs from wordlessness.

As well as using the tools of a poet to convey the subtleties of the text, Martyn Crucefix works in references to writings that postdate Daodejing but are likely to be familiar to twenty-first century English speakers and illuminate the sense of it. He does this in an unobtrusive and effective way. Here are some examples.

In Chapter 9, ‘Step Away’, Martyn Crucefix writes,

in gathering precious metals and stones
to decorate your life
you will spend a lifetime protecting them
since the off-spring of wealth

and position is pride
on its heels comes ruin and this
is what my teacher has to say – 
attend well to your work then step away

There is an unmistakeable echo in this of Matthew 6 v.19-21 in the King James Bible.

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, 
and where thieves break through and steal:  But lay up for yourselves treasures in 
heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break 
through nor steal:  For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

The parallel is much clearer in this version than in previous ones. For example, Stephen Mitchell, whose version Martyn Crucefix praises, renders the passage thus,

Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

In Mitchell’s version one can still see a parallel but it is not as close.

One of the echoes in Martyn Crucefix’s version suggests that he is conscious of the advantage that a poet has in entering this territory. He begins Chapter 49, ‘Dazed’ like this,

—the true teacher is like a poet
who has no self to speak of 

We are, at once, reminded of Keats, in his letter of 27 October 1818 to Richard Woodhouse saying,

As to the poetical character itself…it is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing….

The equivalent passage in Mitchell’s version, and in the five other versions I have seen, makes no mention of a poet so the echo of Keats is clearly intended.

Most importantly, Martyn Crucefix’s version of the work reads well as poetry. To illustrate this, I would like to put side by side his version of Chapter 18 with that of one of the great western scholars of Chinese culture, Arthur Waley. This is the Martyn Crucefix version.

—it’s when the way
falls into disuse
codes of kindness thoughts
of morality evolve

it’s when we depend
on facts and cleverness
that the great delusion rises up

when close family
live no more in peace
we begin to talk
about filial duty

not till the country
is torn by strife
do we hear how our leaders
love to serve us

Arthur Waley’s version of the same passage is,

It was when the Great Way declined
That human kindness and morality arose;
It was when intelligence and knowledge appeared
That the Great Artifice began.
It was when the six near ones were no longer at peace
That there was talk of “dutiful sons”,
Nor till fatherland was dark with strife
Did we hear of “loyal slaves”.

Martyn Crucefix’s version is surely, aesthetically, preferable.

There is an irony involved in writing about a work that denies the adequacy of language to engage with the work’s subject. Anyone who really responds to Daodejing may ask, ‘Why all these words?’ A possible answer can be found in something written by a philosopher who was capable of utterances of a poetic brevity and compression. C.K.Ogden’s translation of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus ends with this,

My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognises them as 
senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak 
throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.) He must surmount these propositions; 
then he sees the world rightly.
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.