Sunday, April 12, 2009

352. Four Chinese Poems


At the time of the rains
when you burst in upon me
here in my damp and narrow quarters
next to the temple, your arms
were full of new manuscripts
and I rejoiced to see you.

Unlike you, dear friend,
I have been unlucky in my career
and my wife, unused to privation,
has even seen fit to scold me.
I called for wine when you came
and that flea-bitten merchant refused me
until you threw golden coins
upon the table: after that flasks
of exquisite vintage arrived.

We drank deeply: we drank
and talked far far into the night
praising or laughingly destroying
every poem that had ever been written
since those happy days we shared
below the mountains of Dao-Shan
and you were good enough
to praise my unpublished works
and I was polite about the popular pieces
that have lately made you famous.

In the morning, when you departed,
you had a litter and four servants awaiting you
and when we smiled and embraced
I could see the neighbours looking on,
to many of whom I owe sums of money,
rather large sums of money,
and as I smiled and sent you on your way
I cursed my fate and also you.


My father told me to stay in the house
with the women children and servants
while outside in clouds of rolling dust
came the victorious army of Bu Chao Lin.
I raced up to the roof to be with him
and found him wailing in a high keening voice
and pulling at his beard; he frowned at me
and then did a very strange thing, he tore off
his button cap, without which I had never seen him,
and began to stamp upon it. I stared, wide-eyed,
and decided to help my distraught father
by stamping on the cap he obviously disliked
with cries of joy and enthusiasm.
I will never forget the way he looked at me,
his eyes so round with horror.


In the provincial town of Di Lai
I sat (again) for the examination
gave them Do Bai's song
and a clever critique
of Three Veils in the Morning
and sauntered away.

Of course they failed me.

But I had made travel plans
unknown to my father
and with the saved silver coins
hired a team of rough bearers
for the path up the mountain
then down to the valley
of P'ai To Shan.

Such sweetness in your eyes,
the plain and beguiling
roundness. I gasp,
I tell myself it doesn't matter
as I finger the folds
of my soft and elegant cloak.


Counsellor Zhang has four young daughters
each one more beautiful than the next
and I feel that I might carefully dare
to marry one of them, perhaps the one
least reminiscent of her father
whose bulging eyes and purple face
rather distressed me
at the ritual strangulation.