19 April 2012

National Poetry Month: 19

From Ezra Pound (1885 - 1972):

The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums,
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you,
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever, and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-Yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.

By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden,
They hurt me.
I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you,
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
Ezra Pound (1885 - 1972) adapted this poem from a work by the T'ang Dynasty poet Li Po ("Rihaku" is a transcription of the Japanese version of Li Po's name). Though the speaker is a very young wife by our standards, there is a clear sense of the passing of time, a sense which increases her longing for her absent husband. You get a sense of a woman with very deep feelings which are not often expressed. There's a wonderful combination of statements both indirect ("the paired butterflies are already yellow") and direct ("I grow older"). These sentiments might seem banal, but only because they are so basic, so essential, to us. In the right setting, as with a gemstone set to catch the light, they regain their original power. They remind me of a scene in Ozu's great film Tokyo Story, in which the unwanted grandmother is sitting in a field with her very young grandson. She muses to herself, wondering if she will be there next year. He plays carelessly among the daisies. It's all very simple, yet the cumulative power of what we've seen of the story so far makes the scene's simplicity all the more heart-breaking. I have always found the last line of this poem particularly haunting, because my ignorance of the specific geography leaves the speaker's motives mysterious: where is Cho-fu-Sa in relation to where she is, and where her husband is? Is she indicating that she will travel incredible, difficult distances to see him? Is she choosing a place whose moderate distance allows her to control otherwise overwhelming emotions? She seems reserved and by her own statement was a bashful girl: Is she trying to indicate a modest and appropriate distance to cover up emotions she feels are too nakedly strong?

Here's another poem, this one taken directly from a woman of the T'ang Dynasty, the courtesan Xue Tao (768 - 831). This comes from the collection Brocade River Poems, translated and annotated by Jeanne Larsen:

Gazing at Spring, I

Flowers bloom:
no one
to enjoy them with.

Flowers fall:
no one
with whom to grieve.

I wonder when love’s
stir us most –

when flowers bloom,
or when flowers fall?

– Xue Tao


Unknown said...

I think I have a new favorite poem. The River Merchant's wife is beautiful. A subtle and romantic novel or epic movie all in 31 lines.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I knew you would like this one. I barely restrained myself from forcing you to read it.