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Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

BAI JUYI (772-846)

Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

Bai Juyi was born in Henan to a poor family of scholars. He took the imperial exam at age twenty-seven and dreamed, with his friend Yuan Zhen, of being a reformer. However, his career as an official was less than illustrious, and his attempts to criticize incidents of injustice only caused him to be banished from the capital (Changan) in 815. He was the Prefect of Hangzhou (822-825) and then of Suzhou (825-827), but finally retired from the political life, which he found ultimately to be a disappointment. He turned to Buddhism. He fared somewhat better as a writer than as a politician. He was popular in his lifetime, and his poems were known by peasants and court ladies alike. He was very popular in Japan, and a number of his poems find their way into The Tale of Genji, he is the subject of a noh, play and has even become a sort of Shinto deity. More than twenty-eight hundred of his poems survive, as he was careful to preserve his work; in 815 he sent his writings to Yuan Zhen, who edited and compiled them into an edition of his collected work in 824-25. His poems show an interest in recording his times and his private life alike and often reveal an empathy with the poor that belies the heights of his own career. They are often written in a deliberately plain style, and some of his poetry is written in imitation of the folk songs collected by the Music Bureau (Yuefu poems) in the second century B.C. According to a popular account, Bai Juyi used to read his poems to an old peasant woman and change any line that she couldn't understand. There is a benevolent directed intelligence in his poems that comes through the refractions of culture and translation and makes us feel the powerful presence of this poet who died more than a thousand years ago.

Song of Everlasting Sorrow

The Han emperor longs for a beauty who could topple empires
but for many years he cannot find one in his country.
There is girl from the Yang family just coming of age,
hidden deep in her chamber and no one knows about her.
It's hard to waste such natural beauty in anonymity,
and one morning she is chosen to be at the Emperor's service.
She returns his gaze and a hundred charms rise from her smile
making all the painted faces in the Six Palaces seem pale.
In chilly spring she is privileged to bathe in the Imperial Huaqing Spa.
Her skin like cream is cleansed in the slippery hot spring water.
She seems so coyly weak when maids help her to her feet;
This is when she first receives the Emperor's favor,
with her cloud-like hair, flower-like face, her gait that sways like gold.
They spend spring nights warm in a bed with lotus nets.
Since spring nights are so short and the sun soon rises high
the Emperor neglects to attend morning court.
Never at rest, she attends and serves him at banquets
and spring outings and his every night belongs to her.
There are over three thousand beauties in the palace
but his love for three thousand is focused on her alone.
When her makeup is done in the golden chamber she serves him at night,
after banquet in the jade towers they sleep together drunk.
All her siblings are bestowed with royal rank and land,
and she is admired for bring honor to her family.
This changes the hearts of parents
they want to give births to girls instead of boys.

In a tall building rising into clouds on Li Mountain
her fairy music is carried everywhere by wind,
her unhurried songs and slow dances freezing strings and bamboo.
The Emperor can never see her perform enough.
But suddenly military drums from Yuyang makes the earth vibrate
shattering her performance of “The Rainbow and Feather Garment.”
Smoke and dust rise from the nine city gates
as thousands of horsemen march northwest.
But their flapping green-pinion banners fall still;
the imperial column has only moved thirty miles out the west gate.
The six armies of imperial guards all refuse to move on
till the beauty with long moth-eyebrows twists and dies before their horses.
Her jewelry is scattered on the ground and no one picks up
her hairpieces of emerald, gold and jade.
The Emperor cannot save her. He just covers his face.
When he turns to look, tears and blood streak down together
and yellow dust spills everywhere in whistling wind
as they take the narrow zigzag mountain path up to Sword Pavilion.
Travelers are rare under Emei Mountain;
the flags and banners look blanched and the sun is thin.
The river and mountains in Sichuan are so green
that the Emperor is lost in emotion each day and night.
In this temporary palace he sees a moon the color of heartbreak.
Through night rain he hears bells and the sound tears his guts.

The sky swirls and the sun orbits until the emperor returns in his Dragon Chariot
but he lingers here where she died and cannot move on.
In the mud on the Mawei slope,
he doesn't see her jade face, just the spot where she died.
The Emperor and his ministers gaze at each other, clothes wet with tears.
Looking east to the capitol's gate, they let the horses take them home.
The garden and ponds all look the same after his return,
the lotus flowers in Taiye Lake and willows in Weiyang Palace.
The lotus flower and willow leaves reminds him of her face and eyebrows.
How could he not shed tears at this sight
when spring wind comes on a peach-and-plum-blooming night,
or when it rains in autumn and the parosel tree leaves fall.
In the Western Palace and South Garden autumn weeds are rampant,
fallen leaves cover the steps and no one cleans up the dropped petals.
The royal drama troupe is starting to grow white hair
And the palace maids in the Queen's quarters are getting old.
In the dusk palace fireflies trace his silent thoughts.
He picks at the lonely lamp till the wick's end and still cannot fall asleep.
Late and late come the bells and drums in these long nights.
Now the Celestial River clearly shines just before dawn.
Cold frost flakes are heavy on the mandarin-duck tiles.
The kingfisher quilt is cold and there is no one to share it with him.
Slowly so slowly a year passes since the final farewell,
but her ghost never visits in his dreams.
Yet a shaman from Linqiong, a visitor in the capital,
says absolute sincerity can reach the soul of the dead.
As the emperor is so obsessed with her,
it is arranged to let this necromancer search for her soul.

Flying in the sky, riding clouds fast like lightning,
he searches everywhere in heaven and earth,
looking everywhere in blue space and down in the YellowSprings,
she is nowhere to be seen in these two vast places.
Suddenly he hears there is a fairy mountain in the sea.
The mountain is invisible, hidden in a thin mist of nothingness,
with delicate towers and pavilions where five-colored clouds arise.
Through blurred vision one seems to see many goddesses moving there.
One of them is named Taizhen,
her creamy skin and flowery face resemble Yang.
A gold gate to the west chamber and a knock on the jade door,
and the word is passed from one maid to another
that a messenger from the Han's emperor is here,
interrupting her dream in her nine-flower canopied bed.
Grabbing her clothes and pushing away her cushions, she sits up.
Pearl curtains and silver screens open one after another.
Her cloud-hair tilts to one side as she has just gotten up,
and she races down the hall half-undressed,
wind puffing up her long loose sleeves,
recalling of her dance to “Rainbow and Feather Garment.”
Her jade face looks solitary and her tears are not yet dry.
She looks like a branch of pear flowers in spring rain.
With love in her gaze she thanks the Emperor,
“After our parting we haven't seen or heard each other.
Our love came to an end in Zhaoyang Palace.
Here in the fairy Penglai Palace, the sun and the moon are long
I look back and look down at the human world,
unable to see the capital, just dust and mist.
The only way is to use old souvenirs to express deep feelings.
I'll send a lacquered box and gold hairpin to you
and save one prong of the hairpin and one panel of the box,
snapping the decorated panel and hairpin in two.
Just make your determination as firm as the gold,
we will have a chance to meet in the human world or in heaven.”
Before the shaman departed she asked him to take a message
with vows that only the Emperor and she knew.
It was said on the seventh day of the seventh month in Longevity Hall
they had said to each other in private at midnight:
“In the sky let's fly as birds sharing wings,
and on earth let's be trees with trunks growing as one.”
Though heaven and earth are long, they will cease at last,
but this regret stretches on and on forever.

Yellow Springs: the land of the dead.
Sharing-wing birds are legendary birds with only one eye and one wing; only by sharing wings can they fly.

Song of the Lute

In the 10th year of the Yuanhe Period (815 A.D.) I was demoted to deputy-governor and exiled to Jiujiang. In autumn the next year, I was seeing a friend off at the Penpu ferry when I heard through the night someone playing lute in a boat. The tune, crisp and metallic, carried the flavor of the music of the capital. I asked her who she was, and she told me she was a prostitute from the capital, Changan, and had learned to play lute from Master Mu and Master Cao. Now she was old and her beauty had declined and therefore she had married a merchant. So I ordered wine and asked her to play several tunes. We fell silent for a while. Then she told me about the pleasure of her youth, though now she is low and withered, drifting about on rivers and lakes. I had been assigned to posts outside the capital for two years and had enjoyed myself in peace. But touched by her words, that evening I began to realize what I truly felt about being exiled. So I wrote this long poem for her with a total of 612 characters, entitled “Song of the Lute.”

Seeing off a guest at night by the Xunyang River,
I felt autumn shivering on maple leaves and reed flowers.
I dismounted from my horse and my guest stepped on the boat;
we raised our cups for a drink without the music of pipes or strings.
We got drunk but not happy, mourning his departure.
When he embarked, the moon was half-drowned in the river.
Suddenly we heard a lute sing across the water
and the host forgot to return home, and the guest stopped his boat.
Following the sound we softly enquired who the musician was,
the lute fell silent and the answer came after a pause.
We steered our boat close and invited her to join us,
with wine refilled and lamp relit, our banquet opened again.
It took a thousand “please”s and ten thousand invitations before she appeared,
though with her lute she still hid half her face.
She plucked a few times to tune her strings.
Even before the melody formed one felt her emotions.
Each string sounded muted and each note meditative,
as if the music were narrating the sorrows of her life.
With eyebrows lowered she let her hands freely strum on and on,
pouring pent-up feelings out of her heart.
Softly strumming, plucking, sweeping, and twanging the strings,
she played “Rainbow Garment” then “Green Waist.”
The thick strings splattered like a rainshower,
the thin strings whispered privately like lovers.
splattering and whispering back and forth,
big pearls and small pearls dropping into a jade plate.
Smooth the notes were skylarks chirping under flowers.
Uneven the sound flowed like a spring under ice,
the spring water cold and strained, the strings congealing silence,
freezing to silence, till the sounds couldn't pass, and momentarily rest.
Now some other hidden sorrow and dark regret arose
and at this moment silence was better than sound.
Suddenly a silver vase exploded and the water splashed out,
iron horses galloped through and swords and spears clashed.
When the tune stopped, she struck the heart of the instrument,
all four strings together, like a piece of silk tearing.
Silence then in the east boat and the west.
All I could see in the river's heart was the autumn moon, so pale.

Silently she placed the pick between the strings,
straightened her garment and stood up with a serious face.
She told us “I was a girl from the capital,
lived close to the Tombs of the Toad.
I finished studying lute at the age of thirteen,
and was first string in the Bureau of Women Musicians.
When my tunes stopped, the most talented players were humbled,
other girls were constantly jealous when they saw me made up,
the rich young city men competed to throw me brocade headscarves,
and I was given countless red silks after playing a tune.
My listeners broke hairpins and combs when they followed my rhythm.
I stained my blood-colored silk skirt with wine
and laughed all year and laughed the next,
and autumn moon and spring wind passed unnoticed.
My brother was drafted and my Madam died.
An evening passed, and when morning came my beauty was gone.
My door became desolate and horses seldom came,
and as I was getting old I married a merchant .
My merchant cared more about profit than being with me.
A month ago he went to Fuliang to buy tea.
I am here to watch this empty boat at the mouth of the river.
The bright moon circles around the boat and the water is very cold.
Deep into the night I suddenly dreamed about my young days
and wept in dream as tears streaked through my rouge.”

I was already sighing, listening to her lute,
but her story made me even sadder.
I said, “We both are exiled to the edge of this world
and our hearts meet though we've never met before.
Since I left the capital last year,
I was exiled to Xunyang and became sick.
Xunyang is too small to have any music;
all year round I heard no strings or pipes.
My home is close to the Pen River, low and damp,
yellow reeds and bitter bamboo surround the house.
What do you think I hear there day and night?
Cuckoos chirping blood and the sad howls of apes.
Spring river, blossoming morning and autumn moon night
I often have my wine and drink by myself.
It is not that there are no folk songs or village flutes,
but their yawps and moans are just too noisy for my ear.
Tonight I heard your lute speak
and my ear pricked up, listening to fairy music.
Please don't decline, sit down to play another tune,
and I'll write a 'Song of the Lute' for you.”
Touched by my words she stood there for a long time,
then sat down and tuned up her strings and speeded up the rhythm.
Sad and touching it was so different from what her last song
and everyone started to weep.
If you ask, “Who shed most tears in this group?”
The Marshal of Jiangzhou's black gown was all wet.

Seeing Yuan Zhen's Poem on the Wall in Blue Bridge Inn

In spring snow at Blue Bridge you were called back to Changan.
In autumn wind I was exiled to the Qin Mountains.
Whenever I got to a horse station I would dismount
and meander around walls and pillars, hoping to find your poems.