A Poem by Li Ch’ing-chao (Lǐ Qīngzhào)

by Mark Chmiel

Autumn Love
“A Weary Song to a Slow Sad Tune”

Search. Search. Seek. Seek.
Cold. Cold. Clear. Clear.
Sorrow. Sorrow. Pain. Pain.
Hot flashes. Sudden chills.
Stabbing pains. Slow agonies.
I can find no peace.
I drink two cups, then three bowls,
Of clear wine until I can’t
Stand up against a gust of wind.
Wild geese fly over head.
They wrench my heart.
They were our friends in the old days.
Gold chrysanthemums litter
The ground, pile up, faded, dead.
This season I could not bear
To pick them. All alone,
Motionless at my window,
I watch the gathering shadows.
Fine rain sifts through the wu-t’ung trees,
And drips, drop by drop, through the dusk.
What can I ever do now?
How can I drive off this word —
Hopelessness?

trans. Kenneth Rexroth
New Directions, 1979

Several years ago, I read with great pleasure and profit Eliot Weinberger’s The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry, with translations by Ezra Pound, Gary Snyder, David Hinton, Kenneth Rexroth, and William Carlos Williams. I went on to read many New Directions volumes of these great Chinese poets, including several by Kenneth Rexroth, who had this to say in his translation of Li’s Complete Poems: “Li Ch’ing-chao (1084–c.1151) is universally considered to be China’s greatest woman poet. Her life was colorful and versatile: other than a great poet, she was a scholar of history and classics, a literary critic, an art collector, a specialist in bronze and stone inscriptions, a painter, a calligrapher, and a  political commentator. Li is reputed to be the greatest writer of tz’u poetry, a lyric verse form written to the popular tunes of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279). Her tz’u poems are fill of lucid imagery, refined and highly suggestive.”

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