My hair still in bangs, I played outside the front gate,
picking flowers. You came by, high on a bamboo hobby-horse,
then sat playing with our green plums. We lived like this
together in Changgan, two little ones, no jealousy, no distrust.
At fourteen, I married you. So shy my face
never opened up, I just lowered my head
and watched the dark wall. You called to me
a thousand times, but I never answered your call.
At fifteen, I answered, looked up, unfurrowed, wanted
to mingle together, even past our mortal days, wanted
forever, knew we would cling faithfully to our moorings.
So why climb the watchtower looking for you?
But at sixteen, you left. You went far away, to Yanyudui,
where churning waters crash the rocky shores.
For five months now, no you. All of nature echoes
the gibbons, crying out in sorrow.
Outside our gate your footprints fill with moss, each step too deep to be
erased. Too early, leaves fall in rough autumn wind. It’s only
August, yet the butterflies lose color. Still, they fly
in pairs to the Western Garden, as I pale, too, aging. They hurt me
so much, sitting here. If you are on your way, please
send word when. If you have passed the fast currents
of the Yangtze, I will think nothing of the distance—
I’ll come all the way to Changfengsha to meet you again.
Li Bai (701–762) was one of the great masters of Tang poetry, a wanderer and also a creator and re-shaper of some of the era’s formal conventions. This poem, among Li Bai’s most renowned, is classed as a huaigu theme, “remembering the past,” and is typical of Tang shi poetry, featuring pentasyllabic couplets densely interwoven with parallelisms, puns, internal rhymes, and allusions. The original calligraphed in classical Chinese characters forms a neat rectangle of fifteen such couplets.
Rachel DeWoskin is the author of Two Menus: Poems (The University of Chicago Press, 2020); Banshee (Dottir Press, 2019); Someday We Will Fly (Penguin, 2019); Blind (Penguin, 2014); Big Girl Small (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011); Repeat After Me (The Overlook Press, 2009); and Foreign Babes in Beijing (W. W. Norton & Co., 2005). She is an Associate Professor of Practice in the Arts at the University of Chicago, and an affiliated faculty member of the Centers for East Asian Studies and Jewish Studies. (10/2019)
Kenneth DeWoskin is former head of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan and the author of numerous books and articles on Chinese literature and cultural history, including A Song for One or Two and Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China. His early Chinese research interests focused on the classical language, literature, and aesthetics, as well as early Chinese science, technology, and medicine. (10/2019)