Book cover
The Selected Poems of Li Po
Li Bao
David Hinton

Something I read recently led me to Li Bao’s beautiful poem, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain”. I took a note to seek out more. For those who don’t know (I didn’t), Bao (sometimes spelled Po) was an 8th century Chinese poet, and one of the most beloved figures in Chinese literary history. I am, sadly, unable to read the originals so I compared a few poems from a few collections. The translations of David Hinton were my favorite. So I read his book, The Selected Poems of Li Po.

This is a full and diverse collection. Some of it philosophical, like this from Autumn River Songs:

Looking down at the river flowing past,

I call out to its waters: So how is it
you’ll remember nothing of me, and yet

you’d carry this one handful of tears
so very far— all the way to Yang-chou?

Some of it beautifully naturalistic (from the same poem):

There’s a flake of rock on Chiang-tzu Peak,
a painted screen azure heaven sweeps clean.

The poem inscribed here keeps all boundless
antiquity alive— green words in moss brocade.

And some of it achingly beautiful. I’m going quote Ch’ang Kan Village Song in its entirety because I think more than any other in the collection, it illustrates the rich themes, voices, and style to be found here.

Ch’ang Kan Village Song

These bangs not yet reaching my eyes,
I played at our gate, picking flowers,

and you came on your horse of bamboo,
circling the well, tossing green plums.

We lived together here in Ch’ang-kan,
two little people without suspicions.

At fourteen, when I became your wife,
so timid and betrayed I never smiled,

I faced wall and shadow, eyes downcast.
A thousand pleas: I ignored them all.

At fifteen, my scowl began to soften.
I wanted us mingled as dust and ash,

and you always stood fast here for me,
no tower vigils awaiting your return.

At sixteen, you sailed far off to distant
Yen-yü Rock in Ch’ü-t’ang Gorge, fierce

June waters impossible, and howling
gibbons called out into the heavens.

At our gate, where you lingered long,
moss buried your tracks one by one,

deep green moss I can’t sweep away.
And autumn’s come early. Leaves fall.

It’s September now. Butterflies appear
in the west garden. They fly in pairs,

and it hurts. I sit heart-stricken
at the bloom of youth in my old face.

Before you start back from out beyond
all those gorges, send a letter home.

I’m not saying I’d go far to meet you,
no further than Ch’ang-feng Sands.

I’ve read it a dozen or more times in the last couple of days. I’m rereading it right now. I shared it with my child (who is much more educated about poetry than I am) and they said, simply, “This is remarkable.” I couldn’t agree more.

At first I lingered on the butterflies. “They fly in pairs, / and it hurts.” Remarkable. Another time I wondered at “dust and ash.” Remarkable. “At fourteen, when I became your wife…” is such a dated line opening such a modern thought. Remarkable. “Moss buried your tracks one by one” is Remarkable. “without suspicions” is remarkable. “fierce / June waters” and “howling gibbons” are remarkable. (“Mobled queen is nice…”)

Why is she “heart-stricken at the bloom of youth?” And why, oh please tell me why does she say “I’m not saying I’d go far to meet you?” Remarkable.

I can’t get enough of this poem, and it is one of hundreds in this immaculate collection.