The White Tiger

Each Autumn, I write one or more "seasonal" poems, adding them to an ever-growing cycle called "Anniversarium: The Autumn Poems." This is the 34th in the series. In Chinese art and folklore, the white tiger is a symbol of autumn (white itself is the color of funerals and mourning in China).


I dreamt — it was no dream! —
for there, on the floor, the melted snow,
the window-lattice broken, night coals
from the brazier scattered everywhere.

I dreamt he was there beside me:
the great white cat, tiger of Siberia,
lord of Manchurian wastelands. He,
my servant comes trembling to tell me,
has taken up residence
at the far end of the north pavilion.

Ah! let him stay! Bring me my sword?
No! my pen and scroll! I must wash
my thoughts with a draught of tea.
Renew the fire. Refill the yi xing
pot with pale white tea leaves.

“He is Death,” my servant tells me.
I shake my head and answer:
“He is Autumn, the world’s Fall,
my autumn, the end of my youth.
Where he treads, frost follows,
his breath the snow that fells the wheat
and makes the maples scream
red murder. Long have I known
he would be our guest one day.”

“Repair the window,” old Chen admonishes.
“We shall light torches to keep him off.”
I see two feline eyes
grow larger in the passageway.
“It is too late. A guest once past the threshold
must be offered food and lodging.
The tiger may come and go as he pleases.”

I point to where the great beast enters.
My servant issues a piercing cry.
Ignoring us, the monster, white
in the whiter moonlight, lies down
on the warm tiles of the coal hearth.
“You see, old Chen, how he reclines.
I do not think he means to harm me.”

Chen bows and backs to the doorway,
and as he closes the double door, calls back,
“Tomorrow brings terror to the countryside.
The tiger will kill the fallow deer,
and, should you venture forth by daylight,
he, pretending not to know you,
will turn on you as well. An old poet
is sweet fruit after a venison banquet.”

’Twixt Venus and Jupiter, one moon
hangs crescent; ’twixt sleep and dawn
the great beast cradles me, and I, him;
sword, fang, and claw forgotten, defying
our double death; a frozen interval,
two hearts abeat, and four lungs breathing.
I dream of being a great beast, rampant;
the tiger dreams of the calligraphy brush,
the tail-flick ink flow that places songs
on paper, words in the ears
of unborn readers and listeners.

I taste the blood in his mouth, the flex
of great legs that can overleap all prey;
he tastes pale tea and delicate sauces,
the savor of rare wine in a heated bowl.

As dawn breaks through,
the Heaven-tree, the willow boughs,
the distant pines sigh, shiver, shrug:
they will fight for a green day,
bird-harboring, leaf-tipped
to the lambent sunbeams.

Somewhere, out there, the tiger
drags Fall behind him as he hunts
life down with a panther frenzy.
Great clouds of birds assemble and flee
before him; cave, den, and warren
pull in their denizens for the long sleep
of winter. He leaves a trail
of antlered skeletons, doe-widows,
trees clawed clean of summer.

My place is here with lamp and teapot.
I wrote a poem. I rolled and sealed
the rice-paper scroll, wiped clean
the brush and closed the ink-jar.
This is not just any autumn’s beast.
There is some cause for which
he spared me, and was not my Autumn
or the death-breath of my winter.
No, he is the Tiger of Entropy:
he drags tornados, kill-winds
and glaciers behind him.
He would blink out
the world’s great cities if he could;
he would strike down the moon
as his ball-of-string plaything,
leave earth an orphan
in a sunless cosmos.
If I let him.

Tomorrow, while he sleeps,
wherever he sleeps —
and I see the place,
in the shade of the pines
beyond the placid river —
I shall send Chen for my finest mount,
my armor and my banner men.

I shall ride forth,
my flag the three-no poem of summer
defiance: No to death,
No to surrender, No to the idea
that all things must have their autumn.

I have sixty-one years
as I leave the pavilion.
I have fifty-one years as I cross
the great wheat fields.
I have forty-one years
as I track the red-maple forest.
I have thirty-one years
as I ford the river,
horse-neck and saddle
just barely above the water.
I have twenty-one years
as Chen passes me
the great halberd
of my ancestors.

Now, I shall kill the White Tiger.


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