ON A CHINESE FAN BY DONG GAO

ON A CHINESE FAN BY DONG GAO[1]

Hand-painted, a universe of greens and grays
emerging from a background mist
on the sewn strips of a Chinese fan:
the scholar, a man of some wealth
and even greater erudition, has brought
(o wonder of labor and engineering)
a good half dozen scholar’s stones,
each high as a house wall, soft stone
eroded to honeycomb by a millennium
of patient rain and hollowing,
forming three sides around his table;

at ease with his calligraphy, the brazier
bright and burning with water a-boil,
the servant refilling the yi xing[2] pot
as fast as he drinks down
the finest of water-nymph teas;
the reedy crooning of an er-hu[3]
fiddle at his right; off to the rear
a pi-pa[4] lute player awaiting
her turn to please him, the rocks
a perfect amphitheater;

birds hovering, pruned trunks
of trees on one side bending
the trunk in an artful curve
(how long it took to tease
one cherry in and among
the hollows of the lingbi stone!).[5]

No solitary scholar this,
alone in a gazebo perched
on some cliff above the cloud-line:
he has a secondary grove,
o’erhung with pine and willow
beneath whose shade
a table is spread with all his poetry,
where two friends tune the zheng,[6]
to whose melancholy fingerings
(glissando and tremolo)
they’ll echo back his lines to him,
even while serving girls unwrap
the afternoon repast of tofu,
pickles piquant with rice vinegar
and red chilis, and red-bean cake.

Other friends ambulate
amid the upthrust rocks
and clinging tree-roots,
catching the drift but not
the meaning of his poems
as wind and waterfall
hum through the sighing pines.

It is a place so beneficent
that in it poems are superfluous —

well, almost.

CLICK OVER RED TITLE AT TOP OF THIS POEM TO SEE THE WORK OF ART (AT LEAST AS LONG AS IT STAYS LIVE ON CHRISTIES' WEBSITE.)


[1] Dong Gao (1740-1818). The Chinese fan described here was sold at Christie’s in 2010.
[2] Yi xing, a red-purple clay used for making scholar’s teapots and other ornamental ceramics.
[3] Er-hu, the two-stringed Chinese fiddle.
[4] Pi-pa, the Chinese lute
[5] Lingbi, name of the hollowed, perforated stone from Anhui province favored for scholar’s stones.
[6] Zheng, the Chinese zither.

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