Monday, November 25, 2013

Down South

     After the Chinese of Li Yü (d. 978 CE)

Down South, they know what to do with springtime.
There, when my thoughts turn away
     from duty and empire, I imagine myself,
where the spring is already in progress.
Pleasure boats are in every lake now,
     the er-hu fiddles a-hum, the flute girls
exchanging shy looks with the young scholars.
The green-faced rivers are drunk with willows,
towns dust-clogged with their yellow catkins,
more flowers abloom than eye or hand can capture.
Busy are those who love this blossoming,
    busier still their sleepless nights of loving.    


    After the Chinese of Li Yü (d. 978 CE)


My bark is but a leaf,
no oar
but the will
of the errant spring breeze,
this way, that way.
A loose line of fishing string,
on its end a light hook
might serve as rope
and anchor.
The destination:
that flower-covered islet.
The prize:
 an icy cask of wine.

Since nothing here is what it is,
but what it stands for,
one or ten thousand waves,
one of ten thousand realms,
what do they matter?

I do not need the island.
I do not, at the moment, crave
the plum green savor of wine.
I have my freedom.


Water, the chemist says,
is incompressible.
The delicate waves,
invisible and relentness,
a unity, break up
a thousand-piled layer
of warlike snowflakes.
They never stood a chance.
Now comes the onslaught:
cloud upon cloud upon cloud
of plum and peach and cherry
bannermen from Spring’s
inevitable and drumless army
throw themselves down
upon the snowbanks.
White mists enshroud
the waiting wine cask.
I sit with fishing rod and line.
One season has fought and won,
one season has held, and died.
I am doing nothing. Who else
could be as happy as I am?

Exile, Under the New Moon

Adapted from the Chinese of Li Yü

I know I should go in, now.
It is best to forget it all, better to sleep
and recall it to ghost-life; least-best
is waiting out the night here,
thinking of those who have gone.
The wind is back in the courtyard
(new wind or ever the same one?)
and the dull grass is sliced
    with new green slivers.
Spring, undeniable,  paints yellow-green
in willow shoots.
Long I recline on the balustrade,
waving away my servant, a nay
to the tonic of the waiting teacup.
I am alone. I am not
reciting old poems. My mouth
is clamped with the forgetting
of mere words. All ears,
I wait for for the next west-east
fluttering amid the bamboo leaves
wind of a new moon as always.
Away, where I am missed
and amid those I despair of,
exactly the same sky shivers.

Rubbing their hands
     together, the pi-pa players
await my orders. What tune
can I order amid the willow rush,
the ruffle of wind in the cat-tails?
I gesture them to stillness. They bow.
Old Chen, I see, has not removed
the hundred-year-old wine jar,
nor my ink pot and its brushes.
As for calligraphy, what is mine
against that cracked-ice poem
that just now melts on the lake face.

On the deep, dark terrace behind me
burns a single candle, one ember
beside it, last breath of incense.
The past.   The past.   The dawn
that I am facing is solitary;
there seems scant need to undress
but to rise and re-dress again,
for whom,  or for what?
I feel in my hair the gnawing frost,
as on my brow the last snow
hovers at edge of vision
and refuses to melt.
I     will     just    sit.
Thought is unthinkable.



     after a Chinese poem by Li Yü

The flowers were bright
     (and might have lit my way like lanterns)
but the moon was diffused in light mist.
Cool, but not too cold,
that was the best night to go to my lover.
Trembling I trod the perfumed stones,
step upon step amid the night-blooms.
I held in one hand the golden-threaded shoes,
in the other his scroll of urgent summoning.

South of the newly-painted hall,
in the appointed place I met him.
His face was turned away and upward
as though he searched the moon face
or with his hawk-fierce eye some dove
asleep on a still and leafy branchlet.
At first, I leaned against him, shivering;
my pale arms could not encompass
the sweep of his cloaked broad shoulders.
He made a sound that might have been
my name, or a sighing exhalation.
I said, “I cannot come as often now,
so tonight you must love me twice as hard.”

Frances H. Green - Song of the North Wind



In the second edition of Rev. Griswold’s massive anthology, The Female Poets of America, only two or three women poets demonstrate a knack for the Gothic or supernatural. Frances H. Green, born in Rhode Island and a descendant of that state’s famed Whipple family, made her mark as journalist, editor and author on abolition, spiritualism, the Dorr Rebellion, and even, apparently, a textbook on botany. She had to have been one of the smartest women to come from Rhode Island, and her poems include an epic on the Narragansett Indians. Like Longfellow, she was steeped in Norse mythology, and in the following poem she joins in the line of Norse-inspired poems that Bishop Percy first collected, and which M.G. Lewis made a point of collecting in Tales of Wonder. The reference to Lapland with its legendary witches who can command the winds, shows that she researched her myths well. Her poem also stands out from the far more conventional poems Griswold gathered from her contemporaries in that it has an unremitting paganism and a masculine, one might even say, blood-thirsty, pleasure in depicting the carnage inflicted by storm winds, in an era when sea travel was hazardous and frequently fatal.

From the home of Thor, and the land of Hun,
Where the valiant frost-king defies the sun,
Till he, like a coward, slinks away
With the spectral glare of his meager day—
And throned in beauty, peerless Night,
In her robe of snow and her crown of light,
Sits queen-like on her icy throne.
With frost-flowers in her pearly zone —
And the fair Aurora floating free,
Round her form of matchless symmetry —
An irised mantle of roseate hue,
With the gold and hyacinth melting through;
And from her forehead, beaming far,
Looks forth her own true polar star.
From the land we love — our native home —
On a mission of wrath we come, we come!
Away, away, over earth and sea!
Unchained, and chainless, we are free!
As we fly, our strong wings gather force.
To rush on our overwhelming course:
We have swept the mountain and walked the main.
And now, in our strength, we are here again;
To beguile the stay of this wintry hour.
We are chanting our anthem of pride and power;
And the listening earth turns deadly pale —
Like a sheeted corse, the silent vale
Looks forth in its robe of ghastly white,
As now we rehearse our deeds of might.
The strongest of God's sons are we —
Unchained, and chainless, ever free!

We have looked on Hecla’s burning brow,
And seen the pines of Norland bow
In cadence to our deafening roar,
On the craggy steep of the Arctic shore;
We have waltzed with the maelstrom’s whirling flood,
And curdled the current of human blood,
As nearer, nearer, nearer, drew
The struggling bark to the boiling blue —
Till, resistless, urged to the cold death-clasp,
It writhes in the hideous monster’s grasp —
A moment — and then the fragments go
Down, down, to the fearful depths below!
But away, away, over land and sea —
Unchained, and chainless, we are free!

We have startled the poising avalanche.
And seen the cheek of the mountain blanch,
As down the giant Ruin came.
With a step of wrath and an eye of flame;
Hurling destruction, death, and wo.
On all around and all below,
Till the piling rocks and the prostrate wood
Conceal the spot where the village stood;
And the choking waters vainly try
From their strong prison-hold to fly!
We haste away, for our breath is rife
With the groans of expiring human life
Of that hour of horror we only may tell —
As we chant the dirge and we ring the knell,
Away, away, over land and sea —
Unchained and chainless — we are free!

Full often we catch, as we hurry along,
The clear-ringing notes of the Laplander’s song.
As, borne by his reindeer, he dashes away
Through the night of the North, more refulgent than day!
We have traversed the land where the dark Esquimaux
Looks out on the gloom from his cottage of snow;
Where in silence sits brooding the large milk-white owl,
And the sea-monsters roar, and the famished wolves howl;
And the white polar bear her grim paramour hails,
As she hies to her tryste through those crystalline vales.
Where the Ice-Mountain stands, with his feet in the deep.
That around him the petrified waters may sleep;
And light in a flood of refulgence comes down,
As the lunar beams glance from his shadowless crown.
We have looked in the hut the Kamschatkan hath reared,
And taken old Behring himself by the beard,
Where he sits like a giant in gloomy unrest,
Ever driving asunder the East and the West.
But we hasten away, over mountain and sea.
With a wing ever chainless, a thought ever free!
From the parent soil we have rent the oak —
His strong arms splintered, his sceptre broke:
For centuries he has defied our power.
But we plucked him forth like a fragile flower,
And to the wondering Earth brought down
The haughty strength of his hoary crown.
Away, away, over land and sea —
Unchained and chainless — we are free!

We have roused the Storm from his pillow of air,
And driven the Thunder-King forth from his lair;
We have torn the rock from the dizzening steep,
And awakened the wilds from their ancient sleep;
We have howled o’er Russia’s desolate plains.
Where death-cold silence ever reigns,
Until we come, with our trumpet breath,
To chant our anthem of fear and death!
The strongest of God’s sons are we —
Unchained and chainless — ever free!

We have hurled the glacier from his rest            
Upon Chamouni’s treacherous breast;
And we scatter the product of human pride,
As forth on the wing of the Storm we ride,
To visit with tokens of fearful power
The lofty arch and the beetling tower;
And we utter defiance, deep and loud.
To the taunting voice of the bursting cloud;
And we laugh with scorn at the ruin we see
Then away we hasten — for we are free!

Old Neptune we call from his ocean-caves
When for pastime we dance on the crested waves;
And we heap the struggling billows high
Against the deep gloom of the sky;
Then we plunge in the yawning depths beneath,
And there on the heaving surges breathe,
Till they toss the proud ship like a feather,
And Light and Hope expire together;
And the bravest cheek turns deadly pale
At the cracking mast and the rending sail,
As down, with headlong fury borne,
Of all her strength and honors shorn.
The good ship struggles to the last
With the raging waters and howling blast.
We hurry the waves to their final crash,
And the foaming floods to phrensy lash;
Then we pour our requiem on the billow,
As the dead go down to their ocean pillow —
Down — far down — to the depths below,
Where the pearls repose and the sea-gems glow;
Mid the coral groves, where the sea-fan waves
Its palmy wand o’er a thousand graves,
And the insect weaves her stony shroud,
Alike o’er the humble and the proud,
What can be mightier than we,
The strong, the chainless, ever free!

Now away to our home in the sparkling North,
For the Spring from her South-land is looking forth.
Away, away, to our arctic zone,
Where the Frost-King sits on his flashing throne,
With his icebergs piled up mountain high,
A wall of gems against the sky —
Where the stars look forth like wells of light,
And the gleaming snow-crust sparkles bright!
We are fainting now for the breath of home;
Our journey is finished — we come, we come!
Away, away, over land and sea —
Unchained and chainless — ever free!

From: Rufus Wilmot Griswold, ed. The Female Poets of America. Second edition, 1859. Philadelphia: Parry & McMillan, pp. 127-28.

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