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Ten Poems: Li Bo’s “River-Merchant’s Wife” 31 August 2006

Posted by ABD in ABD, Poetry, Relationships, Reviews.
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The fourth of a ten-part series, preceded by Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and Yeats’ “Second Coming”.

The last poem I introduced prophesies a world that seems all too real to us today. This eighth-century Chinese masterpiece looks back to a world we have been almost successful in forgetting. It also marks a shift in this series from political poems to more personal ones.


THE RIVER-MERCHANT’S WIFE: A LETTER*
Li Bo, trans. Ezra Pound

While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-en, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.

You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

*Original title: Changgan xing

First, a note on the poet and translator. Li Bo (701-716, aka Li Po and more recently Li Bai) is considered one of China’s greatest poets, and was also called the Poet Immortal. He was apparently a Daoist, a lover of wine and a romantic. The cause of his death, according to legend, was a drunken embrace with the moon’s reflection on a river (the theory that he died of mercury poisoning from longexity elixirs is equally ironic). Ezra Pound, a British modernist and a poet in his own right, translated this and other Li Bo poems from Japanese translations. The fidelity of transmission may be in question, but the result speaks for itself.

And now onto why I’ve included it in my mini-canon: the type of marriage (and marital love) it depicts. To determine what is or isn’t appropriate in a human relationship is a very tricky thing. We moderns have grown accustomed to accepting a wide variety of arrangements, and at least in liberal western societies there is a developing consensus that class or caste, race or ethnicity, sexual experience or sexual orientation are no bars to a healthy and legitimate relationship.

By the same token, the few remaining taboos in modern marriages are telling. Child marriages (and child brides in particular) are considered irresponsible and unfair, perhaps even oppressive. The traditional idea of male headship has also been thoroughly critiqued, although everybody knows that we still have to navigate around the male’s perceived need to be in charge. (Consider the scene in my My Big Fat Greek Wedding where the women of the house fool Vera’s father into believing that her new job is his idea.)

Li Bo fails both tests in a single line:

At fourteen I married My Lord you.

Although his lordship does not really appear to be older, the power differential is unmistakable. (Why does he get to be My Lord? Why can’t she go with him, or better yet, leave him waiting at the post?) Being a male chauvinist doesn’t prevent Li Bo from considering the girl’s predicament, however. Even in medieval China, a fourteen-year old girl has no idea what to do when instead of pulling flowers she is asked to serve a husband:

I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.

Given time, she does turn around.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

So is this love or self-deceit (psychological accommodation a la house Negro)? It is instructive to compare Li Bo on this point with Lousie Gluck, a contemporary American poet. Her beautiful “Penelope’s Song” (1998) works with the same waiting-wife motif (Little soul… climb/ the shelf-like branches of the spruce tree; … He will be home soon). As the poem unfolds, however, we notice how different the tenor of a modern marriage can be (It behooves you/ to be Generous. You have not been completely/ Perfect either). The conclusion suggests how precarious their love (and it is love) is:

You must shake the boughs of the tree
To get his attention,
But carefully, carefully, lest
His beautiful face be marred
By too many falling needles.

Marriage, it would seem, is about both love and resignation. Relationships do not sit so easily in categories, and the alleged superiority of one model of marriage over another does not make it less complicated.

So where do we go from here? How are we to read our own tradition, and how are we to frame our relationships? These are not simple questions, particularly when more than one’s own life is at stake. The least that should be said is that traditional relationships are not simply vestiges of a darker past from which the Enlightenment has rescued us. Reassessing their benefits is an instructive exercise (see my earlier discussion of Jane Austen on this point). There are worse ways to begin such an exercise than with a peek into the world of Li Bo.

It is a world that, even from a distance, still beckons.

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Comments»

1. Falcon - 20 October 2006

man, u r awesome! how do u know so much about Chinese poem?
i m an exchange student from China who is studying this poem in US. i m actually trying to find the original version composed by Li Bai. u c, it’s often difficult to find the origins. so u helped me a lot.
here is a very specific web for this poem in Chinese:
http://www.ndcnc.gov.cn/datalib/2002/KiloPoetry/DL/DL-164652

2. Kitty-S - 29 October 2006

Ezra Pound did not translate this poem, it was translated by Arthur Whaley from Li Bo’s original and then Pound ‘re-imagined it’. For more info see this website:
http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/m_r/pound/letter.htm

3. larry k. - 18 May 2007

the article you cite does not deny that pound translated the poem. it merely states that whaley was unhappy with pound’s translation.

4. Sandra-sb - 25 August 2007
5. name - 1 September 2008

Hello!,

6. Anonymous - 14 October 2008

hey this poem largely reveal or greatly emphasises on the traditional marriage in china so is it a love poem and is this still acceptable in chinnese culture

7. me - 12 November 2008

fu!

8. JULY - 12 March 2011

can anybody tell me on which book can find this translated work?


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