Poet's Pick April 1
Li Bai, tr. by Ezra Pound: "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
Selected by Alan Feldman
National Poetry Month 2014

Letter from the Editors

Dear Readers,

Our thanks to Alan Feldman for today's Poet's Pick!

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Don Selby & Diane Boller

Alan Feldman's Poetry Month Pick, April 1, 2014

"The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter"
by Li Bai (701-762), Translated by Ezra Pound (1885-1972)

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 lookout?

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-fo-Sa.
                                                                       By Rihaku


*Alan Feldman Comments:

This poem’s seeming simplicity might lead us to underestimate its artfulness. It manages to give the entire arc of a life––from childhood through old age––in clear stages, like a compressed novel. It’s moving because the speaker (who’s still only sixteen and a half) never overtly states how she feels, but only implies it. She doesn’t say, “I miss you so much!” to her husband, but only

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.

Her restraint makes her request more heartbreaking. When I read this poem with teenagers, I ask them how far away they think Cho-fu-Sa is. How far would they go if a boyfriend or girlfriend were on the way back from a long stay abroad? And what young person, separated from a boyfriend or girlfriend, doesn’t know the feeling of growing prematurely old?

"The River Merchant's Wife"

Back when I first fell in love with Chinese poetry,
and believed my love for my girlfriend would last beyond death,
I read “The River Merchant’s Wife”––

a poem so touching it made me want to learn Chinese––
to be able to say so simply some crushing truth
about time and change.

My girlfriend was leaving for college in Ohio,
a long trip down a river that flowed one way,
while I had to stay at home to grow sad,

as the monkeys made sorrowful noises overhead
in the jungle of my adolescence––

sad, but not wise enough to be plain-spoken,
nor as uncomplaining as the river merchant’s wife,
translated from a language of single syllables,

though the single syllable of love, as I understood it back then,
was stuck in my head like a tiny brass bell
playing its solo in my stupefied mind.

Now perhaps it seems a bit mad––
her desire to mix her ashes with another’s
“forever and forever and forever.”

But I still know the feeling. The disbelief
all over again at the thought of parting––

from the one I love now, I mean,
she whom I would go to meet anywhere––
even far off Cho-fu-Sa.

One way to judge Pound’s genius is to see how many inspiring subtle decisions he made while sticking pretty close to the consensus about the meaning of the poem. (See, for example, “A Song of Zhanggan Village” in The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry, eds. Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping; or “Steady Shield Village Song” in Classical Chinese Poetry, ed. David Hinton.)

Pound attributes the poem to Rihaku, the Japanese name for Li Po, transliterated nowadays as Li Bai, who lived from 701 to 762. And, of course, it’s not Li Bai who is speaking here. So through a wonderful confluence of talent, a Chinese poet from the Tang dynasty, and an American poet from the 20th century, the plight of a woman (who might never have spoken of her plight) comes down to us through time, like a message returning after 1300 years from outer space.

About Alan Feldman:
Alan Feldman is the author of two prize-winning books of poems: The Happy Genius (SUN, 1978), which won the Elliston Book Award for the best collection published by a small, independent press in the United States; and A Sail to Great Island (University of Wisconsin, 2004), which received the Pollak Prize for Poetry. Over the years his work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, The Nation, Poetry, and Best American Poetry (2001; 2011). Recent work will be found in Catamaran, The Cincinnati Review, Southern Review, and Yale Review and, online, in Cortland Review and Boston Poetry Magazine.

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