Tethered feathers sing their long lost songs in solos that were once symphonies
Falling from swan-like wings of a lone angel and floating along a reflecting stream
The misty haze graces both water's surface and the resting angel's skin
Making the glow from her shining halo all the more evident
See as she sits inside the arms of an elderly weeping willow
Fireflies gracing her satin hand as the glow from her skin does billow
The natural string quartet of the crickets under a full moon's glow
A silent moment in a place and time that mortals may never know
Looking upon the star studded sky that is her open field
Flying with the grace of many a dove whose untamed beauty shall not yeild
Yet landing on dirt ridden ground to see whatever it is she may please
Trickling tears coming from your eyes at the sight of such travesties
Oh angel, if feather must fall, then let it, but not one tear from your eye
At this hallowed sight and glorious eve where Heaven and Earth coincide
And if tear must fall into the waters under the arm of the willow tree
May it harden into the whitest of pearls so I might keep it here with me
Let sultry glowing moonlight be your constant company
Filling the darkness and contributing spotlight to your scene
May silver moonlight and silken feather compliment each detail
And pray the moon does not fade away and break this scene, so frail
Dear hallowed breath of the midnight hour, take note of this rare time
So you may utter this instant in this poet's ear and turn it to hallowed rhyme
The instance where an host of Heaven indulged in a glimpse of Earth
And with a tear turned into a pearl showed what our instances are worth
I had this thought when I was younger,
That I had to know who I was and who I wanted to be,
By a certain time in my life.
That, when a stranger asked me to tell them about myself
I should have a designated answer in the form of linguistic description.
Full disclosure of self.
I'd listed in my mind hobbies, character traits, intellectual preferences.
All things that, when put together,
Would produce a vision of who I was as a person.
I was a complete profile from top to bottom.
Inside and through.
Adding to and refining back qualities of what made me as I went along.
Fine tuning the presentation of me to society.
I thought I had it down.
Picked through with a fine tooth comb.
No boring aspect refurbished, no overbearing flaw unchecked.
Then one day
I was in a place that housed people milling around,
Same as any other day.
And as I sat next to a fountain feeding some birds,
Like I was prone to do on the pleasant weathered days.
A little boy came up an sat down next to me.
I didn't think anything of it and just smiled at him.
He lingered beside me for a few minutes.
And I noticed he seemed to be staring at me
With a quizzical look on his sun bright face.
I continued to dole out pieces of my left over lunch
And he giggled just a slight.
Now I was curious to know why this little guy
With anything at all to do other than sit next to me,
I finally turned toward him intent on asking what was so funny,
When he stated before I could utter a word
"You're the nicest lady I ever saw"
I was initially a little gobsmacked as to the bold declaration.
It made me snort a bit.
Shaking my head, I pondered to him
"What would make you say that?"
He innocently replied with a grin that...
"You feed the birdies and they don't even say thank you. That makes one a really nice lady! "
Well color me stupefied there.
This little boy, in his little statement, awed me.
He didn't know me or who I was or where I've come from
And in just that one action he witnessed of me
Feeding those little flying creatures,
He determined me a nice person.
And it swelled me more intensely than any praise over an achievement,
Any congratulations of a job well done,
Any compliment of artistic ability.
And as he got up to run off to wherever he came from,
I sat there contemplating...
Of all the things I thought of myself up until this point,
Just being myself with no preconceived notion or projection,
I felt more transparent in that little boys observance,
Than anything else in my whole life.
That led me to wonder why in the world I had bothered
To ever worry about and plan around who I wanted people to see me as.
I began thinking all of my preparing and analyzing,
All of the forethought I put into me as a person.
Kind of went out the window.
Because if a complete stranger could see through me so easily,
With just a mindless action like that,
Then what did people really see beyond my presentation,
Not that who I projected myself to be was false, just honed
To show the best parts of me always.
But then, what are the best parts of me which other people rarely see?
Maybe the things about myself I thought of as "works in progress"
Were already fully bloomed and beautiful already.
Maybe I was just so conditioned to think they weren't?
So as I laid on my couch later that night
And aimlessly thought of the events of the day,
I made a plan to have no more plans.
To keep my list of everything about me I had written over the years,
But put it somewhere only to serve as a reminder to me.
I'd try, from here on out, to just be me
The only regret I had of that encounter though,
Was that I didn't get to tell that little mind changer
Go away little wisp.
I know what you are up to.
I pay the slightest notice,
you morph into an innocent, seductive puff
strutting to and fro
yes, even love.
I admire you; you gust, fat and fluffy.
I compliment; you explode into a cumulous mass hovering ominously above.
I worry; ashen gray lithely overtakes beguiling white.
Rumbling belly fills with rage and swells with forboding.
There is no longer an escape.
are pulled into shadow
and slapped onto earth
in torrents of unrestrained rage.
Completely engulfed, I choke, and
swirl in great muddy vortexes down lost drains.
Who am I?
Who are my thoughts?
I only have you to grasp onto,
and that is no solace.
As a woman, and in the service of my Lord the Emperor Wu, my life is governed by his command. At twenty I was summoned to this life at court and have made of it what I can, within the limitations of the courtesan I am supposed to be, and the poet I have now become. Unlike my male counterparts, some of whom have lately found seclusion in the wilderness of rivers and mountains, I have only my personal court of three rooms and its tiny garden and ornamental pond. But I live close to the surrounding walls of the Zu-lin Gardens with its astronomical observatories and bold attempts at recreating illusions of celebrated locations in the Tai mountains. There, walking with my cat Xi-Lu in the afternoons, I imagine a solitary life, a life suffused with the emptiness I crave.
In the hot, dry summer days my maid Mei-Lim and I have sought a temporary retreat in the pine forests above Lingzhi. Carried in a litter up the mountain paths we are left in a commodious hut, its open walls making those simple pleasures of drinking, eating and sleeping more acute, intense. For a few precious days I rest and meditate, breathe the mountain air and the resinous scents of the trees. I escape the daily commerce of the court and belong to a world that for the rest of the year I have to imagine, the world of the recluse. To gain the status of the recluse, open to my male counterparts, is forbidden to women of the court. I am woman first, a poet and calligrapher second. My brother, should he so wish, could present a petition to revoke his position as a man of letters, an official commentator on the affairs of state. But he is not so inclined. He has already achieved notoriety and influence through his writing on the social conditions of town and city. He revels in a world of chatter, gossip and intrigue; he appears to fear the wilderness life.
I must be thankful that my own life is maintained on the periphery. I am physically distant from the hub of daily ceremonial. I only participate at my Lord’s express command. I regularly feign illness and fatigue to avoid petty conflict and difficulty. Yet I receive commissions I cannot waver: to honour a departed official; to celebrate a son’s birth to the Second Wife; to fulfil in verse my Lord’s curious need to know about the intimate sorrows of his young concubines, their loneliness and heartache.
Occasionally a Rhapsody is requested for an important visitor. The Emperor Wu is proud to present as welcome gifts such poetic creations executed in fine calligraphy, and from a woman of his court. Surely a sign of enlightment and progress he boasts! Yet in these creations my observations are parochial: early morning frost on the cabbage leaves in my garden; the sound of geese on their late afternoon flight to Star Lake; the disposition of the heavens on an Autumn night. I live by the Tao of Lao-Tzu, perceiving the whole world from my doorstep.
But I long for the reclusive life, to leave this court for my family’s estate in the valley my peasant mother lived as a child. At fourteen she was chosen to sustain the Emperor’s annual wish for young girls to be groomed for concubinage. Like her daughter she is tall, though not as plain as I; she put her past behind her and conceded her adolescence to the training required by the court. At twenty she was recommended to my father, the court archivist, as second wife. When she first met this quiet, dedicated man on the day before her marriage she closed her eyes in blessing. My father taught her the arts of the library and schooled her well. From her I have received keen eyes of jade green and a prestigious memory, a memory developed she said from my father’s joy of reading to her in their private hours, and before she could read herself. Each morning he would examine her to discover what she had remembered of the text read the night before. When I was a little child she would quote to me the Confucian texts on which she had been orally schooled, and she then would tell me of her childhood home. She primed my imagination and my poetic world with descriptions of a domestic rural life.
Sometimes in the arms of my Lord I have freely rhapsodized in chusi metre these delicate word paintings of my mother’s home. She would say ‘We will walk now to the ruined tower beside the lake. Listen to the carolling birds. As the sparse clouds move across the sky the warm sun strokes the winter grass. Across the deep lake the forests are empty. Now we are climbing the narrow steps to the platform from which you and I will look towards the sun setting in the west. See the shadows are lengthening and the air becomes colder. The blackbird’s solitary song heralds the evening. Look, an owl glides silently beneath us.’
My Lord will then quote from Hsieh Ling-yun,.
‘I meet sky, unable to soar among clouds,
face a lake, call those depths beyond me.’
And I will match this quotation, as he will expect.
‘Too simple-minded to perfect Integrity,
and too feeble to plough fields in seclusion.’
He will then gaze into my eyes in wonder that this obscure poem rests in my memory and that I will decode the minimal grammar of these early characters with such poetry. His characters: Sky – Bird – Cloud – Lake – Depth. My characters: Fool – Truth – Child – Winter field – Isolation.
Our combined invention seems to take him out of his Emperor-self. He is for a while the poet-scholar-sage he imagines he would like to be, and I his foot-sore companion following his wilderness journey. And then we turn our attention to our bodies, and I surprise him with my admonitions to gentleness, to patience, to arousing my pleasure. After such poetry he is all pleasure, sensitive to the slightest touch, and I have my pleasure in knowing I can control this powerful man with words and the stroke of my fingertips rather than by delicate youthful beauty or the guile and perverse ingenuity of an erotic act. He is still learning to recognise the nature and particularness of my desires. I am not as his other women: who confuse pleasure with pain.
Thoughts of my mother. Without my dear father, dead ten years, she is a boat without a rudder sailing on a distant lake. She greets each day as a gift she must honour with good humour despite the pain of her limbs, the difficulty of walking, of sitting, of eating, even talking. Such is the hurt that governs her ageing. She has always understood that my position has forbidden marriage and children, though the latter might be a possibility I have not wished it and made it known to my Lord that it must not be. My mother remains in limbo, neither son or daughter seeking to further her lineage, she has returned to her sister’s home in the distant village of her birth, a thatched house of twenty rooms,
‘Elms and willows shading the eaves at the back,
and, in front, peach and plum spread wide.
Villages lost across mist-haze distances,
Kitchen smoke drifting wide-open country,
Dogs bark deep among the back roads out here
And cockerels crow from mulberry treetops.
My esteemed colleague T’ao Ch’ien made this poetry. After a distinguished career in government service he returned to the life of a recluse-farmer on his family farm. Living alone in a three-roomed hut he lives out his life as a recluse and has endured considerable poverty. One poem I know tells of him begging for food. His world is fields-and-gardens in contrast to Hsieh Ling-yin who is rivers-and-mountains. Ch’ien’s commitment to the recluse life has brought forth words that confront death and the reality of human experience without delusion.
‘At home here in what lasts, I wait out life.’
Thus my mother waits out her life, frail, crumbling more with each turning year.
To live beyond the need to organise daily commitments due to others, to step out into my garden and only consider the dew glistening on the loropetalum. My mind is forever full of what is to be done, what must be completed, what has to be said to this visitor who will today come to my court at the Wu hour. Only at my desk does this incessant chattering in the mind cease, as I move my brush to shape a character, or as the needle enters the cloth, all is stilled, the world retreats; there is the inner silence I crave.
I long to see with my own eyes those scenes my mother painted for me with her words. I only know them in my mind’s eye having travelled so little these past fifteen years. I look out from this still dark room onto my small garden to see the morning gathering its light above the rooftops. My camellia bush is in flower though a thin frost covers the garden stones.
And so I must imagine how it might be, how I might live the recluse life. How much can I jettison? These fine clothes, this silken nightgown beneath the furs I wrap myself in against the early morning air. My maid is sleeping. Who will make my tea? Minister to me when I take to my bed? What would become of my cat, my books, the choice-haired brushes? Like T’ao Ch’ien could I leave the court wearing a single robe and with one bag over my shoulders? Could I walk for ten days into the mountains? I would disguise myself as a man perhaps. I am tall for a woman, and though my body flows in broad curves there are ways this might be assuaged, enough perhaps to survive unmolested on the road.
Such dreams! My Lord would see me returned within hours and send a servant to remain at my gate thereafter. I will compose a rhapsody about a concubine of standing, who has even occupied the purple chamber, but now seeks to relinquish her privileged life, who coverts the uncertainty of nature, who would endure pain and privation in a hut on some distant mountain, who will sleep on a mat on its earth floor. Perhaps this will excite my Lord, light a fire in his imagination. As though in preparation for this task I remove my furs, I loose the knot of my silk gown. Naked, I reach for an old under shift letting it fall around my still-slender body and imagine myself tying the lacings myself in the open air, imagine making my toilet alone as the sun appears from behind a distant mountain on a new day. My mind occupies itself with the tiny detail of living thus: bare feet on cold earth, a walk to nearby stream, the gathering of berries and mountain herbs, the making of fire, the washing of my few clothes, imagining. Imagining. To live alone will see every moment filled with the tasks of keeping alive. I will become in tune with my surroundings. I will take only what I need and rely on no one. Dreaming will end and reality will be the slug on my mat, the bone-chilling incessant mists of winter, the thorn in the foot, the wild winds of autumn. My hands will become stained and rough, my long limbs tanned and scratched, my delicate complexion freckled and wind-pocked, my hair tied roughly back. I will become an animal foraging on a dank hillside. Such thoughts fill me with deep longing and a coital desire to be tzu-jan - with what surrounds me, ablaze with bodily self.
It is not thought the custom of a woman to hold such desires. We are creatures of order and comfort. We do not live on the edge of things, but crave security and well-being. We learn to endure the privations of being at the behest of others. Husbands, children, lovers, our relatives take our bodies to them as places of comfort, rest and desire. We work at maintaining an ordered flow of existence. Whatever our station, mistress or servant we compliment, we keep things in order, whether that is the common hearth or the accounts of our husband’s court. Now my rhapsody begins:
A Rhapsody on a woman wishing to live as a recluse
As a lady of my Emperor’s court I am bound in service.
My court is not my own, I have the barest of means.
My rooms are full of gifts I am forced barter for bread.
Though the artefacts of my hands and mind
Are valued and widely renown,
Their commissioning is an expectation of my station,
With no direct reward attached.
To dress appropriately for my Lord’s convocations and assemblies
I am forced to negotiate with chamberlains and treasurers.
A bolt of silk, gold thread, the services of a needlewoman
Require formal entreaties and may lie dormant for weeks
Before acknowledgement and release.
I was chosen for my literary skills, my prestigious memory,
Not for my bodily beauty, though I have been called
‘Lady of the most gracious movement’ and
My speaking voice has clarity and is capable of many colours.
I sing, but plainly and without passion
Lest I interfere with the truth of music’s message.
Since I was a child in my father’s library
I have sought out the works of those whose words
Paint visions of a world that as a woman
I may never see, the world of the wilderness,
Of rivers and mountains,
Of fields and gardens.
Yet I am denied by my sex and my station
To experience passing amongst these wonders
Except as contrived imitations in the palace gardens.
Each day I struggle to tease from the small corner
Of my enclosed eye-space some enrichment
Some elemental thing to colour meaning:
To extend the bounds of my home
Across the walls of this palace
Into the world beyond.
I have let it be known that I welcome interviews
With officials from distant courts to hear of their journeying,
To gather word images if only at second-hand.
Only yesterday an emissary recounted
His travels to Stone Lake in the far South-West,
Beyond the gorges of the Yang-tze.
With his eyes I have seen the mountains of Suchan:
With his ears I have heard the oars crackling
Like shattering jade in the freezing water.
Images and sounds from a thousand miles
Of travel are extract from this man’s memory.
Such a sharing of experience leaves me
Excited but dismayed: that I shall never
Visit this vast expanse of water and hear
Its wild cranes sing from their floating nests
In the summer moonlight.
I seek to disappear into a distant landscape
Where the self and its constructions of the world may
Dissolve away until nothing remains but the no-mind.
My thoughts are full of the practicalities of journeying
Of an imagined location, that lonely place
Where I may be at one with myself.
Where I may delight in the everyday Way,
Myself among mist and vine, rock and cave.
Not this lady of many parts and purposes whose poems must
Speak of lives, sorrow and joy, pleasure and pain
Set amongst personal conflict and intrigue
That in containing these things, bring order to disorder;
Salve the conscience, bathe hurt, soothe sleight.
I think that I'd be good for you, and you'd be good for me.
I think that we compliment each other,
we contrast in a way that makes our opposites vivid
and melt in a way that makes our similarities swirl together.
Our minds are both high, floating and realizing the depths of the universe, but
the strings tied from our minds to the core of the Earth have not been broken yet.
I feel things in a way that you comprehend, and
our broken pieces fit together like a puzzle, intricate and sweet.
The sight of your body starts a fire, the hot flames grazing my skin,
turning me red but never burning.
I think that I'd be good for you, and you'd be good for me,
because even though you have your woes, and I have my secrets,
we'd be happy.
I'd make you smile, you'd make me laugh. And
we would fall asleep under the night sky, watching the cosmos swirl and flicker,
comparing the sight to emotions in our hearts.