Monday, December 18, 2017

Thinking about Li Po during the Geminid Meteor Shower

I live in a place where I can see the stars- there are no streetlight obstructions. It is the first time in my life I've been so lucky. Stepping out my door at night, I look up into the milky way, the star river. So, it was easy to stand on the stone wall right outside the door and watch the flashes and streaks of the geminid meteor shower last Thursday night.

Over the last few weeks, I've been re-reading the Selected Poems of Li Po   
(also known as Li Bai and Li Taibai), translated by David Hinton. I've had the book since it first came out in 1996. It is one of the few books, along with Hinton's translations of the selected poems of Tu Fu (Du Fu), that I have managed to hang onto in all my travels and moves. 

Li Po and Tu Fu are among the best  Chinese poets. They both lived during the High T'ang Dynasty period (712-760), a period that was marked, at the beginning, by a flourishing world of art; and ended in a rebellion (the An-Lushan rebellion) that plunged Chinese civilization into incalculable destruction, widespread famine, and death. The fall in census figures from a population of 53 million to 17 million after the rebellion's end, tells the tale of the incredible catastrophe.  

Li Po was a skilled swordsman, lived in a cave as a Taoist recluse, spent time in the emperor's court as a translator (being perpetually drunk and refusing to follow the usual protocols, he  gained the nickname "Banished Immortal" - one who has been banished from Heaven, or as Hinton puts it in his introduction to the selected poems: "an exiled spirit moving through this world with an unearthly ease and freedom from attachment."). 

During the rebellion, he was adviser to a prince who replaced the emperor for a brief period. The prince eventually lost the throne to his brother and Li Po was tried for treason and sentenced to death. He was granted clemency by the aid of a general he had once saved from court-martial, and was eventually exiled. He spent his last years wandering. 

The legend of his death says that he died, drunk, while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon on the Yangtze river. At least one third of his poems mention the moon. "In a universe animated by the interaction between yin (female) and yang (male) energies, the moon was literally yin visible." (Hinton, Introduction to the Selected Poems). 

Song of the Merchant

On heaven's wind, a sea traveler
wanders by boat through distances.

It's like a bird among the clouds:
once gone, gone without a trace.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton)

I have always been drawn to the spontaneous aspect of Li Po's poetry. He was friends with the masters who developed "wild-grass" calligraphy, those who would get drunk and, at the right moment, plunge brush into ink and scrawl indecipherable characters across silk. It seems as if he created his poems in much the same way. With Li Po, act and poem merge. Another aspect that draws me in, is that everything is placed in the context of larger natural patterns - there is always "the wild" - stars, waterfalls, gibbons, the moon...

Thought in Night Quiet

Seeing moonlight here at my bed,
and thinking it's frost on the ground,

I look up, gaze at the mountain moon,
then back, dreaming of my old home.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton) 

Because I am a creature of the 21st Century, my own experience of the wild, of natural patterns, extends to the why light flashes across the sky, and how the wildness of the natural world is also within us, our bodies, our nervous systems. Shooting star, thought-flash - same thing.

At Fang-Ch'eng Monastery, Discussing Ch'an with Yuan Tan-Ch'iu 

Alone, in the vast midst of boundless
dream, we begin to sense something:

wind and fire stir, come whorling
life into earth and water, giving us

this shape. Erasing dark confusion,
we penetrate to the essential points,

reach Nirvana-illumination, seeing
this body clearly, without any fears,

and waking beyond past and future,
we soon know the Buddha-mystery.

What luck to find a Ch'an recluse
offering emerald wine. We seem lost

together here - no different than
mountains and clouds. A clear wind

opens pure emptiness, bright moon
gazing on the laughter and easy talk,

blue-lotus roofs. Timeless longing
breaks free in a wandering glance.

(Li Po, trans. David Hinton)

The meteors flashed and I thought of Li Po, standing a little further off, among the trees in the dark, both of us staring up at the same stars...

Heaven & Earth:
Thinking of Li Po While Watching a Geminid Meteor Shower

(a work in progress)

Meteors whip flammable gas into flame -
        brief streaks of light
                  between seemingly immortal stars.
Li Po, last poet to hunt immortality,
                wandered city to cave to monastery,
followed the moon across the surface
       of dark water, desperate
                                  to drink that light down.
A brilliant white line scars the night
                  beneath Orion's belt, across Eridanus,
river of souls,
                 pierces the mind, mirrors the flash
         across a synapse. Messages sent from before
the earth was formed:
              What is a thought? What is a dream?

The afterimage haunts the eye: eerie black
                                                light. There, not there;
   same as the poet's legend, illusion as history:
         Li Po dove into the moon and drowned.
But the poetry was real, spontaneous, shadows
                         thrown onto cave walls by torchlight.
Undaunted, (probably drunk), he questioned
        the tigers and dragons that emerged from stone:
              What is a thought? What is a dream?
    What is this strange longing I have for the moon?

I stand on a stone wall, shivering, feet cold,
 watch stone after stone burn the night sky
                            alive. Anchored to earth, the mind
rides the brief light (…a thought, a dream…).
                   Spontaneous whoops and sighs erupt 
from my mouth at each flash:
                        the nervous system recognizing itself…

Li Po was the last poet to hunt down immortality,
             knew the search was futile - and yet
found that a life, a full life, can be made in pursuit
            of the joke:

                                Li Po dove into the moon… 

Another great translator of Li Po is J. P. Seaton, editor and translator of the Shambhala Anthology of Chinese Poetry

A recent book of his Li Po translations: Bright Moon, White Clouds.

1 comment:

  1. very satisfying, Li Po and you, sing(ly) and ensemble. thank you, Christien