With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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T’ao Ch’ien abandoned a life of government work as an act of political dissent and went to live as a farmer in his ancestral village. His poetry was written while he was in seclusion.
I live here in a village house without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,
and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
returning home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.
This new year makes it fifty suddenly
gone. Thinking of life’s steady return
to rest cuts deep, driving me to spend
all morning wandering. Skies clear,
air’s breath fresh, I sit with friends
beside this stream flowing far away.
Striped bream weave gentle currents;
calling gulls drift above idle valleys.
Eyes roaming distant waters, I find
ridge above ridge: it’s nothing like
majestic nine-fold immortality peaks,
but to reverent eyes it’s incomparable.
Taking the winejar, I pour a round,
and we start offering brimful toasts:
who knows where today might lead
or if all this will ever come true again.
After a few cups, my heart’s far away,
and I forget thousand-year sorrows:
ranging to the limit of this morning’s
joy, it isn’t tomorrow I’m looking for.
Wang An-shih rose to the rank of prime minister during the Sung Dynasty and instituted economic and social reforms. In his retirement he turned to writing poems about the Chinese countryside where he lived.
Dawn lights up the room. I close my book and sleep,
dreaming of Bell Mountain and full of tenderness.
How do you grow old living with failure and disgrace?
Stay close to the cascading creek: cold, shimmering.
Getting this old isn’t much fun,
and it’s worse stuck in bed, sick.
I draw water and arrange flowers,
comforted by their scents adrift,
scents adrift, gone in a moment.
And how much longer for me?
Cut flowers and this long-ago I:
it’s so easy forgetting each other.
Yang Wan-li was both an advisor to prime ministers and emperors and a serious Ch’an Buddhist practitioner. His poems often recount moments of enlightenment that arise from everyday life.
A fisherman’s taking his boat deep across the lake.
My old eyes trace his path all the way, his precise
wavering in and out of view. Then it gets strange:
suddenly he’s a lone goose balanced on a bent reed.
The gorge’s river all empty clarity, rain sweeps in,
cold breezy whispers beginning deep in the night,
and ten thousand pearls start clattering on a plate,
each one’s tic a perfect clarity piercing my bones.
I scratch my head in dream, then get up and listen
till dawn, hearing each sound appear and disappear.
I’ve listened to rain all my life. My hair’s white now,
and I still don’t know night rain on a spring river.
The ox path I’m on ends in a rabbit trail, and suddenly
I’m facing open plains and empty sky on all four sides.
My thoughts follow white egrets — a pair taking flight,
leading sight across a million blue mountains rising
ridge beyond ridge, my gaze lingering near then far,
enthralled by peaks crowded together or there alone.
Even a hill or valley means thoughts beyond knowing —
and all this? A crusty old man’s now a wide-eyed child!
The poems by T’ao Ch’ien and Yang Wan-li, translated from the Chinese by David Hinton, are from Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China. Copyright © 2002 by David Hinton. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp. The poems by Wang An-shih are from The Late Poems of Wang An-shih, translations by David Hinton, forthcoming in March from New Directions.