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Poetry selection from Readymades by Tony Barnstone in Fall 2001.

Nineteen Ancient Poems (Anonymous, Han Dynasty 206 B.C.-220 A.D.)

Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping

The “Nineteen Ancient Poems” are written in the five-character meter that has been the longest-lasting and most influential form of versification in Chinese literature, and, in fact, are the earliest poems that we have written in this meter. These anonymous poems were deeply influential, and their themes were much imitated (in fact, they helped shape the themes and forms of Chinese poetry for the next two thousand years). They probably represent a now-vanished tradition of first or second centuries C.E. poems, of which they are the sole remaining texts. They show aspects of folk song, but have been reworked into literary poems. Melancholy, love-lorn, accessible, and concerned with universal themes of the brevity of life and separation from the loved one, these poems shine out of the deep past of China with an intense and intimate beauty.

1. Traveling traveling and still traveling traveling

Traveling traveling and still traveling traveling,
you're separated from me for life,
ten thousand miles apart,
gone to the other end of the sky,
your road so long and difficult.
How can we know if we'll meet again?
A northern horse leans against northern wind,
a southern bird nests on southern branches.
This separation lengthens day by day
and day by day my gown and belt grow slack.
Floating clouds obscure a white sun
and wanderer, you do not return.
Missing you makes age come fast.
Years and months spin past.
No need to mention you abandoned me.
Just take care of yourself and eat enough.

2. Green so green is the river grass

Green so green is the river grass,
thick so thick are the garden willow's leaves.
Beautiful so beautiful is the lady upstairs,
shining as she stands by the window, shining.
pretty in her powdered rouge, so pretty
with her slender, slender white hands.
Once she was a singing girl,
but now is the wife of a womanizer.
He travels and rarely comes home.
So hard to sleep in an empty bed.

3. Green so green are the cypress over the burial mounds

Green so green are the cypress over the burial mounds.
Boulders upon boulders in the rushing ravine.
Born between heaven and earth,
a man is a long-distance traveler.
Let's take joy from this pitcher of wine
and drink with heart, not thin pleasure.
Whipping slow horses pulling our wagon,
we'll play at Wan and Luo.
It is so noisy and crowded in Luoyang,
where officials with caps and belts visit each other,
on main streets and tributary lanes
with mansions owned by kings and princes.
The two palaces gaze at each other from afar
yet their watch towers seem just a hundred feet apart.
Let's exhaust ourselves in banquets to entertain our hearts!
Sorrows and melancholy—who needs such pressure?

4. At today's great banquet

At today's great banquet
it's too hard to list all our joy.
The zither vibrates with escaping notes,
a new melody so fine it entrances us.
The talented sing high words;
and we who know music understand.
Our hearts share such wishes,
but they've never poured out like this.
Our being is only one life,
up and gone like floating dust.
Why not whip your horse
ahead of others at the ferry landing?
Staying poor is worth nothing.
It just means long suffering on a rutted road.

5. There's tall tower in the northwest

A tall tower in the northwest,
tall as floating clouds
with patterned lattice windows
and a pavilion up three flights of steps
where strings and voices are heard,
a sound so plaintive and bitter.
Who could play and sing a song like this
except the wife of Jiliang?
Clear autumn sounds blow through the prelude,
then the main melody shifts and varies,
one strike then repeated phrases
with the lingering force of grief.
I don't regret the singer's sorrow,
but mourn how few truly understand her.
If only we were a pair of singing cranes
beating our wings and soaring high!

Note: The wife of Jiliang was a woman who was said to have played her lute before drowning herself in sorrow after her husband's death in battle.

6. I cross the river to pick lotus flowers

I cross the river to pick lotus flowers
where fragrant grasses grow in the orchid lake.
But to whom can I send these flowers?
My love is far away on the road.
I turn my head and look home
down the road so long and wide.
We share one heart yet live apart
in sorrow and grief till age takes us.

7. Clear moon pouring bright light at night

Clear moon pours bright light at night;
crickets sing in the eastern wall.
The Big Dipper's jade handle points to mid-winter,
all the stars incredibly clear.
White dewdrops hang to wild grass,
seasons flow by fast and change.
Autumn cicadas rub their wings in trees.
Where have black swallows migrated to?
Once we studied together
but you have soared on powerful wings,
forgetting we once held hands.
You abandoned me like old footprints.
The South Basket and North Dipper can't be used
and the Pulling Ox won't bear a yoke.
Indeed, nothing is solid as rock.
What's the use of empty names?

Note: “The South Basket and North Dipper can't be used” alludes to song 203 in the Book of Songs, and the sense of the source, as above, is that these two constellations can't be used as baskets or dippers, just as the Pulling Ox constellation does not bear a yoke. If the narrator's old friendship is just mere words, “empty names,” then it is similarly useless.

8. Soft and frail is the solitary bamboo

Soft and frail is a solitary bamboo
though rooted in the foothills of Mount Tai.
I married you just recently,
a creeper climbing up its host.
There is a time for creepers to grow,
but husband and wife should stay as one.
Three hundred miles away from marriage,
you're past the mountain range.
Missing you makes me old.
Why does your carriage return so late?
Orchid flowers grieve me,
unfolding themselves in bright colors.
If you don't pick them before they are past season,
they'll wither with autumn weeds,
but since you are so faithful to our marriage,
what can I say, humble as I am?

9. There is a wonderful tree in the courtyard

There is a wonderful tree in the courtyard,
rich flowers among its green leaves.
Breaking a twig, I pick its blossoms
to send them to the man I love.
The fragrance fills my blouse and sleeves.
You too far off for me to send them.
Not that these flowers are some great gift;
they give me grief of long separation.

10. Far and far is the Cowherd Star

Far and far is the Cowherd Star,
bright so bright is the Weaver Girl.
Slender and white, her hands are moving
click-cluck shuttling over the loom.
She doesn't finish one piece in a day
and her tears spin down like rain.
The Celestial River is clear and shallow;
there is no great distance between the two.
Across the brimming water
the Weaver gazes with silent love.

Note: The poem refers to the mythical story “The Cowherd and the Weaver Girl,” a common subject in traditional Chinese poetry. The Weaver girl was a granddaughter of the Emperor of Heaven, whose job was to weave cloud embroidery, but after her marriage to the Cowherd, she stopped working. The Emperor of Heaven was not happy about this, and had them separated by the Milky Way. Each year they could only reunite once, on the 7th day of the 7th month, by crossing the Celestial River (the Milky Way) on a bridge built for them by magpies.

11. I turned my carriage around to return

I turn my carriage around to return,
slowly, slowly, on a long journey.
I look around and see nothing but uncertainties,
and a hundred plants shaking in east wind.
All that I meet on the road looks unfamiliar.
How can I not age fast?
To rising and falling there is a season
but I can't stand still being a failure.
A man life is not made of gold or stones
so how can he reach longevity?
Suddenly life goes through final transformation.
A great name is a great treasure.

12 The east wall is tall and long

The east wall is tall and long
extending and connecting with itself.
Swirling winds rush up from the earth
and autumn grass is melancholy and yellow;
the four seasons keep changing
and soon it is year's end again!
“Morning Wind” refreshes my longing,
“Crickets” makes me sad about confinement.
I should go wild and let my passions free.
Why should I bind myself so tightly?
In Yan and Zhao beauties abound,
pretty as jade,
and I see girl wearing a silk dress
and practicing a Qingshang tune in a doorway
Your music is so sad
the notes so fast and high-strung!
My heart flies to you as I tie my robe
pacing back and forth and fantasizing
I am with you, a pair of swallows flying
with mud in beaks to build a nest under your roof.

Note: Lines 7-8 “Morning Wind” and “Crickets” are two poems from the Book of Songs
Line 11. Yan is in the area of today's Hebei Province and Zhao is the area of Shanxi Province.
Line 13. Qingshang tunes are three tunes based on Yuefu (Music Bureau) songs.

13. I drive my wagon to the east gate

I drive my wagon to the east gate
and gaze at distant tombs north of the city
where poplars sigh and sigh in wind
and pines and cypress line the road.
Underneath are the ancient dead.
Endless, endless is their long evening
in deep sleep under the Yellow Springs.
Through thousands of years they never wake.
Powerfully Yin and Yang cycle past
and years alive are like morning dew,
human existence just a short trip,
not solid like gold or stone.
Ten thousand generations have seen each other off
and no sage or saint is an exception.
Trying pills and lotions for immortality,
many people poisoned their lives.
Much better to drink great wine
and wear silk and satin clothes.

Day by day the dead are receding

Day by day the dead are receding
and the living coming closer.
Looking straight through the city gate,
I see nothing but burial mounds and tombs,
ancient tombs plowed into fields
and ancient cypress trees cut down as firewood.
Poplar trees catch sad wind
and rustling, rustling this sorrow kills.
I'd like to return to my home village,
but there is no road to take me there.

Man dies within a hundred years

Man dies within a hundred years
but is filled with a thousand years of grief.
Since day is short and night seems long
why not wander with a candle
seeking joy while you are in time?
Don't wait for your time to come.
The fools who care just for cash
will be sneered at in the future.
So hard to come across a man
like Wang Ziqiao, immortal.

16 Chilly, chilly, the year-end clouds darken

Chilly, chilly, the year-end clouds darken
Mole crickets sing sadly in the evening.
Cold winds are getting sharper,
but traveling man you have no winter clothes.
You left your embroidered quilt at Luopu,
and don't share a gown with me any more.
I sleep alone through a long night,
and see your face in my dream,
good man, who cherishes me, his old joy.
Your carriage came and you gave me marriage ribbons,
saying “I wish I could smile more often
and come back with you in the same carriage.”
You leave my dream so quickly
do not stay in my chamber.
Since you have no wings to glide on morning wind,
how does the wind carry you back?
I look around to let my heart unfold,
stretch my neck, looking into distance for your gaze.
I stand here seized by grief
and wet my door with tears.

17. A current of cold in early winter

A cold current in early winter,
a north wind of bitter shivers.
This grief lengthens night.
I look up, see a million stars arrayed,
a full moon on the fifteenth
but on the twentieth the moon-rabbit's part gone.
From a far land, traveler, you came
and handed me a letter
with a first part about missing me,
a second part mourning long separation.
I put the letter in my sleeve
three years ago. The characters still speak.
My whole heart holds on with a passion.
I fear that you won't understand.

18. A traveler came from afar

A traveler came from afar
and brought me a piece of silk.
Parted by three thousand miles,
my man's heart is unchanging.
I used the pattern of two mandarin ducks,
and cut the silk into a quilt for two,
stuffed it with my missing him
and tied all the knots hard and fast.
When you throw glue into paint,
who can separate the two?

19. Pure and white bright moon

Pure and white bright moon
lighting my silk bedcurtains;
I feel such grief I cannot sleep,
just slip on a robe and rise.
Traveling may be a joy,
but early return is better.
I step out of the door and pace
with no one to listen to my sorrow.
Head lifted to sky, I return to my chamber,
clothes wet with tears.