A Song of Chang-kan

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A girl at play beneath her teenage bangs,
I was outside the front gate hunting flowers
when you charged in astride a bamboo horse,
flung plums my way and galloped round in rings.

We were naïve and happy as could be
back then, two neighbor children in Chang-kan.
When made, my lord, your bride, I was fourteen
and never smiled because I was so shy.

Shrinking, head lowered, in the lampless larder,
I shunned your thousand calls to “Come out, please.”
Laughing by fifteen, though, with loosened brows,
I knew no dust could snuff my wifely ardor.

A silent soldier in a tower till death,
I would keep watch for you; I would be true.
When I turned sixteen, business sent you through
the Gorges of Chu-tang, through rock and froth.

Desperately, when the fifth month waiting came,
I strained to hear the strange apes where you were.
Gone were your footprints leading from our door.
The sea-green peat moss that had coated them

had grown too deep to sweep up. Autumn, then,
further interred them when it stripped the trees.
Now, in the eighth month, yellow butterflies
pair off above our lush west-garden lawn.

They are the reasons why my heart is raw.
I fear my vaunted cheeks have lost their bloom.
Send me a message you are heading home
once you have reached the three precincts of Pa

and, never mind the distance, I will race
even to Chang-feng Sha to glimpse your face.

Li Bai, wino, lunatic, came, they say, from far Suyab (now Kyrgyzstan) to less uncouth regions of Tang-Dynasty China, where he, much beloved by his fellow poets, drowned while drunkenly reaching for a reflection of the moon in water. This particular poem has been famously translated by Ezra Pound as “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.