Tuesday 13 July 2010

A Message to Po Chu-I by W. S. Merwin

Po Chu-I (白居易), poet from the Tang Dynasty

A Message to Po Chu-I
--W.S. Merwin

In that tenth winter of your exile
the cold never letting go of you
and your hunger aching inside you
day and night while you heard the voices
out of the starving mouths around you
old ones and infants and animals
those curtains of bones swaying on stilts
and you heard the faint cries of the birds
searching in the frozen mud for something
to swallow and you watched the migrants
trapped in the cold the great geese growing
weaker by the day until their wings
could barely lift them above the ground
so that a gang of boys could catch one
in a net and drag him to market
to be cooked and it was then that you
saw him in his own exile and you
paid for him and kept him until he
could fly again and you let him go
but then where could he go in the world
of your time with its wars everywhere
and the soldiers hungry the fires lit
the knives out twelve hundred years ago

I have been wanting to let you know
the goose is well he is here with me
you would recognize the old migrant
he has been with me for a long time
and is in no hurry to leave here
the wars are bigger now than ever
greed has reached numbers that you would not
believe and I will not tell you what
is done to geese before they kill them
now we are melting the very poles
of the earth but I have never known
where he would go after he leaves me

Mervin's "A Message to Po Chu-I" was first published in The New Yorker in March this year.

This blogger believes that Merwin may be responding to Po Chu-I's poem "Setting A Migrant Goose Free" <放旅雁>. The Chinese poem is copied below, as well as its translation by David Hinton. What do you think?


Setting A Migrant Goose Free
Translation: David Hinton
Snows heavy in Hsun-yang this tenth-year winter,
riverwater spawns ice, tree brunches break and fall;
and hungry birds flock east and west by the hundred,
a migrant goose crying starvation loudest among them.
Pecking through snow for grass, sleeping nights on ice,
its cold wings lumber slower and slower up into flight,
and soon it’s tangled in a river-boy’s net, carried away
snug in his arms, and put for sale alive in the market.
Once a man of the north, I’m accused and exiled here.
Man and bird: though different, we’re both visitors,
and it hurts a visiting man to see a visiting bird’s pain,
so I pay the ransom and set you free. Goose, o soaring
goose rising into the clouds – where will you fly now?
Don’t fly northwest: that’s the last place you should go.
There in Huai-hsi, rebels still loose, there’s no peace,
just a million armored soldiers long massed for battle:
imperial and rebel armies grown old facing each other.
Starved and exhaused – they’d love to get hold of you,
those tough soldiers. They’d shoot you and have a feast,
then pluck your wings clean to feather their arrows.



1 comment:

  1. I clipped Merwin's poem from the 3/10 New Yorker, and have treasured it since then. How wonderful to find its inspiration! Can't thank you enough for having posted this.


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