The Lute Girl
(after Po Chü-i, AD 772-846)
The maples decayed.
The cut flames of a few, last leaves
sank back into the river.
My host and I, warm with wine and the soldiers’ songs,
led his skittish grey down by the muddy quay.
The horse shied farther up the bank, dragging its reins
as my old comrade, wading in at the water’s edge,
pushed hard against the bow.
As my little boat met the wider stream,
I heard his voice, disembodied now, goodbye goodbye
and then the dark.
The stars were drunk and the water swirled.
An hour, a moment, ten destines passed
and I awoke in reeds, downstream to the world
in the mouth of Ko-pen creek.
In the cool of the evening, the rushes
trembling, whispering with crickets
and the water lapping in the shallows, at first
I mistook the lute strings plucked in time
for river sounds, then gathered my senses, wrung them
dripping in the chilly air, and still the notes, and now
a sweet voice neither above the strings
nor beneath their liquid resonance, yet
something of the colour of the forest birds
calling from the shady canopy, or a handful of river pearls
rolling in a marble dish, silk split with a sharp blade
then silence with the plectrum’s pause,
and in the clearing a figure’s silhouette
where the untrimmed lantern flared and guttered.
We faced in silence, she half-hidden by the lute
and shadows, and I hung in river tides
and a silver, swimming autumn moon.
Caught in the chords’ charm, I sat heavily before her,
that she oblige a traveller one song more. She said,
‘these notes are no man’s, and bitter reminiscence
ices passion—who are we
that love should triumph over silence… ‘
I stared, transfixed, yet as she rose and turned to go
she turned again, and walking forward
knelt, and locked my look in hers.
‘I passed my childhood in the capital.
I was twelve, and with my fingers teased
sweet sorcery from the strings, and rubbed my voice along the frets
until the masters of the arts themselves
acknowledged my worth, and praised its milky subtleties.
The ladies of the court envied my gifts,
burning incense at secret shrines
against simple beauty and a voice that knew the world.
‘A look encouraged young lords their applause,
and silver brocade, and gold enamelled ornaments
followed me year by careless year, and the wine
that stained our mouths stained too
spring’s breezy expectations
until winter came, spare and unforgiving.
‘Times changed; my brother sought the wars in Kansuh
and never returned; my mother died.
Nights chased mornings,
and morning showed the truth of fading beauty in the glass.
The courtiers drifted
back to their estates, their dogs and wives.
‘Humbled, I became a trader’s wife, a mean life
reckoned by profit and separation.
With the tenth moon, my husband journeyed south
where tea fields await the scales, and I,
wandering the river banks these many nights,
remember the shape of the past, its features
cut from empty dreams.’
She stared past me into the river eddies.
Into the silence between us a cuckoo’s curdled note,
or out amongst the dwarf bamboo
the mournful cries of animals without names,
then nothing, until vagrant, hollow pipes
announced the distant villages awake, again the day
beaten of its hours, the thin beast
yoked to stony soil, and the shaman
at the day’s first fire.
Her palm against the strings damped the last chord.
We departed, companions in this afterlife, she
to the river path and I— wrongfully dismissed from office,
exiled here these past two years
far from the Prefecture of the Nine Rivers—
to the cold shore and my boat within the reeds,
gathering around me my chrysanthemum robe,
bright with dew.