Secret of the Inner Chamber
My flower holds both red dew and white honey,
attracting yellow wasps and purple butterflies, different types.
By the spring window I sleep in dreams of lust.
Next to me in the quilt, my husband knows nothing.
Li Shangyin, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
This poem is quite short but feels lush and expansive, filled with bright colors (red, white, yellow, purple) and natural phenomena (flowers, dew, honey, wasps, butterflies!) just in the first two lines, giving us a restless, sensuous view even before we get to the "spring window" and the dreams of lust in the third line. It isn't until the fourth and final line, though, that we can place the speaker: the flower reference in the first line appears as in a Georgia O'Keeffe painting, and strongly implies the speaker is a woman, but we don't know much else about her: is she a young virgin, a courtesan, an old woman? what is her situation in life? She is a wife. Although her husband is next to her in bed (presumably having his own dreams) he knows nothing of what she's feeling. It's a poignant illustration of the isolation of the individual, even from a lover. Is this a momentary divergence? Or the on-going condition of their marriage?
A few years ago a friend of mine from Taiwan told me that the Mandarin equivalent of the English phrase "bedroom eyes" was "peach-blossom eyes" (at least, I'm pretty sure that's what he meant; he's sometimes a little vague when I ask for details). I think it's very likely that a lot of the natural imagery in Chinese love poetry, which can seem sort of perfumed and refined in translation, actually comes across in the original as earthy and direct. Here's another thing about translation: when I first read this poem, I, not always knowing the gender assignment of Chinese names, assumed the author was a woman. Actually, Li Shangyin was a man, a minor official who lived from 813 to 858. Learning that a man wrote this poem reminded me of the passage in In Search of Lost Time in which Proust's narrator, bored with his lover Albertine, is about to break up with her, until he hears a rumor that she had had affairs with other women (is that also implied in this poem by the "different types", wasp and butterfly, that are attracted to the speaker?). He then realizes that despite his closeness to Albertine, she has a life he can never share or imagine. That begins his obsessive and ultimately failed love for her. Perhaps the ignorant husband in this poem is Li Shangyin, himself, attempting with imaginative empathy to translate himself into his lover's spirit, and acknowledging that any such attempt must ultimately fail.
This is from the collection Chinese Erotic Poems in the Everyman Pocket Poets series.