27 April 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/17

I Smell the Fragrance of Withered Plum Blossoms by my Pillow

To the Tune "Unburdening Oneself"

Last night, so very drunk,
I fell asleep in make-up and jewelry,
Withered plum blossoms still in my hair.
The fumes of wine and blossoms saturated my dreams of Spring,
And finally broke through and woke me up.
I could not return to dreams of far-off love.
Everyone was still.
Under the declining moon,
I unrolled the kingfisher-green curtain,
Crumpled the fallen petals,
Lit the remaining incense,
And confronted the passing hours.

Li Ch'ing-chao, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung

I thought this poem would make an interesting companion to last week's, and not just because both were written by Chinese women who lived in the Hangzhou province (though Li Ch'ing-chao, whose name is also transliterated Li Qingzhao, lived several centuries earlier, in the early twelfth century). Though last week's poem was written by a nun in solitary meditation, and this week's by a fairly wealthy and worldly woman (she has jewelry and wine and attends parties), both end up contemplating the fleeting pleasures of the world and the passing of time.

The world's pleasures may be fleeting, but they are indeed pleasures, and not to be dismissed lightly. It is the awareness of them and their temporary nature that gives this poet the poignant reflections that bring her close in spirit to the nun. The details here give a picture of the aftereffects of delight (the withered, crumpled plum blossoms; the fumes of wine and drunkenness; the declining moon, the remainder of the incense); still, these things were delightful, and even their decay has romantic charm. In fact part of the appreciation of plum blossoms has always been (as with cherry blossoms) exactly that they are so transitory. Although there is a sense of sadness here, as there always is as a party wanes, and a sense that the green happiness of youth has passed (her drunken dream is of Spring, and when she wakes up she cannot return to her those early dreams of far-off love), I can't help feeling there's something both glamorous and cozy about this picture; it's permeated by a refined sense of sorrow, related to the luxury and beauty that surrounds her.

The party seems to have collapsed into sleep; you'd think she was alone except for the line "Everyone was still" – presumably they have fallen asleep around her, having, like her, drunk too much wine. She is living in comfort, even luxury – falling into intoxicated sleep and dreaming of love, even lost love, is more appealing when you can raise the soothing green curtains and not worry about rising with the sun to work in the fields. I find a raffish charm in her bohemian disarray, and beauty in her delicate hints of impending loss. Last week Jingnuo was filled with pleasure as she studied holy texts; this week Li Ch'ing-chao is filled with a serious, even spiritual sense through contemplation of passing pleasures. The final similarity of these two despite their disparate approaches to the world reminds me of the second stanza in W H Auden's Lullaby:

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

This week's poem is from Li Ch'ing-chao: Complete Poems, translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.


Michael Strickland said...

If I didn't know better, I'd say "In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love."

Patrick J. Vaz said...

You want more Tennyson?

In the spring my thoughts turn mostly to allergy medications.