To the Tune "The Silk Washing Brook"
I cannot permit myself
To give way to too many cups of thick amber wine,
Or I will become so drunk
I will lose control of myself.
The first scattered bells
Are borne on the evening breeze.
Auspicious Dragon incense fades
Like my interrupted dream.
The delicate gold-bird hairpins
Fall from my tangled hair.
In the empty night
Face to face with a
Guttering red candle.
Li Ch'ing-chao, translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung
The speaker begins by cautioning herself against the temptation to drink too much wine. She is afraid of losing control; she is acutely aware that she is not as young as she once was, or as carefree, and perhaps that is another reason she craves the giddiness wine brings. She seems caught in a life she is aging out of, but its beauty seems reason enough to cling to it: the glowing wine, the curling incense, the delicate gold-bird hairpins. She seems to be floating through time; we hear about scattered bells on the evening breeze (they're the first scattered bells, which seems to indicate that it's early evening); moments (or a few brief lines) later, she's waking up in the middle of the night. Has there been a party which ended? Does she remember it? Why is her hair tangled? There is a delicate dishevelment to the scene. She refers to her interrupted dream; is this an actual dream she was having, or is it her life? She seems to be alone when she wakes up; she refers to the empty night, but the adjective spreads over the whole scene. She is face to face not with another human but with a guttering candle, a light going out, a symbol of the brevity of youth and pleasure and life itself. The candle is red, which is a traditional good luck color in China. Is this an ironic touch, or a reminder of how fortunate we are even amid a scene of anxiety and solitude?
This is a poem about the passing of time. But the very existence of this poem, written almost nine hundred years ago in China and brought to us by a mid-twentieth century American poet, suggests that Art is an escape from Time. Li Ch'ing-chao's words, evoking a sense of fragility and pain at the rapid passage of life, stand monumental centuries later, available to anyone who wants to read them over.
The poem is from The Complete Poems of Li Ch'ing-chao, translated and edited by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung. The poet's name is sometimes transliterated Li Qingzhao, but I'm using the version Rexroth and Chung used in their book.