Li Ho Eleven Poems
translated from the Chinese and annotated by David Hinton

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Endless-Peace Arrowhead Song

Among lacquer ash, bone dust, cinnabar river-stone,
ancient bitter-ice blood spawning bronze blossoms,

rain dissolved white feathers and thin gilt bamboo:
nothing left but a battered old three-spine wolf-fang.

I took two horses, scoured a battleground, flat rocky
fields east of a post-station, below weed-choked hills,

sun cut short. Wind blew on and on, stars moaning,
black cloud-banners hung drenched in empty night,

spirits and ghosts everywhere, emaciate, crying out.
I offered sacrificial cream, a jarful, and roast lamb.

Insects silent, geese sick, spring reeds red. Tangled
gusts bid a traveler farewell, feeding shadow-flames.

I searched antiquity in tears, and found a loose barb,
tip broken, cracked red. It sliced through flesh once,

and in South Lane at the east wall, a boy on horseback
wanted my bit of metal, offered me a bamboo basket.

Endless-Peace: Site of a vast battle in 260 B.C.E. It is said that over 400,000 soldiers died, and relics were apparently still turning up in Li Ho’s time, a thousand years later.

Dawn at Shih-ch’eng

A late moon out across the long dike sets,
and crows on battlements startle away,

delicate dew soaking scarlet bulbs, chill
scents thinning the night’s wine away.

Weaver-Girl and Ox-Herd crossed their
Star River, willow mist taking city walls,

but now he rises, leaving her a love-tassel.
She knits moth-eyebrows smudged green.

Spring bed-curtains in the thinnest cicada-wing gauze,
spread cushions embossed in gold faint-blossom patterns,

and outside the bed-curtains, crane-feather catkins adrift.
The passion of spring: it’s not something words will tell.

Weaver Girl and Ox-Herd: One of China’s best-known star myths, recurring often in poetry, involves the Ox-Herd and Weaver-Girl stars, which correspond to our Vega and Altair. The myth tells how the Weaver-Girl was so devoted to loom-work that her parents, the Emperor and Empress of Heaven, began to worry about her happiness. They married her to the Ox-Herd, but then she forgot her loom-work entirely, preferring the joys of their new life together. This so displeased her parents that the Empress, with a single stroke of her great silver hair-pin, created the Star River (Milky Way) between the lovers, separating them forever. But the Emperor, seeing how unhappy the lovers now were, declared that they would be allowed to meet for one night each year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, when all the magpies on earth fly up and hover over the Star River, creating a bridge for the Weaver-Girl to cross. And the lovers’ tears upon parting are said to account for the autumn rains. There is still a festival held on this day, in honor of the lovers. Celebrants hope there will be no rain, for the Star River is always brimful, and even a little rain will push it over its banks, creating a flood that will wash away the magpie bridge, thus preventing the lovers from meeting.

Sky Dream

A moon’s old rabbit and cold toad weeping colors of sky,
lucent walls slant across through half-open cloud towers.

A jade-pure wheel squeezes dew into bulbs of wet light.
Phoenix waist-jewels meet on cinnamon-scented paths.

Transformations of a thousand years gallop by like horses,
yellow dust soon seawater below changeless island peaks,

and all China seen so far off: it’s just nine wisps of mist,
and the ocean’s vast clarity a mere cup of spilled water.

moon’s old rabbit and cold toad: Mythic inhabitants of the moon.
dust soon seawater: Li Ho often evokes his timeless mythic realms by reference to the vast time-spans of geological process that the West only discovered in the late 19th century: land rising from the sea, mountains eroding away into plains and finally ocean floors again. See also Li Ho’s "Past Forever On and On Chant" (sixth poem).

Ch’in Spirit Song

Sun sunk into western mountains, eastern mountains go dark.
Whirlwinds whip up horses, hooves pounding across clouds.

Painted ch’in, plain flute— to their tangle of thin-water sound,
a dance in autumn dust, flowered skirts rustling silk and sigh.

Cinnamon leaves brushing wind, cinnamon scattering seed.
Black-azure puma-cat weeping blood, fox dying a cold death,

an opalescent dragon on ancient walls, tail inscribed in gold,
then the rain god riding it down into a lake’s autumn waters,

and that ancient hundred-year-old owl— it’s a forest demon
now: sound of laughter, emerald fire rising up out of its nest.

ch’in: Very ancient stringed instrument much revered by Chinese intellectuals as a means for attaining enlightenment, often appearing in poems and used as accompaniment when Chinese poets chanted their poems. In the hands of a master, a ch’in could voice with profound clarity the rivers-and-mountains realm, empty mind, even the very source of all things.

Old Man Mining Jade Song

Mining jade, mining jade— all they want is water-emerald
for lilt-in-her-stride hairpins, beauty for beauty’s sake,

though he’s so hungry and cold even the dragons grieve,
and the pure clarity of Indigo Stream’s breath is no more.

Foraging ridgetops on rainy nights, he dines on hazelnuts,
his old man’s tears blood rife in a bitter cuckoo’s mouth.

The water of Indigo Stream has had its fill of we the living,
and those drowned a thousand years still despise its water.

Mountains askew, cypress gales, howling rain. His ropes
hang down to headwaters— azure twisting, swaying. Cold

village, bleached house: he worries for his pampered girl.
Ancient terraces and stone cliffs— heart-gut dangle grass.

Heart-gut dangle grass: Also called: “child-worry vine” and “farewell grass.”

Past and Forever On and On Chant

Lucent-Lumen returns to western mountains,
Emerald-Blossom rises deep into far-off depths:

past and present— where will they ever end?
Years whirl away on wind by the thousands,

and ocean sands turn to stone. Fish froth up
sighs along ruins of a sea-bridge to the sun.

Bits of radiance roam empty distances, skies
propped on pillars worn away into the years.

Lucent-Lumen . . . Emerald-Blossom: Sun and moon.

Wives of the River Hsiang

Bamboo blood-flecked a thousand years, old but never dying:
it bounds the Hsiang, companion still to those spirit beauties.

Tribal girls sing and play, music filling cold southern skies.
Nine-Doubt Mountain tranquil green, tears stain blossoms red,

Nine-Doubt, where those phoenix lovers parted and set out
into distances, always intimate, making clouds-and-rain love.

Autumn ch’i, secret with grief, rises into green-azure maples,
and among waves in the icy night, ancient dragons cry out.

Wives of the River Hsiang: The mythic Emperor Shun had two wives, both daughters of Emperor Yao. When Shun died, they buried him on Nine-Doubt Mountain. Their sorrow was so great that they wept tears of blood, which stained the bamboo throughout the region. Eventually, they leapt into the Hsiang River, and thereupon became the spirit wives of the river god.
clouds-and-rain love: From the legend of a prince who, while staying at Shaman Mountain, was visited in his sleep by a beautiful woman who said that she was the goddess of Shaman Mountain. She spent the night with him, and as she left said: “At dawn I marshal the morning clouds; at nightfall I summon the rain.”
ch’i: Universal breath or cosmic life-force.

Borderland Song

Mongol horns stretch north wind longer.
Thistle Gate plain glistens clear as water.

Sky swallows the road to Azure-Deep Seas,
Great Wall a thousand miles of moonlight,

and dew drifting, misting over our flags,
cold metal calls the quarter hour all night.

Tribal armor intricate as serpent scales,
horses calling out, Ever-Grass Tomb bare,

we watch Banner-Tip stars. Autumn quiet.
Far reaches of sand this grief of distant

wandering. Sky ending north of our tents.
Gone beyond borderlands, river-murmurs.

Ever-Grass Tomb: The tomb of Wang Chao-chün, a great beauty who was sent to a Mongol chieftain as a tributary bride. When she died after an unhappy life among “barbarian” people, she was buried in Mongol lands, north of the Chinese border. It was said that the grass on her tomb was always lush and green, but here it’s been turned to dust by the grazing of Mongol war-horses.
Banner-Tip: A constellation corresponding to our Pleiades. It was believed that if its stars began to flicker, war was imminent with the Mongol people to the north.

Lamentation Chant

South Mountain’s peopled with such grief.
Ghost-rain keeps sprinkling empty grasses,

and autumn fills Ch’ang-an past midnight:
how many are turning old in all its wind?

Yellow-twilight paths blurred deep away,
streets of black-azure oak twist and sway,

trees standing in shadow beneath a moon.
Pellucid dawn will cover whole mountains.

Lacquer candles welcome new arrivals to
dark tombs. Confusions of fireflies flicker.

South Mountain: Here referring to the Whole-South Mountains just south of Ch’ang-an, which had many graveyards on their slopes.
Ch’ang-an: The capital, whose name means “Enduring Peace.”

The Chill of Canyon Twilight

A pellucid fox facing the moon howls mountain wind:
autumn cold sweeps clouds away, empties emerald sky.

Jade mist trails white pennants into wet azure-greens.
At dawn, Star River’s curling, flowing east of the sky,

a brook-egret asleep, dreaming swans into long flight,
the current swelling delicate and full, saying nothing.

Peak above snaking ridgeline peak— tangled dragons,
and for a traveler, bitter bamboo cries singing flutes.

Dragon-Cry Impersonation Song

Stones grating across brass bowls,
a faint cry withered and worried.

Azure-deep eagles splattering blood,
lungs ripped from a white phoenix,

and cinnamon seed scattering away,
clouds carriage-canopies buffeting.

Foul canyon island all dead trees and crumbling sand
where the immortal Goddess Queen stopped growing old,

crystalline dragon spit rinsed away in dark caverns,
and golden claws buried along shoreline cove-shallows,

ash-azure cliff-steps mourning moss. Two river spirits
drying tear curtains, breaking blood-flecked bamboo.

Lotus-Dragon Emperor gone a thousand years, stench
lingering on after rain, and scent of dragon-bane iron.

Two river spirits . . . blood-flecked bamboo: See note to "Wives of the River Hsiang" (seventh poem).

Li Ho (790-816)

It is said that Li Ho’s strange poetry grew out of the conditions of his life. A branch of the imperial house in serious decline, Li Ho’s family clung to a world of splendor in which they imagined their ancestors to have lived. Although Li had proven himself quite brilliant and had renowned sponsors such as Han Yü, he was prevented from taking the governmental exam that would have guaranteed him a secure career on a technicality: those who passed the exam were called chin-shih, but the name of Li’s father was also pronounced chin, and using one’s father’s name was taboo. Finally, Li was sickly his entire life, dying at the young age of 27. But such considerations can only begin to explain Li Ho’s altogether singular work.
Li Ho was known as the “ghostly genius.” When he writes of his own experience, it is usually transformed by the ghostly or demonic. But his most representative work moves in a wholly imagined realm, a phantasmagoric poetry representing an extreme point in the tradition. He was nurtured by Han Yü from an early age, knew and was heavily influenced by Meng Chiao; and he in turn deeply influenced the two major figures to follow in this alternative tradition: Tu Mu, who wrote the preface to Li’s collected poems; and Li Shang-yin, who wrote his biography. And Li found his other major sources in the most atypical and otherworldly moments of the tradition: the shamanistic world of the Songs of Ch’u, and the virtuosic and startling spontaneity of Li Po.
The surprising leap or juxtaposition had come to be used occasionally by poets such as Wei Ying-wu as a way of opening deeper insights into our immediate experience of the world. But Li Ho made such discontinuities the very texture of his poems. Between the fantastical nature of Li Ho’s lines, and their discontinuous assemblage, Li Ho’s poems have all but lost their connection with the ever-changing empirical world —enduring source of insight and balance in mainstream Chinese poetry— posing against it the timeless realm of our myth-making psyche.
Li cultivated the interior, imaginal realm in the most consuming way. He completed the inversion begun in Meng Chiao: rather than rendering immediate experience and his response to it, Li’s work creates a kind of quasi-symbolist, even abstract, world that exists only in the poem itself. At their most extreme, his poems create an almost hallucinogenic interiority of passions rendered in a language seductive in its sensuality. These imaginal and otherworldly tendencies almost seem to have more in common with Western literary practice than that of ancient China. And indeed, he is perhaps the most problematic of poets for a tradition that so values deep empirical clarity and wisdom, although his virtuosic genius has remained undeniable.
Li Shang-yin’s biography not only describes the conditions out of which Li Ho’s particular poetry may have grown; it also describes his working habits, and they reveal much about his poetry. According to Li Shang-yin, Li Ho spent his days wandering on the back of a donkey, and when a line came to him, he would scribble it down and toss it into a bag. Back home at the end of the day, he would take out the lines he had written and assemble them into a poem. Li’s mother watched this with despair, saying that in his poems her son was “vomiting out his heart.” And the legend Li Shang-yin tells about the end of this imaginal life also summarizes both Li Ho himself and his problematic place in the tradition: altogether unlike T’ao Ch’ien, the archetypal poet of Taoist/Ch’an wisdom who saw death and burial as a return to his mountain home, Li was carried away to the Emperor of Heaven by a spirit in crimson robes riding a scarlet dragon.

English translation and text © David Hinton
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