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Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology



In the Wilds There’s a Dead Deer

(The Book of Songs: 15th-6th c. B.C.E.)


In the wilds there’s a dead deer

all wrapped in bleached reeds,

and there’s a girl feeling spring

as her fair love brings her on.


In the woods there’s thicket oak,

in the wilds there’s a dead deer

tangled tight in bleached reeds,

and there’s a girl, skin like jade.


Slowly— oh yes, slip it off slowly,

my skirt, oh yes, don’t muss it,

and don’t start that dog barking.




The Question of Heaven

(The Songs of Ch'u: 3rd c. B.C.E.)



From the far origin of all antiquity,

who hands the story down to us?



Before heaven and earth take shape,

how do you delve into what’s there?



When light and dark are still a blur,

who can see through to their source?



When it’s altogether primal chaos,

how do you see the shape of things?



Blazing radiance and utter darkness

and nothing more: how did it happen?




Drinking Wine

(T'ao Ch'ien: 365-427 C.E.)


I live here in this busy village without

all that racket horses and carts stir up,


and you wonder how that could ever be.

Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself


a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums

at my east fence, I see South Mountain


far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight

going home. All this means something,


something absolute: whenever I start

to explain it, I forget words altogether.





 Untitled (9)

(Cold Mountain: 7th-9th c.)


People ask for the Cold Mountain Way.

Cold Mountain Road gives out where


confusions of ice outlast summer heat

and sun can't thin mists of blindness.


So how did someone like me get here?

My mind's just not the same as yours:


if that mind of yours were like mine,

you'd be right here in the midst of it.




Endless-Peace Arrowhead Song

(Li Ho: 790-816)


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.




Staying Overnight in Hsü’s Library, Hsieh Shih-hou and I Are Driven Crazy by Rats

(Mei Yao-ch'en: 1002-1060)


Lamp flame low and blue, everyone asleep,

hungry rats come sneaking out of holes


and send plates and bowls crashing over,

startling us from our dream-filled sleep.


Bang— an inkstone tumbles off the table,

and we panic. Next they’re on the shelves


gnawing at books. Suddenly my silly boy

starts meowing like a cat! Goofy plan, eh?

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