Four Poems by Li Bai 李白

Hard is the Journey

Gold vessels of fine wines,
thousands a gallon,
Jade dishes of rare meats,
costing more thousands,

I lay my chopsticks down,
no more can banquet,
I draw my sword and stare
wildly about me:

Ice bars my way to cross
the Yellow River,
Snows from dark skies to climb
the T’ai-hang mountains!

At peace I drop a hook
into a brooklet,
At once I’m in a boat
but sailing sunward…

(Hard is the journey,
Hard is the journey,
So many turnings,
And now where am I?)

So when a breeze breaks waves,
bringing fair weather,
I set a cloud for sails,
cross the blue oceans!

Question and Answer on the Mountain

You ask for what reason I stay on the green mountain,
I smile, but do not answer, my heart is at leisure.
Peach blossom is carried far off by flowing water,
Apart, I have heaven and earth in the human world.

A Poem of Changgan

My hair had hardly covered my forehead.
I was picking flowers, playing by my door,
When you, my lover, on a bamboo horse,
Came trotting in circles and throwing green plums.
We lived near together on a lane in Ch’ang-kan,
Both of us young and happy-hearted.

…At fourteen I became your wife,
So bashful that I dared not smile,
And I lowered my head toward a dark corner
And would not turn to your thousand calls;
But at fifteen I straightened my brows and laughed,
Learning that no dust could ever seal our love,
That even unto death I would await you by my post
And would never lose heart in the tower of silent watching.

…Then when I was sixteen, you left on a long journey
Through the Gorges of Ch’u-t’ang, of rock and whirling water.
And then came the Fifth-month, more than I could bear,
And I tried to hear the monkeys in your lofty far-off sky.
Your footprints by our door, where I had watched you go,
Were hidden, every one of them, under green moss,
Hidden under moss too deep to sweep away.
And the first autumn wind added fallen leaves.
And now, in the Eighth-month, yellowing butterflies
Hover, two by two, in our west-garden grasses
And, because of all this, my heart is breaking
And I fear for my bright cheeks, lest they fade.

…Oh, at last, when you return through the three Pa districts,
Send me a message home ahead!
And I will come and meet you and will never mind the distance,
All the way to Chang-feng Sha.

Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain

The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.

We sit together, the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.

Exile’s Letter

So-Kin of Rakuho, ancient friend, I now remember
That you built me a special tavern,
By the south side of the bridge at Ten-Shin.
With yellow gold and white jewels we
……..…….we paid for the songs and laughter,
And we were drunk month after month,
…………forgetting the kings and princes.
Intelligent men came drifting in, from the sea
………………….and from the west border,
And with them, and with you especially,
…..there was nothing at cross-purpose;
And they made nothing of sea-crossing
…………………….or of mountain crossing
If only they could be of that fellowship.
And we all spoke out our hearts and minds…
…………………………….and without regret.
And then I was sent off to South Wei,
……………..smothered in laurel groves,
And you to the north of Raku-hoku,
Till we had nothing but thoughts and memories between us.
And when separation had come to its worst
We met, and travelled together into Sen-Go

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Li-Bai-headshot

Photograph from Alamy

From Poetry Foundation: A Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, Li Bai (also known as Li Po, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po, and Li T’ai-pai) was probably born in central Asia and grew up in Sichuan Province. He left home in 725 to wander through the Yangtze River Valley and write poetry. In 742 he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy by Emperor Xuanzong, though he was eventually expelled from court. He then served the Prince of Yun, who led a revolt after the An Lushan Rebellion of 755. Li Bai was arrested for treason; after he was pardoned, he again wandered the Yangtze Valley. He was married four times and was friends with the poet Du Fu.

Li Bai wrote occasional verse and poems about his own life. His poetry is known for its clear imagery and conversational tone. His work influenced a number of 20th-century poets, including Ezra Pound and James Wright.

Li Po, “Zazen on Ching-t’ing Mountain,” translated by Sam Hamill from Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese. Copyright © 2000 by Sam Hamill. Reprinted with the permission of BOA Editions, Ltd., Rochester, New York.

Source: Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese (BOA Editions Ltd., 2000)

Painting of Li Bai from Wikimedia Commons: Link By Unknown author – Original publication: Between 1800 and 1850
Immediate source: A painting in Gu Lang Yu museum, Xiamen, Fujian, China, Public Domain.