On the Road near Chiangling the Poet Chen Hsi-wei
Encounters a Young Musician, Summer, 597 A.D.
Tallow leaves hang low, grass is brittle underfoot.
Birds spiral lazily then flutter down in the shade.
Prickly lettuce and withered jasmine
lie flat, like bing cakes baking on the dirt.
Paving tiles burn right through straw sandals.
Her eyes are so alert, it’s as if she just found them.
The heat barely touches her, this devotee of song.
She’s not the sort to compromise, not yet.
She asks me about music, what I’ve heard and whom.
Did I hear the great Zhang Chu in the capital?
Her reverence for her art exalts them both. She’s
sure a celestial melody floats just above her head;
if only she could tug it down and play it then
the world would certainly change for the good.
The sun wouldn’t scorch, perhaps taxes would drop.
She is small, delicate, nearly a child, though
if you look closely, you’ll see that’s half true,
that she’s a soft soul in a hard cocoon.
Her faith is as unspoiled as her smooth skin.
Who would dare to scoff? Not me.
She asks my name and when I give it
I’m startled. She bows low, calls me Master,
can hardly believe it, tells me how much she
loves my old poem about Lake Weishan.
Her face is fervent as a praying monk’s.
Taking up her liuqin, she begins to sing
and it’s like running water by a dusty road.
I feel my forgotten poem surfacing from
Lake Weishan itself transformed, summoned
by the sudden beauty of this butterfly.
Editor’s Note: This narrative poem imagines an encounter between an old master and young woman, yet even though it is set within the distant past, the emotional story still resonates.