Thursday, April 20, 2006

Thursday Poem: Poem For My Little Boy

Li Shangyin (812 - 858), Poem for My Little Boy
(Translated by Burton Watson, Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry)
(I copied this from here but had to a little clean-up)
My little boy Kun-shih,
no finer, no handsomer lad;
in bellyband, less than one year old,
already he knew six from seven;
at three he could tell you his name,
had eyes for more than chestnuts or pears.*
My friends came to look him over,
call him the phoenix of Cinnabar Cave;
at former courts where looks were prized,
he'd have rated first, they say;
but no, he has the style of an immortal spirit,
the swallow-throat, the crane-walk of a nobleman!
Why do they praise him so?
His father poor and talentless, they hope to comfort me thus.
In green spring, the warm and gentle months,
cousins all, his companions in play;
he runs round the hall, threads the wood:
a rush of bronze cauldrons bubbling over.
Elderly gentlemen come to the gate;
at once he dashes out to greet them;
in front of the guests, asked what he would like,
he mumbles shyly and won't speak up.
Guests are gone, he mimics their faces,
bursting through the door, snatching at his father's staff,
now aping Chang Fei's outlandish countenance,
now making fun of Teng Ai's stutter.**
A brave hawk on high wings soaring,
a noble horse with fierce, snorting breath,
he cuts stout green bamboo for a pony,
Gallops wildly, banging into things.
Suddenly he is the General in a play,
in stage voice summoning his groom;
now beside the gauze veiled lamp
he bows his head in evening obeisance to the Buddha.
Whip upraised, he bats at spider webs;
head bent down, he sucks nectar from the flower,
so nimble he outruns the swallowtail butterfly,
so swift he hardly lags behind the flying willow catkins.
By the terrace stairs he comes on Elder Sister,
rolls dice with her, loses all he has;
sneaks in to play with her vanity case,
prying at the golden clasp till he breaks it off.
Try to hold him -- he wiggles and squirms;
threaten and scold -- he will not be ruled.
Crouching down, he drags on the window netting;
with gobs of spit he polishes the lacquer lute.
Sometimes he watches while I practice calligraphy,
standing bolt upright, knees never moving;
old brocade book cover -- can he cut it up for clothes?
The scroll's jade spindle -- he begs for that too;
pleads with me to make him a spring garland,
spring garland fit for spring days,
when plantain leaves angle up -- furls of letter paper;
and magnolia buds droop -- writing brushes proffered.
Your father once was fond of reading books;
sweating, slaving, he wrote some of his own;
going on forty now, worn and tired,
no meat for his meals, cringing from fleas and lice --
Take care, my son -- do not copy your father,
studying, hoping for first or second on the exam!
Jang-chü's Rules of the Marshal,
Chang Liang's Yellow Stone Strategy,***
these will make you a teacher of kings;
waste no time on trash and trifles!
Much less now when west and north,
barbarian tribes rise in defiance,
when neither force nor bribes will bring them to heel
and the burden of them saps us like an old disease.
My son, grow to manhood quickly,
seek out the cubs in the tiger's cave;
make yourself lord of ten thousand households—
don't huddle forever over some old book!

* an allusion to an earlier poet's lament about unscholarly sons
** historical figures, noted for these features
*** classical works on military science

No comments: