An Ancient Children’s Tale (Yang Lian [1955 — ])

(From the Poem Cycle ‘Bell on the Frozen Lake’)

How should I savor these bright memories,
their glowing gold, shining jade, their tender radiance like
silk that washed over me at birth?
All around me were industrious hands, flourishing peonies,
and elegant upturned eaves.
Banners, inscriptions, and the names of nobility were everywhere,
and so many temple halls where bright bells sang into my ears.
Then my shadow slipped over the fields and mountains,
rivers and springtime
as all around my ancestors’ cottages I sowed
towns and villages like stars of jade and gemstones.
Flames from fire painted my face red; plowshares and pots
clattered out their bright music and poetry
that wove into the sky during festivals.
How should I savor these bright memories?
When I was young I gazed down at the world,
watching purple grapes, like the night, drift in from the west
and spill over in a busy street. Every drop of juice became a star
set into the bronze mirror where my glowing face looked back.
My heart blossomed like the earth or the ocean at daybreak
as camel bells and sails painted like frescoes embarked
from where I was to faraway lands to clink the gold coin
of the sun.

When I was born
I would laugh even at
the glazed and opulent palaces, at the bloody red
walls, and at the people rapt in luxurious dreams
for centuries in their incense-filled chambers.
I sang my pure song to them with passion,
but never stopped to think
why pearls and beads of sweat drain to the same place,
or why in a trembling evening
a village girl should wander down to the river,
her eyes so clear and bright with grief.

In the end, smoking powder and fire erupted in the courtyard;
between endless mountains and plains, horse hooves
came out of the north, and there was murder and wailing
and whirling flags and banners encircling me like magic clouds,
like the patched clothes of refugees.
I saw the torrential Yellow River
by moonlight unfolding into a silver white elegy
keening for history and silence.
Where are the familiar streets, people, and sounds?
And where are the seven-leaved trees and new grass,
the river’s song beneath a bridge
of my dreams?
There is only the blood of an old man selling flowers
clotting my soul,
only the burned houses, the rubble and ruins
gradually sinking into shifting sands
and turning into dreams, into a wasteland.

(This poet one of the original “Misty Poets”)