Rhyming with A New Graduate in Mourning: Two Poems
The Transcendents don’t stay in the human realm for long,
ten autumns passing in a mere moment.
Under a mandarin duck tent the incense stays warm
and speech is still ceaseless inside the parrot cage.
This morning dew beaded the flowers, like a face in anguish.
Tonight the wind will bend the willows like a worried brow.
No news since the colored clouds took off.1
Pan Yue is so sad his hair is going white.2
A branch of moon cassia, as graceful as the mist.3
Ten thousand river peach trees, making rainfall red.
Drunk before your goblet. Stop staring off in pain.
Sadness and pleasure in the past were no different than they are today.
1 The “multicolored clouds” are the clouds on which the ancients rode when they first became immortals.
2 Among the most famous poems by Pan Yue (247–300) are his three elegies for his wife. The story is that he was so overcome with grief that his hair turned white overnight.
3 Because “cassia” (桂) is a homophone for “honor” (貴), those who passed the civil service exam were said to have “plucked cassia” (折桂), or reached an honor.
Visiting Alchemist Zhao, Who Was Not There
Where is the alchemist off with transcendents?
He’s left his dark robes4 at home
and the stove still warm with herbs left boiling,
tea roasting in the courtyard next door.
The painted walls are dark in the lamplight
and the shadow of the flagpole is slanting.
I turn my head, eagerly, and more than once,
but it’s only flowers on the branches beyond the wall.
4 The clothes of a Daoist apprentice.
Seeing You Off
The shape of water conforms to its container:5 we know it is indeterminate.
Clouds drift with no intent.6 Will they ever come back?
Despondent spring winds over the Chu river tonight,
one mandarin duck flies away from its flock.
5 Han Fei 韓非子 attributes a quote to Confucius that “In treating the people, the ruler is like the vessel while the populace is like water: if the vessel is rectilinear, the water will be rectilinear; if the vessel is round the water will be round” 為人君者猶盂也，民猶水也，盂方水方，盂圓水圓. Critics generally read Yu’s usage here to mean that women must rely on men to keep them proper.
6 In the famous poem “Returning Home” 歸去來辭 by Tao Qian 陶潛 (aka Tao Yuanming 陶淵明, 365–427) is the couplet “Clouds drift with no intent beyond the peak of the mountain / and birds tire of flying but still know how to return” 雲無心以出岫 鳥倦飛而知還. Yu has tweaked the meaning considerably.