Watching Crows in the Summer Palace4 min read

Five poems by Xi Du

Watching Crows in the Summer Palace

Like leaves spinning into the sky,
like black-robed monks reciting
obscure sutras. I look up.
Across the desolate water divided by the lake’s banks

there is a secluded corner
west of the bustling royal garden.
As if dedicated to this bleak winter,
crows protest above my head.

The whole afternoon, I sit at the lakeside, alone,
clap my hands and watch crows launch from treetops
flinging their lugubrious ideas over the limpid sky
as if they were bills from hell requiring payment

in the human world. They plunge
like an aspiration mauled by life.
I know they will invade my dreams
demanding words from me
to praise the darkness.

Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Rachel Galvin

For Lin Mu

I inquire about the man
wearing a crown of thorns.
People give a bewildered look in reply to my hasty inquiry.
Baggage is piled everywhere,
tripping me, two uniformed cops
rudely elbow me out of the way.
The waiting room is buzzing with chatter,
abandoned newspapers, instant noodle containers,
and the disagreeable smell of sweat.
Rumors swarm like mosquitoes.
A woman carrying a baby on her back
repeatedly begs me for something.
Trailing her as closely as a tail
are two more children even dirtier than she is.
Pickpockets like parasites creep through the crowd.
Aside from them and the mosquitoes,
everyone else is ready to depart for any other world.
Although their wishes conflict and they are in each other’s way,
they are sure of their own direction.
At night the square is more crowded.
Still no news.
No news on the changing timetable.
Or on the flashing neon billboard,
or in people’s vacant eyes.
People unpack their bedding,
turning the square
into a temporary refugee camp.
Only starlight brings whiff of salvation
from the distant wilderness.
I decide in the end to settle in the square
and wait out my life here.
I lie down on my back—and see
the starry sky burn and gleam like an angel’s face
and the square blazes in a flash.


Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Rachel Galvin

In the Same Boat
– For Sen Zi

I love the unruly scenery more than
anyone else might. I delight
in both the mountains and the waters,
and better yet, when mountains and waters mingle.

Who will spend a hundred years with me? Whose daughter
will share my boat? I’m not a rower.
Let the spring wind carry me along the stream.

Waves make no effort nor take any responsibility.
Waves drift freely their whole life; if only our love would too.
We may be using the wrong end of the paddle.

Perseverance is unbearable.
My boat only trusts the force of the waves,
from this shore to the other, from spring to autumn.

From spring to autumn, we continue writing letters
for the plums that treat us well. On the other side, our other selves
are suspended from the filaments of rain, a crane leaping in an arc.

The scenery is one of my oars and poetry is the other.
Sometimes what we write is more noble than we are,
but we are still considered noble.

The most effective paddle, not to be mistaken for love,
is called friendship. If you don’t believe me you will hit the south wall
and won’t see the bank even if you turn around.

Compared to the helmsman and paddles, I love being near the porthole.
The flapping wine flag makes my heart skip a beat.
You say the freedom the wind has given us is already enough.

Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Rachel Galvin

Small Bones in the Moonlight

Under the moonlight these tiny bones enter
and come out of my body, like small animals
on the plains forming some little fences.
A fat dolphin falls from the sky
penetrated by these tiny fish spears
but not a drop of blood dripping and this is my
body, my flesh and blood, my failure in the moonlight.
The tiny bones chase each other,
passing through the saline soil of the moon, like a flock
of helpless orphans
languishing in the water. And these tiny bones flying in a V shape
in the imagined wilderness
land on my old desk, like
a small piece of weightless moonlight.

Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di and Kerry Shawn Keys

In the Darkness
– for Zang Di

In the dark he looks like a cluster of huge
matters, a paperweight
pressing the shadow under his body. Or
darkness is a cushion under his butt.

He sits quietly in the dark, as if holding
a thread. He takes pains to string things together.
He pulls a thread, more threads come out
like a silkworm spitting out silk threads

from nowhere. He is skillful in pulling through
the needle in the dark, seaming a seamless shirt.
Then he leaps suddenly as if shooting up
from the spring chair. He walks to the balcony

and from there overlooking the darkness.
He stretches out his hands as if taking something
out of his body: all at once the room brightens up.
“I will eventually offer the world something,” he says.

Translated from the Chinese by Ming Di.

Header: free use image under Creative Commons licence.