Encouraged by the Moon
While waiting for my coffee to brew this morning I was skimming through Frontier Taiwan, a collection of translated Taiwanese poetry, and was delighted to stumble upon a poem titled with the name of my favorite poet, Li Bai. I considered this an auspicious omen – even more so when I laughed out loud upon reaching the end.
After a bottle of Shaoxing wine
My wife becomes two
After a second bottle
She becomes three
Three bottles down
My wife disappears
The swaying ground
Is filled with stars
The delirious sky
Is lined with bottles
Late at night
All is quiet on the western front
The wine gone
My shoes are on the bed
I’m under the bed
Is in my ears
--- Du Ye (Frontier Taiwan, translated by John Balcom)
Readers familiar with Li Bai will immediately recognize Du Ye’s poem as satirical homage to Li Bai’s classic (and much translated) poem Drinking Alone With The Moon.
From a pot of wine among the flowers
I drank alone. There was no one with me –
Till, raising my cup, I asked the bright moon
To bring me my shadow and make us three.
Alas, the moon was unable to drink
And my shadow tagged me vacantly;
But still for a while I had these friends
To cheer me through the end of spring ….
I sang. The moon encouraged me.
I danced. My shadow tumbled after.
As long as I knew, we were boon companions.
And then I was drunk, and we lost one another.
… Shall goodwill ever be secure?
I watch the long road of the River of Stars.
(Translated by Witter Bynner and Kiang Kang-hu)
Drinking Alone With The Moon has been inspiring poets and drinkers ever since the 8th century. Roughly 400 years after Li Bai set down those words, one of the most highly regarded poets of the Southern Song dynasty, Yang Wanli, scrawled out his own Li Bai tribute.
“Going to Myriad Flower Valley Two Days After the Double Ninth with Hsu K’o-chang and Passing the Cup in the Moonlight”
This old man is thirsty, Moon is thirstier yet:
When wine flows into the cup, Moon goes in first.
He brings Blue Heaven along,
And Moon and Heaven both get soaked.
Heaven loves wine, old books report;
To say Moon is not a drinker is truly reckless talk.
I raise the cup and swallow Moon in one gulp;
I raise my head: Moon’s still in Heaven.
This old man laughs loud and asks the guest:
“Is Moon one sphere or two?”
When wine enters the poet’s guts, storm and fire arise;
When Moon enters the poet’s guts, ice and snow are scattered.
Before one cup is downed the poem is done;
I chant the poem to Heaven, and Heaven is amazed:
Who’d have thought that once in a million years a hunk of bone
Would drink wine and swallow the full moon whole!
(Translated by Hans Frankel)
“When I was about ten years old, I waited on my father, the Old Man of Bamboo Valley, to visit Yang Wanli, and with my own ears heard Yang recite this poem, after which he said: “I will say myself that this work of mine is similar to Li Bai’s.”
I wish that I could one day to be so bold as to make the same claim, but for now I will just content myself with the satisfaction that I have carved out a life in which Li Bai is a regular presence. From the outset of this project, Li Bai has been both an invited muse and unexpected visitor. I am forever grateful for how his moon encourages me along the way.