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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 1-9

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Within the Silk Hangings of Our Canopy Bed

Willis Barnstone

For those who live on the earth a thousand or two thousand years from now, whatever I have done will have no meaning. It will be lost. I am a painter. None of my paintings will survive. Maybe one or two dubious copies will linger. I am also a poet. No one will overhear my tones about rain on an empty mountain. Death swallows ambitions and pain and lays them in a miniature box of echoless silence. Now that we agree that my cottage solitude will continue intact forever, I feel happy and free to tell you my story.

My family name is Wang, and I earn my living as Counselor of Music to the Emperor, which means each day I drag my body to the court. Those who are jealous have better reason to laugh at me now, for my hair is white and my step not that of the young poet-painter whom an earlier emperor sent for years out to the far northwestern frontier, where we fought with the Mongols, whom we called the barbarians. You would think I would retire, but I don't know how to. Yet when I come back to my house in the evening or for a few days, I am the recluse in love with mountains and a few visitors. Then, anyone who comes and I are the only living persons in the world and we drink, chatter like monkeys, and carry out our appointments with white clouds.

Often it is the woodcutter who is thirsty, who stands by my cane gate until I say, "Why are you waiting there like a fool? Come in." He comes in, and we drink and exchange stories, laughing and lost to time.

I have had many lives, which is odd for one not given to ambition. I couldn't help it, for I do have talent and from a young age began to paint, and the so-called southern school of landscape painters imitated what I did. As for my poems, I was helped by my friend Pei Di, with whom I wrote them. It was difficult to tell whose hand was the author's. My other lives were more public (except for the secret life, which will be my tale), and these had to do with the politics of existence. I forget the scuffles as I rose and fell in public grace. Isn't that normal and everyone's fate? The experience of hermits and poets is more interesting than that of public figures. Li Bai, who was a poet of perfect tones and delicate brush, and also [End Page 1] a wild bohemian drunk, had a son who died of starvation, a dear wife who suffered exiles with him, and, except for a happy period with his friend Du Fu when they lived like brothers in a cottage in Chengdu, never a time free of small miseries. It isn't true that Li Bai died by drowning. While he loved his lonely companions the moon and his own shadow, and his verse about them haunts us, he never during his many drunken episodes attempted to embrace the moon in the Yellow River. His death was ordinary. All poets had adventures and tragedies. So too the emperors. But I favor the poets in these matters, who record lives without rancor.

To be a poet in the imperial capital of Changan is to be one of ten thousand birds. We are a chorus of single flutes with some loud municipal drums telling the hour of night.

During the Anlushang Rebellion, my T'ang emperor had to flee. I couldn't leave, and was soon jailed by the usurpers of the empire. I wrote about the horrible things I saw. One evening, four musicians, famous ones, were asked to perform in court before the imposter emperor. They were brought out onto special carpets set in the middle of the central room in the palace, their instruments waiting for them, and were ordered...


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