More of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I was hard pressed to choose a representative poem from the many I liked in the last third of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson. I probably chose this one because it comes closest to expressing my own feelings at being retired:

Three Delights in My Place of Exile (1097)

GETTING UP IN THE MORNING AND COMBING MY HAIR

Sound sleep, sea of inner breath stirring;
boundless, it ascends to the cerebral palace.
The sun comes up, dew not yet dried,
dense mist shrouding the frosty pines.
This old comb’s been with me so long –
teeth missing, still it makes fresh breezes.
With a single washing, ears and eyes brighten;
popping open, ten thousand pores come alive.
Young days, how I loved my sleep, loathed getting up –
dawn audiences at court were always a scramble,
no time even to give my head a good scratching,
and then the bother of putting on a hat! –
no different from a draft horse in the shafts,
wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.
Mounting my fancy saddle, jeweled bit jangling,
in truth it was like donning chains and shackles,
no telling when I’d be free again, unchained,
not even an old willow to rub my itches on! –
But who can describe the delight I know now?
I’ll send copies to the gentlemen with gold seals at their waist.

THE FIRST of three poems. The other two are entitled “By the Afternoon Window, Sitting and Dozing,” and “Before Going to Bed, Soaking My Feet.” The poet was suffering from swollen feet, probably due to beriberi, and soaked his feet to relieve the swelling.

Lines 1-2. The poet employs Taoist terminology to describe the physical sensation of a good night’s rest.

Line 20. “Gentlemen with gold seals at their waist” are the high government officials who sent the poet into exile. It is said that one of them ordered Su to move from Hui- Chou to Tan-chou because rumor reached him that Su was actually enjoying himself in Hui-chou. As these poems illustrate, Su remained defiantly determined to continue enjoying his life in exile.

My Army memories of having to get up and lead PT in the dark rival any of my Vietnam memories. Still, my worst memories were of donning Dress Blues to attend a formal reception and standing in long reception lines to be introduced to dignitaries who wouldn’t remember me ten minutes after I’d been introduced, not that they had any reason to.

Of course, as mentioned before, any kind of “work” seems like being “draft horse in the shafts, /wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.” What a joy to get up in the morning with nothing to do but enjoy the day in all its fullness.

3 thoughts on “More of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

  1. loren, i love this person’s writing – it speaks across such a geographical, historical and cultural distance in terms that i can relate to! the hurry of morning is something i’ve focussed on this school year as something worthy of elimination. so i get up earlier and spread the process across a broader stretch of time. in eight years i will enjoy something of what you are presently able to enjoy!
    cheers
    steven

  2. This writer is someone I like as a person. How charming that his everyday thoughts convey a contentment that is still relevant and gently humorous after hundreds of years. As a retiree, I love that his fancy saddle and jeweled bit jangled like chains and shackles. And happiness was the best revenge even then, eh? Burton Watson deserves great credit in my estimation. His choice of nuance is masterful.

What do you think?