li bai and the mountain

chinese tombstone ©papa osmubal

chinese tombstone ©papa osmubal

li bai and the mountain
joanna radwanska-williams

At Li Bai’s grave, I touch the stones that hold
The earthly remnants of his luminous soul.
In the Temple of Heavenly Bai
His white marble likeness
Stares at me through twelve centuries of time.
The statue was carved when people still remembered
The expression of his face,
The face of a poet, ordinary, made of flesh,
Whose eyes are made of spirit,
Whose tongue of song.
Li Bai loved spirit and song
Both of the flesh and heavenly kind.
In the gift shop, I buy
A clay figurine
Li Bai and the wine jug,
Drinking to escape the earth.
When he died, Li Bai escaped the earth,
Flying to heaven on a fish.
I think of other poets
Whose death I have imagined.
Alexander Pushkin on his deathbed
Asked for the taste of the tart berry morozhka,
Which grows in northern Russian forests,
Which I have found in Arctic taiga, on the White Sea.
Over Boris Pasternak’s grave
I recited Hamlet, and remembered
How a Russian friend once told me
When she was fourteen, she climbed the fence unnoticed
To look at Pasternak in his garden.
He wore galoshes.
What makes a poet’s soul?
He is like other souls, but is aware
Of his existence.
Sometimes the other souls are bodies, then the world
Seems without soul.
The poet feeds his body, dines,
Drinks wine, sings, dances, sleeps, tries to accept
That he is made of body.
Something inside him contradicts him
And laughs at him while he is eating.
He stops feeding his body and wipes his lips from wine.
He leaves the table and his guests
And tries to walk away from himself.
His body keeps following him.
So he walks to the top of the mountain, higher than the birds,
Where there is only the bright moon,
Where the rocks speak his language of silence.
So many days, he will come down from the mountain
And through his lips will pass the words
Born of the silence of stone.
When he speaks, people feel music.
When he speaks, the poet feels pain.
Then one day, alone on the mountain, he reaches
For the reflection of the moon.
If only he could be his own reflection,
Flying away from himself, on spirit wings,
Through miles and miles of air,
Down to the river and up into the sky
To a point of vanishing, like an arrow
That pierces time.
Li Bai has vanished.
His granddaughters, who exist in time,
Have found his body. Now it is buried here.
I touch the stone, the marble, and the mountain.
They know his secret, where he has gone,
They understand his silence.
If I am silent, speaking without sound,
I can hear the song of the mountain,
I can catch a faint echo of meaning,
I can imagine the face of Li Bai
In the reflection of the moon.


Nanjing, November 22, 1996

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