In 753 Tu Fu, along with a crowd of others, watched the imperial court—the emperor’s mistress, her sisters, the first minister—publicly celebrate the advent of spring.

Intricate to celebrate still-delicate
raw spring, peacocks in passement of gold

thread, unicorns embroidered palely in silver.
These are not women but a dream of women:—

bandeaux of kingfisher-feather

                                                       jewelry, pearl

netting that clings to the breathing body

veil what is, because touched earth
is soiled earth, invisible.

As if submission to dream were submission
not only to breeding but to one’s own nature,

what is gorgeous is remote now, pure, true.


The Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments
has brought life back to the emperor, who is

old. Therefore charges of gross extravagance, of
pandering incest between her sister Kuo and her cousin

are, in the emperor’s grateful eyes, unjust. Her wish
made her cousin first minister. Three springs from this

spring, the arrogance of the new first minister
will arouse such hatred and fury even the frightened

emperor must accede to his execution. As bitterly to
hers. She will be carried on a palanquin of

plain wood to a Buddhist chapel
deep in a wood and strangled.


Now the Mistress of the Cloud-Pepper Apartments,—
whose rooms at her insistence are coated with

a pepper-flower paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded because the rooms of the Empress

always are coated with paste into which dried pepper-
flowers are pounded and she is Empress

now in all but name,—is encircled by her
sisters, Duchesses dignified by imperial

favor with the names of states that once had
power, Kuo, Ch’in, Han. Now rhinoceros-horn

chopsticks, bored, long have not descended.
The belled carving knife wastes its labors. Arching

camel humps, still perfect, rise like purple hills
from green-glazed cauldrons. Wave after

wave of imperial eunuchs, balancing fresh
delicacies from the imperial kitchens, gallop up

without stirring dust.


With mournful sound that would move demon
gods, flutes and drums now declare to the air

he is arrived. Dawdlingly

                                             he arrives, as if the cloud of

suppliants clinging to him cannot obscure the sun.

Power greater than that of all men except one
knows nothing worth rushing toward

or rushing from. Finally the new first minister
ascends the pavilion. He greets the Duchess of

Kuo with that slight
brutality intimacy induces.

Here at last is power that your
soul can warm its hands against!

Beware: success has made him
incurious, not less dangerous.

After Tu Fu, “Ballad of Lovely Women.” In conception and many phrases, this version is indebted to David Hawkes’ A Little Primer of Tu Fu.