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
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.