Great rivers flow through China, a vast life giving system, from the Yellow river in Henan to the Lijiang of Yunnan province. Like the moon, or like the yin and yang of the Book of Changes 1, they form an interactive circle, a vast mirror, where the past and present, the near and the distant all converge. The moonlight shines on one and one’s kin no matter where they are, and the rushing waters reach all the way home.
In my poems I draw inspiration from ancient stories, such as the Annals of Shu, a historical compendium of Sichuan during the 3 Kingdoms 2 period. Like this poem, they often are about nostalgia, and in particular about a longing for home, where one’s younger self always seems to be lurking, hovering like a ghost.
What do I remember of my home?
In my youth I was very poor. The country was sick with the scourges of corruption and the flames of futile wars. Those who survived the wars died young, and living more than thirty years was a rarity. In my village I mostly saw their wrinkled faces. The young had been conscripted or gone to the rich cities to pay off their parent’s debts. Sickly, only I remained. I loved calligraphy but we had barely any money for paper and ink, so I used the pond next to my house for ink. Over time, the water, already dark, turned a deep, blue black.
A few hundred yards down the road from my home, there was a little shop that sold trinkets and tea. From time to time it also sold abandoned items from the mansions and palaces of the rich. “Maoshi Juede! (Fucking turds 3)!” my mother used to call the wealthy merchants, nobles and officials in her Henan vernacular. Then she would spit to the side and adjust her collar, for it rubbed against her soft neck.
The shop had been there longer than I can remember, and was run by a foreigner. He had come from India over the twisting, ever-changing and mysterious Silk Road, and passed through the Jade mountains where in the noonday sun, the air trembled like smoke. A white-haired, sweet voiced little man, his gentle manner concealed a shrewd bargainer who bought second hand items from desperate clients for next to nothing. From time to time, and whenever I had nothing else to do, I was drawn to this place. For hours I surrounded myself with scrolls and bric-a-brac, like a moth hovering around burning scarlet incense in the Longmen Caves. Occasionally I discovered rare things, like the half broken glass bottle with the painted ship inside, or the brass hair clasp with the phoenix head, or the lock that was said to have belonged to a great Qin warrior. The store was a gift box, shabbily wrapped, but always giving. It was a lodestone for the serendipitous traveler.
“My items are from all over time. They are from places you have never heard, lands you will never know,” the little Indian spoke in a whisper, as though baleful demons with great teeth were lurking behind the worn red curtains of the small shop.
One afternoon, at a time when everything that had to be done had been completed, and it was too early to start anything else, I opened a scroll and saw a picture of a death mask 4. “That’s Beethoven’s face,” the Indian said. Having heard rumors across time and space of the muttering musical genius from barbarian lands to the west, I was intrigued. Hidden in the corner of the bookstore, it was in a little yellow scroll, a music glossary, just a few inches wide with creased yellowed corners. The black and white painting (if I can call it that for it was exceedingly crisp and clear) was of a stark and powerful face. The mouth was slightly turned down at the corners, as if tinged with bitterness and utterly serious. Between a craggy nose and looming forehead, the closed eyes seemed to pulse in their sleep. From the eyes outward, ridges and valleys radiated into the cheeks, almost cracking the plaster of Paris with their sharpness. No hair, no body, only the solemn face of Ludwig van Beethoven, the great composer from the future, from the place to the East where the pale guilo 5 lurk. It was a veritable world on a sheet of yellowed paper. In death, Beethoven’s face was bitter and stubborn and tender and naive all at once. After I looked long enough, the impression would slowly change. Then, improbably, he became an innocent, whose care-lined visage ravaged an otherwise plain middle aged face. He was, in death, peaceful and rested after a long life’s work. Not only of the future, he had come to the past.
万里风波一叶舟， wàn lǐ fēng bō yī yè zhōu
忆归初罢更夷犹。 yì guī chū bà gèng yí yóu
碧江地没元相引， bì jiāng dì mò yuán xiāng yǐn
黄鹤沙边亦少留。 huáng hè shā biān yì shǎo liú
益德冤魂终极主， yì dé yuān hún zhōng jí zhǔ
阿童高义镇横秋。 ā tóng gāo yì zhèn héng qiū
人生岂得长无谓， rén shēng qǐ dé cháng wú wèi
怀古思乡共白头。 huái gǔ sī xiāng gòng bái tóu
10,000 miles of wind and waves rock my boat,
I think back to where I started, anxiously.
Everywhere on the emerald Bi river I feel sucked in,
This yellow crane leaves faint prints on the sand.
Good deeds must in the end be rewarded,
Just as the great general Atong prevailed over the bitter Autumn.
Men, in their vanity, always strive for more,
Thinking of home and what is past, as their heads turn white!
About the Calligraphy:
万里风波一叶舟，忆归初罢更夷犹。10,000 miles of wind and waves rock my boat, I think back to where I started, anxiously. (2 rows, 14 characters, Cursive Cao Script): M.O. Ndesandjo
1. Zhōuyì (周易) is an ancient philosophy on living well and divining the future. The Yìjīng (易经), popular in the West, is derived from this so-called Book of Changes.
2. The Three Kingdoms (三国220-265BC) were Wèi （魏220-265), Shǔ Hàn (蜀汉221-263), and Wú (吴222-280).
3. 毛屎厥的： (adj.) máoshǐjuéde Lit. hairy feces.
4. Death masks were popular in eighteenth century Europe. Made of plaster of paris they were applied to the face of the dead person. They hardened and were later preserved for posterity.