Author's Note: Some years ago, I wrote a story about a peasant boy living during the Sui Dynasty, circa 600 AD. Chen Hsi-wei performs a dangerous service for the Empire and turns down the customary rewards of money, land, and women in favor of receiving an education. Hsi-wei becomes a poet and a vagabond. This experiment in writing-what-I-don’t-know was successful enough that I went on writing poems by Chen Hsi-wei and narratives that accounted for them. The stories follow Hsi-wei’s life from his childhood, his adventures as a traveling maker of verses and straw sandals, through his retirement and death. Next year, all the tales are to be collected in one volume. These are the verses that conclude the book.
The Last Poem of Chen Hsi-wei
Yesterday I had a visitor, a young lord declaring he wants
to become a poet. His well-fed body was bent with humility,
yet his eyes glittered with intelligence and ambition.
“Come sit,” I said to calm him but he stood and recited
one poem, then another. “Not bad at all,” I said appreciatively,
not wishing to discourage the lad. Embarrassed, he bowed
and in a voice like that of a mother’s putting her child to bed,
said, “But Master, they are yours.” Then I made tea and we
sat watching the moon rise, talking of the Shijing masters.
How strange now to think of all those li I walked,
the provinces I traversed. By now, all my straw sandals
will have turned to dust, worn out by the feet of hard-working
peasants. Strange too to think of the poems I wrote long ago
and can no longer remember. They too will become so
much wind-borne chaff, having also served their uses.
Poems and sandals are all I made, workman-like things,
so many footsteps on dry roads, waiting for the rain.
From my little courtyard I used to watch the sun and moon,
then it was the days I observed; now it is whole seasons
marching in review. Like rainwater as it nears a drain,
time has begun to race, each year a smaller fraction of
my life. The mountain turns from green to brown to
white so swiftly that I believe a pair of old monks
beginning their ascent in springtime would be lost in
snow banks long before they glimpsed the top.
© 2019 Robert Wexelblatt
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