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from the May 2004 issue

The WheelRim River Sequence

Wang spent periods of seclusion throughout his life in many different places--but in his middle years he acquired his famous WheelRim River (Wang River) retreat in the WholeSouth mountains, just south of Ch'ang-an. It was there that the conjunction of Wang's painting and poetry coalesced in his famous WheelRim River Sequence, and a corresponding scroll painting: probably his best-known poem and painting.

1 ElderCliff Cove

At the mouth of ElderCliff, a rebuilt house1
among old trees, broken remnants of willow.

Those to come: who will they be, their grief
over someone's long-ago life here empty.

2 MasterFlourish Ridge

Birds in flight go on leaving and leaving.
And autumn colors mountain distances again:

crossing MasterFlourish Ridge and beyond,
is there no limit to all this grief and sorrow?

3 ApricotGrain Cottage

Roofbeams cut from deep-grained apricot,
fragrant reeds braided into thatched eaves:

no one knows clouds beneath these rafters
drifting off to bring that human realm rain.

4 BambooClarity Mountains

Tall bamboo blaze in meandering emptiness:
kingfisher-green rippling streamwater blue.

On AutumnPitch Mountain roads, they flaunt
such darkness, woodcutters too beyond knowing.

5 Deer Park

No one seen. In empty mountains,
hints of drifting voice, no more.

Entering these deep woods, late sun-
light ablaze on green moss, rising.

6 Magnolia Park

Autumn mountains gathering last light,
one bird follows another in flight away.

Shifting kingfisher-greens flash radiant
scatters. Evening mists: nowhere they are.

8 Scholartree Path

On the side path shaded by scholartrees,
green moss fills recluse shadow. We still

keep it swept, our welcome at the gate,
knowing a mountain monk may stop by.

10 South Lodge

I leave South Lodge, boat light, water
so vast you never reach North Lodge.

Far shores: I see villagers there beyond
knowing in all this distance, distance.

11 Vagary Lake

Flute-song carries beyond furthest shores.
In dusk light, I bid you a sage's farewell.

Across this lake, in the turn of a head,
mountain greens furl into white clouds.

13 GoldenRain Rapids

Wind buffets and blows autumn rain.
Water cascading thin across rocks,

waves lash at each other. An egret
startles up, white, then settles back.

15 WhiteRock Shallows

WhiteRock Shallows open and clear,
green reeds past prime for harvest:

families come down east and west,
rinse thin silk radiant in moonlight.

16 North Lodge

At North Lodge north of these lakewaters,
railings flash red through tangled trees.

Here, meandering forest-stained horizons,
South River shimmers in and out of view.

17 BambooMidst Cottage

Sitting alone in recluse bamboo dark
I play a ch'in, settle into breath chants.2

In these forest depths no one knows
this moon come bathing me in light.

18 Magnolia Slope

Waterlily blossoms out on tree branches
flaunt crimson calyces among mountains.

At home beside this stream, quiet, no one
here. Scattered. Scattered open and falling.

IHere, Wang Wei is thinking of Sung Chih-wen, a well-known poet who had owned the house before him. Sung Chih-wen had died about thirty years before Wang bought the house, and the house had been left unused in the interim.

2The ch'in is the ancient stringed instrument that Chinese poets used to accompany the chanting of their poems (poems were always sung. The ch'in appears often in classical poetry. It is ancestor to the more familiar Japanese koto. "Settle into breath chants" refers to a method of harmonizing oneself with natural process.

From The Mountain Poems of Wang Wei, to be published in 2005 by New Directions. By arrangement with the translator.

Read more from the May 2004 issue
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