Answer from the River Merchant's Wife

Imagined reply to the letter from the River Merchant, a poem written by Li Po and translated by Ezra Pound


Young Mistress,
The new moon has risen
Three times since
I too waited at the gate.
I imagine you standing there now
Watching a hungry boatman
Climb the path from the Kiang.
Such a one came to me,
Head bowed, gazing at his straw sandals,
A letter, such as this one, in his hand
That night the geese circled
Crying blindly overhead
The deep river fog
Drifted between us
They called, one to the other,
Heavy wings laboring in the dusk
The damp shroud obscuring
Any safe resting place upon the water.

I know what it is
To be a downstream bride
You wait wondering:
Is he now passing Divination Rock,
Now Green Shoal, now Sunken Drum;
Are the "White Peonies" blooming
In Shinshi city and did he stop there?
Surely he bribed the King of the Rapids
Enough, but not too much,
And hid salt from the taxmen.
If they lost a Towman to the rocks,
Did he burn paper money for that spirit?

You wait,  you light incense, as I did,
At the talk of war and more Robber Lords
Taking heads in the Lower Gorge.
I know what it is
To be a downstream bride.

This letter is in your hand now.
And the ink smudges
Your white fingers.
The River has taken your beloved.
It has taken mine.
Young Mistress,
Can you hear the wild geese cry?
Young Mistress,
Where will they rest tonight?

Those Who Knew Them Best

Coyote Lake, Somewhere beyond McDermitt