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 James Sutherland-Smith

 

FROM “MOUTH” - unpublished

 

40. (after a poem by Ts’en Shen)

On Wheel Tower’s walls the night bugle calls.
The buglers hawk spit from mouths dry as chalk
and the flags dangle at the northern angle
of the parapet where the look-out’s set
to watch where a gust blows all to dust.

As the sun rises the Grand Army rouses
with bugles at dawn, drums loud as a storm.
The mountain vibrates from ten thousand shouts
and then not a sound at a word of command.
Just hear a pin drop as our general mounts up.

Shod hooves and shod feet will tramp through the sleet
over fields where the grass will hold the dead in its clasp.
At Blade River, fog. The wind howls like a dog.
At Sand Mouth sharp rocks, so old horseshoes break.
We endure each pain without thought of gain.

41. (after a poem by Ts’en Shen)

Look how far the river rolls to the snowy sea,
how sand from the desert twists up to the heavens
and shattered rocks undermined by the gale
slide so fast into the valleys we ride through,
our words of command muffled against cold and dust.

West of the gold hill smoke and ash roll in columns.
The whole night we must stand to in full armour
while the bitter wind squeezes our eyes and mouths to slits
and sweat steams then turns to frost on our horses’ backs
leaving a five-petalled pattern under the saddle.

We’ll be advanced with a clatter of weaponry.
Our general’s challenge from an inkwell of ice
has snow-bitten the barbarian chieftain’s heart.
We won’t need to loose an arrow or cross swords.
We wait for news of his submission at the Western Pass.

 

 

NOTES:

40. from A Song of Wheel Tower in Farewell to General Feng of the Western Expedition - Ts’en Shen (715-770)
trans. Harold Witter Brynner (1881-1968)

41. from A Song of Running-Horse River in Farewell to General Feng of the Western Expedition - Ts’en Shen (715-770)
trans. Harold Witter Brynner (1881-1968)