Poems of Bai Juyi
As the Bamboo Reminds Me of You, I Remember Where My Heart Lived
Long time, maybe ten years ago,
We got to know each other.
I just saw a stand of autumn's bamboo,
Lonely and straight, and thought of you.
In our hearts, we were as one, even though
The world outside was a complete mess.
Together we guarded autumn's bamboo heart and,
When hardships came, they couldn't have their way.
I began disliking the phoenix trees when
Autumn came and your expression began to change.
I couldn't love the poplar and willow blossoms when
Spring came and your softness was gone.
I sympathized with you, after you left me,
Every time the bamboo brought you back to me.
And often, I have wished you were here, as I stood,
Leaning on the courtyard door, memories filling my head.
Mostly, I wonder where you are now --
Somewhere South, with me in the North.
I even hear myself moan a little as I write this,
Which suits the way I feel now -- very sad.
This poem was written around 810. Bai Juyi is 38. Married. His mother is still alive. He hasn't gotten into any trouble yet. And he is missing someone. The sources I have say that he is missing his friend Yuan Zhen.
I'm not happy about this. Perhaps because this translation turned out so well, at least to my mind, that I identify with the feelings it aroused in me. And I feel he should be missing a woman, if he feels this way. Yuan Zhen is 元稹. The Yuan in the title is Yuan Jiu 元九 or Yuan "Nine." "Nine" is not a woman's name. Unless this is Nine Silver Coins and she went by her price tag in the place where Bai Juyi paid for her services. My sources are no help with Yuan Nine. And Bai Juyi, we know, viewed women in a fairly enlightened way.
So we're stuck with him missing Yuan Zhen. Who I thought was nearby in Ningbo. But maybe he's been posted south by now. One things strikes me as possible to account for Bai Juyi's sadness. He and Yuan Zhen used to be idealistic together. In eleven years, Yuan Zhen will be stripped of his scholar's position but still hanging around with the worst Tang Emperor I can name at this point. So maybe Yuan Zhen has been changing a bit, each time the two men met since Bai Juyi moved back to Chang'an. The sadness has been growing. And now, with Yuan Zhen at a distance, these changes obscure Bai Juyi's happy idealistic memories.
Kind of sad. If he were missing a woman, it would be a happier kind of sadness. Unless he's gay. Then this would be that kind of sadness. It is the Late Tang, after all. I'm not making any claims one way or the other here. I'm just ruminating on sadness, its varieties, and how we don't get to pick which kind of sadness comes to sit on our heart.
[Later] Silly me. Siblings are informally numbered. Yuan Zhen's older brother was Yuan Ba (Eight). So Yuan Zhen is Yuan Nine.