Poems of Meng Jiao
What I'm Feeling
Beginning of winter and a draining spirit converge
As armies meet at Two Rivers.
The dust and smoke of war swirls all around
And beacons, day and night, broadcast fear.
The road over Taihang mountains is dangerous
For the grain carts heading to the forts.
What can our archers do if they
Cannot overturn this nest of evil?
Many say the northerners sow this
Discord as their strategy.
Opportunists and usurpers shake their weapons
As the wolves and jackals howl.
Daylight shines down on the bodies whose
Loyalty was sacrificed to the Hun.
Who is not grateful to these warriors
Who bring peace to all under Heaven?
I climb the heights, gaze out on the cold plain.
Yellow clouds are piling up in towers.
I sit, longingly, in the sad evening winds,
Sigh, and shed useless tears.
The Tang dynasty lasted from 618 to 907. But from 755 to 763 it was shaken by the An Lushan rebellion. If we think of the Tang as a biological whole, its strength crested in the first half of the eighth century and declined from there. Meng Jiao lived from 751 to 814. From childhood on, he saw the empire struggling against the Huns (Uighurs), the Tibetans, and itself. He is part of the golden age of Tang poetry, an early part of it, and this poetry is contemporaneous with piles of bodies everywhere. Most of the dangerous roads Meng Jiao has described have been made dangerous by his own countrymen. He hasn't mentioned his own sword but men of his status don't usually go abroad without one. And unarmed people travel in the company of armed ones.
Poetry is one kind of pushing-back against adversity. It lifts the poet and the reader above a constant hardship. And it comes from strength. Du Fu and his family crossed hundreds of mountainous miles on foot in winter. Meng Jiao runs rapids among the boatmen. Bai Juyi crosses the empire on relay-station horses in the Big Cold. These men and women I have been translating spent their lives upon the anvil of Heaven and their poetry is the sparks which fly off under the unremitting blows of Heaven's hammer. We are all upon this same anvil. But our era will be known for the immense effort of the individual to avoid the hammer's blow. A junk-metal age.