Poems of Yu Xuanji
(Love letter written for Li Zi'an)
Sucking ice, chewing bark, I'm up to no good.
Adding water to a watched pot, all I do is dream.
Sudden insight: I want to know the sad fall of each magpie.
On Shun's lute, I play my envy of this migrating goose.
Beside the well, parasol leaves sigh in autumn's rain.
Below my window, silver lamps are dimming in dawn's wind.
This letter, lost in distances, where will it be answered?
I hold my fishing pole -- all day long this jade river is empty.
Li Zi'an is Li Yi, Yu's husband. Zi'an is his courtesy name. How do I know this? I don't. But her use of "Zi'an" through her poems indicates this. And if it isn't Li Yi, we have to violate Occam's Razor and create another Li (which many have done) and a fantasy relationship to go with him (which many have done). And I'm not interested in fantasy translation.
Speaking of courtesy names, Yu Xuanji seems to have used Fragrant Orchid, although this may be a Daoist reference she makes about herself. I think she had another private name: Jade River. It was a name she only shared with Li Yi because she has only used it here and in the last poem and she varies its form. A love name.
I am dating this poem to 859. She is writing Li Yi. But in using his courtesy name, she does so respectfully by prefixing his family name. So perhaps, not yet married. If this is true, she knew and loved the man she was going to marry.
Keep in mind that these minimally substantiated "facts" all add up to theoretical castles in the air. But every translator builds one. I'm keeping mine because it's cleaner than everyone else's I've seen. We can always remodel should more facts come along.
Speaking of facts, maps are nice factual things. I came across a Chinese translator's version of this poem after finishing my own. This person took line two literally: "Jin River and Hu Pass are in my dreams." Hmmm. In your dreams, they are, Anonymous Translator Person. It is as important to place the poet in space as it is to place them in time, as in our timeline. Given her life in the capitals and the difficulty of travelling in her China, she could not have seen these two features, as any map will tell you. We work in the dark to some extent in this work. But there is no call for you to put out the lights you have.