Letter to Li Ch’ing-chao, While I Drink Bai Mu Dan Tea
by George Kalamaras
“This year I’m at the end of the world,
strand by strand my hair turns gray.”
Full moon tonight in Colorado, Li Ch’ing-chao,
and I am forever in love with you.
It’s been a long life since Shantung.
Long lives. A long drive from Indiana.
My wife and I left the humidity, the heat.
The soybean fields of Illinois. Iowa’s corn and the hills
cloistering Amana. The amazing bald eagle
that flew over us in Ogallala, Nebraska.
You lost years, the way we put miles
in our rearview. Mirrors are like that.
We look into ourselves and see all we have
lost. Teen-year pimples, perhaps. A few pounds,
more or less. Cornhusks
of fear in this life and that. And all the people
no longer in their body
but still in ours. The way I speak and hear
flew south decades ago in the backwoods
with my grandmother’s stewed pheasant.
With her sewing needle and thread.
Or sits quietly in the hound I lost nine years ago
as I sip a cup of Bai Mu Dan tea.
What white peonies did you drink
in your own pot of Bai Mu Dan?
What tears did you weep and for whom,
all these years of steeping?
If I’d loved you then I would have loved you more.
Made gentle love while tasting your tears. Your sorrow
merging with mine until it dissolved
and produced a hollow thing
neither of us could name. Yes,
I can sometimes be sentimental. Like a lamp
that has lost people upon which to throw light.
Like a book, lonely for a murmuring lip to mouth it
into the world. Perhaps your cats
had a thousand and nine lives. Perhaps my hound dog,
the one now at my side,
is a Sung Dynasty broken heart. Finally unfurling
peace among the chickweed. If I could
capture the moon of you, I would
split it open into Wu-ling sky
and ponds. The Milky Way
is not just in the wrist but in the twisting veins
of death, branching into riverous blue lives
we could have lived. Like notes from your lute
making sad the glad places of the heart. All the books
you collected. All the bronze. The antiquarian objets d’art.
All the burned and stolen.
Who will love you if I won’t?
With your husband gone, and you
late nights at the curtain, dwelling in magnolias
near your pond, who will touch your trembling
gauze, your rouged cheek, when the lamp burns
thin? Where have you gone now that your body
is no longer a body? The tiny fawn
this morning, barely keeping up with its mother,
stepping through burnt timber
from five years before
as I stood on the mountain
and watched. This is how I move
through the world, dear one. Still. My mother
being the earth’s turn. Turn of the world’s
forgiveness. And its ash. When we arrived in Colorado
last week, a great golden eagle landed on our porch.
It could have been you bringing poems
from centuries before
that the Tartars burned
during the Jurched invasion.
How sad that barely only fifty remain.
When we arrived, you were there,
preening the past. Reading me
reading you. You. Me.
Your eyelash. And the pond.
The world’s forgiveness. And its ash.
About George Kalamaras:
George Kalamaras is former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014-2016) and has published fifteen books of poetry, eight of which are full-length, including The Mining Camps of the Mouth (2012), winner of the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM Chapbook Award, Kingdom of Throat-Stuck Luck (2011), winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Contest, and The Theory and Function of Mangoes (2000), winner of the Four Way Books Intro Series. He is Professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, where he has taught since 1990.
Meet George (and his beagle Bootsie, among other animal presences) in an audio interview at Radio Free Albion. The interview celebrates, in part, issue 13 of Court Green, including George's poem “Dream in Which Kenneth Rexroth Counts to Eight.” Follow George on YouTube, the Indiana Poet Laureate page on Facebook, and at the Wabash Watershed.
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Li Ch’ing-chao (also known as Li Cingzhao or Li Qingzhao) was a Chinese writer of noble birth who lived at the time of the Song (also Qing or Sung) dynasty, a period that lasted from the 10th to the late 13th centuries. She is considered to be “the master of wanyue pai” which translates as “the delicate restraint.” Only a small number of her works survive. (Derived in part from https://mypoeticside.com/poets/li-ching-chao-poems)
You can find more details of Li Ch'ing-chao's life at (of course!) Wikipedia. Facts are wonderful in their place, but don't we learn more about any poet by reading their work? George recommends these as fine starting points for meeting Li Ch'ing-chao in person:
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Long Way From, Long Time Since features letters written from writers, to writers, living or dead. Send us your queries and inquiries, your best wishes and arguments, and help us explore correspondence as a creative form. For letter submission guidelines, visit our submissions page or email email@example.com for more information.
This is the third piece in CutBank's series of letter-poems from George Kalamaras to poets he's known personally, or knows (perhaps as intimately) through their work. (Read George's previous letters to John Haines here, and to Dan Gerber, here.) Thanks, George, for bringing these voices to us.