Category Archives: Poems

Su Shi’s ‘Riverside City’ Poem, to Share with the Non-Chinese

Some poems are so powerful that I cannot help showing people, even if they have almost no experience of poetry in the language in which the poems are written. Recently I was showing my American friend a Chinese poem in the ci 詞 lyric genre, written in 1075 to the tune ‘Riverside City’ 江城子 by the Song dynasty poet Su Shi 蘇軾 (art name Su Dongpo 蘇東坡):

  1. 十年生死兩茫茫,
  2. 夜來幽夢忽還鄉,

The whole poem is what you hear at night after, in the daytime, having heard a shi 詩 genre poem by the Tang dynasty poet He Zhizhang 賀知章:


Both poems have the years away from home (十年, 少小離家), the greyed hair on the temples (鬢如霜, 鬢毛衰), the being a stranger to someone at home (縱使相逢應不識, 兒童相見不相識). If Su Shi in the Song dynasty poem was not intentionally alluding to the Tang dynasty poem, he might as well have been doing so. But if the Tang dynasty shi poem in the daytime was bittersweet, with the children in the speaker’s hometown being strangers to him, asking this foreigner where he was come from, then this Song dynasty ci poem is a very different, nocturnal poem.

Su Shi wrote his poem ten years after the death of his wife. After ten years, he says, life and death are vast, unmeasured, boundless, the distance between them oceanic. He may not dwell on it, to ponder and to reckon, to consider and to measure, yet the thing by nature is hard to forget: a thousand miles, a lone grave, and no place to speak of his bleakness. Even if they were to meet, they might not know each other. Dust fills his face; his temple hair is like frost.

The second stanza begins with a striking line that shifts the mood, and the poet and listener’s location: 夜來幽夢忽還鄉. It also is the favourite line of one of my father’s college friends. We can try to understand it by prosody and sound.

Let’s hear the line with a cæsura after the fourth syllable, as is usual in a Chinese line of seven syllables: 夜來幽夢 || 忽還鄉. Thus: night comes, dim dreams – sudden return village.

In Cantonese, this line sounds like ye loi yau mung || fat waan heung. The sound of the line’s first half is soft. Of the four syllables, three are open (no consonant after the vowel), and the fourth ends in a nasal consonant. All the consonants in those four syllables are sonorants: semivowels, liquids, or nasals. (If you want to hear the sound, even if you speak no Cantonese, it’s always possible to look up the Middle Chinese sound of every syllable on Wiktionary.) Because of the correspondence of sound and sense in this line, the netherworld dreams, or dim dreams (幽夢), have a sort of charming, romantic Southern Gothic feel to them, like a lazy, warm summer night breeze on an old South Carolina plantation, with Spanish moss hanging from the trees. That’s the kind of mood I get from 夜來幽夢, just on the edge of spooky. Now you get to the last three syllables, 忽還鄉. The first syllable there, 忽 (‘sudden’), sounds like huət̚ in Middle Chinese: first a fricative, then a reduced-sounding vowel followed by a stop! like a strong wind that suddenly stops. ‘In the night were dim dreams, and suddenly I was returned home.’ Through the texture created by the sounds in this line, the audience is suddenly transported with the author.

He shows us a little high window, and right there is combing and adorning. His and his wife’s care for each other has no words, only tears’ thousand tracks. One can guess every year the place where his guts snap: a night with a bright moon, a mound with short pines.

Oratorio Idea: Josiah

I’m imagining an oratorio, Josiah, King of the Jews, the titular character being voiced by a countertenor – in my dreams, someone like Jakub Józef Orliński or Iestyn Davies – and the plot centred around the discovery of the long-lost book of Deuteronomy in the temple of the LORD. The oratorio is set in the 18th year of Josiah’s reign, in the waning years of the Assyrian empire, while Josiah energetically leads a national revival, breaking idols throughout the land and restoring the temple of the LORD.

Act 1 opens with Josiah troubled at the prophet and royal kinsman Zephaniah’s words about the day of the LORD in the midst of Judah’s national revival and overlord Assyria’s decline.

In Act 2, while the temple is being repaired upon Josiah’s orders, the young priest and prophet Jeremiah appears at the temple gates; upon those who have ‘healed’ the hurt of the people by putting their confidence in ‘the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD’, he pronounces certain doom. The people and Josiah are perplexed and displeased with Jeremiah’s words, but the oldest councillor remembers his father’s account of how Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah broke the brazen serpent that Moses had made.

In Act 3, the book of the law of the LORD (viz., Deuteronomy) is found in the temple. Josiah tears his clothes and weeps when he hears the word of the LORD, and sends for the prophetess Huldah.

In Act 4, word returns from Huldah, saying that the LORD will surely bring evil upon Jerusalem and its inhabitants thereof, even all the curses that are written in the book which they have read before the king of Judah, because the people have forsaken the LORD; yet, on account of Josiah’s tender heart before the LORD, this evil will not come upon David’s house within Josiah’s reign. Josiah, relieved at the LORD’s kindness but sobered by the calamity that will befall Jerusalem after his time, prays that a future Anointed of the LORD may reverse the fortunes of the house of David according to what is written in the book of the law.

In Act 5, the people observe the Passover exactly 100 years after Josiah’s great-grandfather Hezekiah’s revival of the Passover, and slaughter the Paschal lamb for sacrifice with great rejoicing.

Holy Mount Cælestial

Now back to Zion goes the pilgrim’s eye,
Translating holy leaves into Chinese,
The sages for Aquinas. Riding high,
He circumambulates the Dipper’s keys.

Around the four directions goes his sign,
Yet stays where northern lights have made their home,
Facing the south, where province-cauldrons nine
Are come to offer to the lord of Rome.

For this is where we find Jerusalem,
And holy Zion in the pious heart;
This is the dwelling, faith the bosom’s gem,
Where Holy Ghost and Holy Church ne’er part.

By faith is fair Jeshurun in Cathay,
A promised temple for a coming day.

Poem Published in The North American Anglican

The North American Anglican has published a poem by me, ‘I Travelled These Roads with My Father Once’. Check it out, and tell me what you think. Be sure to look at their other stuff, too!

Taken by Moonlight

O wondrous moon, thou hast seduced my sense.
Tonight, what books can keep me from thy gaze?
Thy light so near, thou takest me from hence
To excellencies far above the ways
I took this evening – when thou drewest up
Mine eyes from earth and filled desire’s cup.

Offences’ Debts


Will God’s forgiveness free me now
From bondage unto man?
Are all my debts to man absolved
According to the plan?

I know his Spirit gives me pow’r,
Upon Christ’s perfect merits,
Without the law to plead his grace;
For whom he loves, inherits.

But what inheritance is worth
Enough my dues to pay?
For if I shun my duties now,
My hope will not appear:

If by my works I see my faith,
Which only justifies,
Then all assurance I dream up
Is nothing but cruel lies.

Could Newton make it up
To those he’d taken slaves?
No, he could only hope in God,
His final judge who saves.

No tears, no groans, no paltry works
Can heal the lashes’ scars;
But Christ, who meekly gave himself,
Will make them like the stars.

And is that treasure not enough
To satisfy all want,
Abundant beyond man’s design,
Your baptism’s full font?

From riches give that he has giv’n,
Incalculable worth,
And weigh not money’s sum but love –
Now have you any dearth?

Refuse the Image

O set a watch, O set a watch
Over my lips. I see the deep
State with its eunuch-poison botch

The soul of man, to make us cheap
And free to be ourselves and not
Ourselves when in the mirror’s leap.

O liberty! which by a plot
Doth forge my roboself
In autostep to bleed and clot –

All for the worn and weary shelf
To be replenished for the show
Of life imagined by a Guelf,

Whose totalizing vision’s woe,
Inflicted now upon us all,
He casts as rapture to forgo

If we would reckon it a fall
Of recollection to espouse
A people’s death as its halal.

New popery, new deadly vows,
A votive for new Antichrist.
Imperium it disavows.

Ha! we at thirty shekels priced
Shall be delivered to the priest,
Our natural spirit neatly sliced

And our right reason softly leased,
For quiet safety’s sake,
To the seductions of the Beast.

Of usury now let God shake
The heavens and the cursed earth,
And swiftly of this cursed ache.

Tell me how much your faith is worth
When desolating idols come
To cut off Israel’s second birth,

When to exact their token sum,
They will demand apostasy:
A pinch of incense, just a crumb

For loyalty. O Maccabee,
Resist in battle for your hearts
The terms that ‘for the gospel’ see

Smooth comfort for the ruling parts
In halls of pow’r, and not for poor
And broken reeds in ‘bigot’ carts;

For those despisers of the pure
Who worship sea-beasts, not for those
That trust the word of God is sure.

By this clear sign, whom YHWH chose
(When all are passing through the fire)
Is shown against his false-friend foes.

O Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
That we may love him who hath saved
And doth our living faith require;

To turn from images depraved
And serve the living Christ with fear,
His justice in our hearts engraved.

Love rises up, sometimes austere
Against the image on the plain,
Waiting for God soon to appear.

Meanwhile these precepts here remain:
To live is Christ, to die is gain.

Salus Populi: Ne Me Frego

I saw the Son of Heaven prostrate then,
Before the pow’r of opium specie prone,
Helpless to heal the people in his ken
With spirit-potency from heaven’s throne.
I see all Europe’s craven rulers now
And sov’reign peoples flooded in to town;
And will salvation come? To greed all bow,
Not knowing how in death’s passion they drown.
And once the black king of the south did rise
Condemning, once Hawai‘ian island queen
Bear witness to the crimes, high pity’s cries,
To heaven’s judgement. And has heaven seen?
O lawless! think you now that none will see
Your niente fatto? You will have no plea.

To Esfahān

Let us to Esfahān, you and I;
For you, my love, have widened my whole world,
And in that city let us wondering buy
The richest cloths humanity’s unfurled.
There let us die, and there be opened up,
And there our bodies vault the heavens’ blue
With arching harmony in every cup
That we pour out and richly drink anew.
Oh, taste the spirits of this alchemy,
Where city opens city, dreams to stitch
Together in a fearful tapestry,
Exquisitely bathing us in rose and saffron rich.
They say there, Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast;*
So let’s together, halves made whole and honest.

* Persian: ‘Esfahān is half the world.’

The Humour’s Sip

Photograph by HORIZON (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The dew drops from the heavens, delicate
Woven like water painting destiny
Across the sky; but I am desolate,
Still starved, thirsting for drunken harmony.

Oh, long have I been kept the taste of wine
From knowing, long delirious for want,
And starving, darkened, I cannot divine
Why I have seen but flickers, but a taunt.

Thou leavest what is thine for me; but thine own
Real presence thou still cloudest from my tongue,
A honeycomb whose sweetness to be known
Has mocked my craving to be brought round young.

How art thou in me, yet I have thee not?
O one and only, art thou in my flesh,
My spirit in thine? If my heart forgot
His life, ’tis thou wilt open it afresh.

Dying You Shall Conquer


Fear not the one who kills the flesh,
But him who kills the spirit, fear:
That Satan will your souls enmesh
In dissipation’s darkness here.

In mud and darkness grope the fools
For earthly wine, to hide despair,
To hide the face of God, who rules
And will the flesh from spirit tear.

One alone, connecting heav’n and earth,
The kingly pole of all the stars
Who came to us by virgin birth,
To bear and glorify our scars,

Anointed is the King of all
Whom they rejected for their pride;
Those ravening upon him fall
But fail to take from his pierc’d side.

So drink his blood, and bleed the jewels
Of faith and witness; eat his flesh,
Conformed as holy martyrs’ souls
To him who will the heathen thresh.

For blessed is the mourners’ song
Desiring that the Lord may lay
His hand firm on the fighters long
Before the dazzling light of day.

Watch, then, at midnight, warring man,
For Christ’s salvation in the deep
Of darkest death. Softly the plan
Now rustles through the fire you keep.

Photograph by Joe Parks (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Over the Fog and Sea

Thy leavin’s a week till Ash Wadensday:
Sae do thou repent then an’ turn that leaf over.
But I cannae keep thee, dear laddie.

O’er skies an’ rough waves an’ their power
I have but ‘fareweel’ now across the wide ocean
Tae send frae the cliffs of auld Dover.

The fog will envelop thy motion
Though pigeon do fly an’ God’s righteousness guide it
Tae bring us tae purer devotion.

Sae God be my witness. Benighted
Are vanity’s vapoury wishes; but he, in his mercy,
He keep thy guid fellaeship lighted.

On the Occasion of a Birth

For my grandmother.

Nor day of new-come birth today, nor yet
Of birth’s remembrance only, but a fête,
A toasting of a life that with the year
Renews its journey by the faithful ear
Toward the shining streets of heav’nly gold,
Whose Spirit’s eldest fruits never grow old,
Is this where we are gathered. In that spring
Æternal is the hope which long our King
Has promised those who now hold fast to him:
By faith their spirit never will grow dim.
The fire that burns within the holy breast
Will make an orient out of the west.

The Law of Liberty

For it is as a man travelling into a far country, who called his own servants, and delivered unto them his goods.

Hong Kong, proud on the sea,
Thy freedom’s not thine own
To keep as treasure hid for thee,
But given to be known.

Behold, thy fate is bound
With that of China’s shores;
Thy spirit’s future will be found
In him who’s at thy doors.

The God who waiting stands
Will send believers out
Through doors that, faced with bright demands
For freedom, shut with doubt.

That way was closed to peace,
To those with earnest plea;
But let these doubtful strivings cease
When Love shall set us free.

See if there be a King
Like unto him who’s born,
To whom unknowing nations bring
Their tribute in the morn.

Beyond our highest sight,
Of brightest heaven’s birth,
The God of God and Light of Light
Descended to the earth.

The rulers crucified
His flesh in treason’s name,
Who slew the King none could abide;
Dying, he bore our blame.

But all the tyrants’ will
Could not his flesh corrupt,
Nor martyrs’ flesh for ever kill:
Their vain schemes he’ll disrupt.

Today all hear his voice:
Let none harden their hearts
Against the Lord, but all rejoice
That darkness soon departs.

He conquers spirits now
With dreadful word of pow’r,
And peoples at his feet will bow
Today and at th’ last hour.

Come, rulers of the earth,
And lay your golden wreaths
Upon the Child of virgin birth,
Your iron into sheaths.

Non Nobis

With lordly dignity he keeps his mind
Free of distractions, limpid as a pool
Whose fish move calm upon the deep, and cool
As earthly agitation cannot find.
If other man be fools and solemn bind
In them such things as make a man a tool,
He watches still, unmoved, as by this rule
Polaris tends the starry host t’unwind.
O brother, be not God to take this part,
Assuming that sublime and lonely yoke;
For he that’s mighty shall fill up thy heart
With beams angelic, as the womb awoke
One morning with a firmament to chart
Of wonders rich and strange, all in one stroke.