Poetry / December 2013 (Issue 22)


In the Shadows of Pagodas

by Pui Ying Wong

I.
It was winter he loved best:
sand in the wind, the moon
with its icy brightening,
snows orbited swift and wild
as if the gods were testing his resolve.
Who needs the elixir of life
when heaven is waiting?

II.
What made him, Qin Shihuangdi,
who called himself the First Emperor
of China, reigned at the age of thirteen,
conquered seven Warring States,
built Grand Canal in the south,
Great Wall in the north, standardized
currency, measurement and law, then,
ordered all records of historians,
except those of the State of Qin,
be burned; scholars owning
forbidden books, such as the Book of Songs,
be buried alive, answered to no one
but deities whom he prayed to
in the fumigated chamber
clashing of castanets—
turned to his ministers and said It’s time
that 700,000 men were summoned
to build him his mausoleum?

III.
Machineries of the living world: sunrise,
sunset, tides’ ebb and flow, winds’ cries
and cessation: a single flower holding
both life and death
and if death must come—
    how bright the hills beckon,
    how lush the valley untainted by decay,
life too shall go on in afterlife
the way stars go on pulsating,
the river flows.
Qinling Mountains in the distance
extended beyond the eyes, the sky bruised
at the horizon, black flags of Qin fluttered
and suddenly it occurred to Qin Sihuangdi
that no sunlight, not a glint
would be let through this tomb mound
soon to be covered by a sweeping green
that was the gateway to the underworld.
For there’s a limit to symmetry
even for an emperor,
in reconstructing the cosmos.

IV.
Without armies there would be no empire—
generals, warriors, archers,
bowmen, infantrymen,
even if they were made of clay.
Figures varied in size, poise,
painted in resin, lacquer,
their color bright,
their faces individual
as if each were bestowed a spirit,
each could breathe, could kill.
Near them were sculpted horses, chariots,
real weapons like spears, swords and shields,
crossbows, gold coins, bells, jades
in heaps, pit to pit
below one celestial sky
where a hundred mercury rivers flowed,
a thousand dugong oil-lit flames
flamed. Who says anything is ephemeral?

V.
The chosen were just that, chosen for.
Their fate sealed, be they the counselors,
musicians, acrobats, concubines
who had borne no sons would accompany
the Emperor to the afterlife.
When the gate of the mausoleum
shut behind them, did they
cling together like bees to nectar,
cry the kind of cry only the gods
could bear hearing?
In life no one was not his subject,
and in death?
The emperor buried in the grave
was unapproachable in death
as he was in life, but he, too,
was the chosen. The son of Heaven,
filial, ritualistic, upholding pattern
that was the universe, replica
to replica, true heir
to the illusory life.

VI.
In the water garden for the afterlife
lilies rose and bloomed.
If the main tomb bears the emblem
of order and power,
Qin Shihuangdi, the heaven anointed,
sole ruler of right and wrong,
giver of reward and punishment,
must not abdicate his duties.
But the mind too must rest,
must properly prepare for the next
and, yes, the celestial being
whom he strived to be
dwelled only in the over-world—
seen from there, afterlife
was just a dream.
Away from the everyday necropolis
he would seek respite in the water garden
among bronze geese and swans,
where lilies borne of muck
would not succumb to muck.

VII.
In the shadows of pagodas
he contemplated, beauties sang
unfailingly under the willow.
A world wedded to death but no
dying, a world without light or air,
and water never changing course,
ran through brooks, bog to bog,
dream upon dream.
 
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