Reading Li Po (Saigon, December 18, 1995)

Breyten Breytenbach, translated from the Afrikaans by Rita Dove

After the thick heat of day and the wet
heavy skies; after a day of sweat
as we lay side by side tasting the sweet salt
of each other, pearled in the groin;
after the bleat and blare of clogged streets
and gasoline reek and bright putrefied water
where the rower stood, boated above his reflection

heaven trembled between the forked tongues of fire;
while laborers trundled their burdens through day
or hawked baskets of fruit,
those cigar-stubbled porters with charred footsoles
and a gnawing memory of food,
all lay their numbed bodies down in the darkened alleys
where rat and cockroach rummage the trash heaps—
and they sing in their sleep, they sing their own dying
because who will burn incense for their nameless faces
when they are dead?

the crown of the tallest banyan where the callbird waits
will quake once in the breeze, the breeze will drop rustling
into the sighing arms of the guava, the red flame tree
and temple flower; sweet breath of jasmine and honeysuckle
seep into the courtyard: and later dark pearls raining down
to make of the street a mirror for the night.

night is a mirror for forgetting the old things;
in a garden in this city you learned
how eternal the stirring of branches can be—
and always war flashing on the horizon
and beggars without hands without legs
in their tattered green uniforms,
blood like sweat stains in the streets

when you chanted your multiplication tables
when each morning you inhaled the giddy echoes of opium
in your father’s empty study which all sleep long was filled
with the murmuring voices of yes and of no;
when your horse was a single stalk of bamboo
and you were so shy you dared not laugh
but traced with a finger shadow cracks on a wall
leaving messages for an imaginary playmate—
could you have dreamed that one day
I would write this dark sliver of mirror for you?

and when you were fifteen and began to comb your hair back
and stopped furrowing your brow, when you noticed
how yellow blossoms sifted down, dusting the rooves
like dead butterflies or flaking perfume,
and then you also looked the other way—
what is the sweet-smelling name of those trees?—
when flood waters broke over the dikes and the forests
were poisoned by pollution and the fermenting meat of war,
always war, when the coconut palms stood empty
and starvation took over the land—
could you have known then that I want to be with you
like dust and like ashes?

those years of thick heat and wet
before I could show myself to you
were simply a journey to set out on
carefully, lest I stumble
in the mountain passes. I was on my way to you
and the monkeys’ screech was like smoke keening to heaven;
before your liberated house, the house leveled by freedom,
the tracks of childhood games flaring green as yesterday’s gate,
grown over with moss; and yellow blossoms
flutter like butterflies glutted on wind

sweat has made a wet moon of your sleeping face
why should you weep for an ancient departure?
before you awaken, write me a letter
and I will come to meet you, even if the path is dark
leading into the past, all the way to the great wind’s
blowing sands. look, here on this page
you still canter the track on your bamboo horse…