Tales of Poetry
Eliot Weinberger · Unusual Phrases
In the 11th century, Hsiao Kuan dreamed that he was taken to a palace where the women were goddesses or transcendents. All were dressed in green. One of them gave him a piece of paper and said: 'This is ripple paper. Would you please write a poem about a winter morning?'
The twelve towers of the palace hide women dressed in green.
Wine flows from lion-spouts, spiced and fragrant,
trickling through tubes called 'thirsty crows'.
A servant turns the pulley, red liquid jade spurts out.
Incense barely smoking, lotus candles almost gone,
the five dragons of the clepsydra overflow with chilly water.
Unaccompanied ladies, fish pendants dangling from crimson sashes,
stand on tiptoe to watch the sun come up, far off in Fu-sang.
A half-disk lifts above the ripples and the reddening duckweed
in the lake.
The women turn, look back over the rooftops at the colors of clouds.
Courtiers with swords clanging descend from the sky.
Tall hats and armour fill the pavilion hall.
The transcendent read it and said: 'Your poem certainly contains many unusual phrases.'
Hsieh Ling-yün, in the 12th century, used to write poems together with his cousin, Hsieh Hui-lien. One day, his cousin was away, and Hsieh Ling-yün had trouble composing. That night, his cousin appeared in a dream, and together they wrote:
Spring grass grows beside the pond,
the garden is full of singing birds.
Hsieh Ling-yün believed that he had written these lines thanks to divine intervention.