The Erotic Contemplation of What Is? Thinking on “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance”

The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance (from Adam Kirsch’s “Disturbances of Peace”)
Li Po, trans. Ezra Pound

The jeweled steps are already quite
white with dew,
It is so late that the dew soaks my
gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the
clear autumn.


Kirsch provides us with a comment Pound himself wrote to explain the poem –

Jewel stairs, therefore a palace. Grievance, therefore there is something to complain of. Gauze stockings, therefore a court lady, not a servant who complains. Clear autumn, therefore he has no excuse on account of the weather. Also she has come early, for the dew has not merely whitened the stairs, but has soaked her stockings. The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach.

I read this and still have been staring at this poem off and on for hours. A few observations –

  • “Already” moves to “so late:” discrete moments are now lengths of time. The poem ends with the moon, part of an eternal cycle.
  • “White,” “gauze,” “moon:” moisture becomes film, then finally only light.
  • “Dew,” “dew,” “crystal:” the dew that oppresses emotionally (it’s late) and physically (soaks the subject) would also be on that window one way or another.  It is a covering that invites an opening.

Yeah, I know – unless I know Chinese, these details are purely made up. It looks like Pound is trying to introduce us to a culture more or less with that note. I think this is a good enough excuse as any for random speculation.

It seems we are watching an unapproachable woman; she’s in love, and perhaps her complaint is part of that love. If her lover is a jerk, she may be attracted to playing hard-to-get (the only game in love there really is, when you think about it). The wealth involved puts at us somewhat at a distance from her, but her staring at the moon is the way we know those stairs are not an invite to any of us. She’s not even settled on her complaint; her mind moved like that dew did, up the stairs, and is out the window. Her heart is firmly fixed on something distant.

At the same time, we know couples break up because of moments like this: even “friends with benefits” can’t survive this. We have no confirmation that her heart is solely on him, even though we can rest assured that she’s not early because of anyone else. I need not inform you that there are moments we will not take a lover even while a relationship is unsettled, falling apart or non-existent. In that last category: the neediest lovers who are “officially” in a relationship are almost no different in status than stalkers.

So we can’t strictly account for her grievance through her love, nor her pride. It is a vulnerable state of resistance; if we want to dwell in moral terms, we could call it a false pride. But this is emphatically not a moral problem – there is a what is question here. The details bring us to the natural.

The moisture soaks, and its surplus is unpleasant. Time is defined entirely by anticipation; it is emotive, it is felt. The poem ends with light and seeing, and we have noted the “light” is not unrelated to the corporeal. This isn’t about love or pride, or about any human desire or convention (morality). This is being, where motion has settled to rest, and the discursive intellect – thinking things through – acknowledges its debt to the contemplative: the only thing in front of the subject is the cosmos and its darkness.

It sounds nuts to say being can be seen plainly in a dejected female who would love. We could say she formulated her complaint on the stairs, and the looking out the window is just an extension of that moodiness. But I’m saying (right now, anyway) the mood is deeper than we think it is. It won’t accept anyone because it knows there is a place for her, somewhere. It does not know that place yet. It is active in passivity. The domain of what is is larger than that of the good; in theory, this looks like it makes perfect sense. In practice, it leads to the paradox that we long for things we don’t even remotely understand. As far as I’m concerned, the particular was left on the staircase, and all ascents are a mixed blessing for the unwise.


  1. Interesting reading. Why do you suppose she is in love? I think the idea of disappointment is definitely there- perhaps it is the mention of the stocking that gives it that eroticism that you note. It feels like she should be in love I agree with you but nowhere does the poem actually say that- its something that we have read into it.

  2. I hope this doesn’t weird you out or anything, but I was using one of the public-access computers in Blakely Library and noticed the link to your blog in the recent history. Lo and behold, I go through the archives and “Li Po” jumps out at me, and I had just taken Literary Study: Lyric the semester before, and my focal poet was Ezra Pound, and upon reading this post, everything kind of came rushing back to me. Rihaku! Lustra! Ah! Pound’s not an especially popular J-po choice, and I think that the two seniors who also chose him the previous year, along with myself, comprise the only three Poundians that UD has had in the past decade. SO THIS IS VERY EXCITING! Sorry for the caps, I am just very enthused.

  3. She does not necessarily have to be waiting for a lover. It could be that her husband asked her to meet him at a particular place and time and he has not appeared. She has been waiting so long that the dew has soaked her stocking. Shoes also, I would think. She is elegantly showing her annoyance.

  4. The feelings are universal, but the context is specific. In the 7th C, the poet was at times in the imperial court, where he famously partied hearty. And he often writes about the beautiful girls who have been collected from around the kingdom to come live in the palace harem; however, the emperor can only visit so many and develops favorites, thereby leaving many of the ladies to a life of loneliness and longing amongst the splendor.

    The moon is a reflecting mirror where one could look back to your home, often, in the reflection, or that your relatives could look at the same time and links you to them.

    Wet stockings indicates that she has gone out to greet a visitor who didn’t come this time, but has come before. Element of rejection.

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