With thanks to Zeina Riachy and Adam Cooper
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter (from poets.org)
While my hair was still cut straight across my forehead
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people, without dislike or suspicion.
At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to, a thousand times, I never looked back.
At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?
At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling eddies,
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different mosses,
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with August
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me. I grow older.
If you are coming down through the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-fu-Sa.
I had two discussions on campus about this poem. Thought I’d better jot down a few notes before I forget them entirely. I also found this resource and am starting to read it; its influence shows below.
The first stanza gives the strong impression of a shared childhood, even if the future husband is a bit older. The quietness of playing with flowers is contrasted with pretending to ride horses but merges with it. “Without dislike or suspicion” is ominous. Pound’s notes on “The Jewel Stairs’ Grievance” establish how indirect some of the most severe reproaches can be.
If the first stanza gives us a natural world of happiness and smiles, the second only gives us a “wall” and a shyness so severe that one might feel sorry for the husband. We can’t tell how much he loves her or not. All we know is that she’s paralyzed with fear, is angry and frustrated.
That frustration – her “scowling” – opens the third stanza. She did not simply resign to her fate, though. She embraced it: whether this is Stockholm syndrome or true love we have no idea. I suspect there is little or nothing healthy about her changed attitude. The failure to climb the “look out” might be a denial of a husband’s death, but it could be a denial of anything beyond the house.
To be clear: it is unclear what exactly the relation of the husband and wife is going into the fourth and fifth stanzas. I don’t think there’s any way to separate abuse from love in this poem; he’s all she knows. For me, the imagery of both stanzas conveys that problem. “Swirling eddies” have motion and more; the foam one imagines them having could recall the birth of Aphrodite or any number of temporal phenomena. One might even mull on how “old” water is trapped in such eddies for a moment, that the river has a kind of stability as it moves. That is all his world, though. Her world is the “sorrowful” noise of monkeys. It may be the case that the monkeys actually make happy noises and all she hears is her own sorrow.
Once, he was reluctant to go. Perhaps he is still reluctant to be anywhere but home. However, she’s watching mosses pile up. Unlike eddies or a river, there is no movement. It’s like there’s storage for no purpose. The leaves simply fall; we do not dwell on them being carried by the wind. Butterflies are in love but she notes their movement less than their change of color. Her world is a kind of stasis, a part of his but not the whole. Certainly not shared with him. That now is forcing her movement.