by Li Po
translated from the Chinese by Taylor Stoehr
Last year we fought where the Sang-kan flows,
this year it was Onion River Road.
We’ve washed our swords in the Eastern Sea,
grazed our horses on T’ien Shan’s snowy side.
A thousand miles are not enough for this war,
our armies grow old in their armor.
Husbandmen of slaughter, the Huns
have sown the yellow desert with our bones.
Long ago the Ch’in built the Great Wall,
now it’s the Han who light the signal-beacon.
All night long the flames flicker,
year in year out, the war goes on.
Bright swords flash, brave men fall and die,
riderless horses whinny at the sky.
Kites and crows pluck out the guts,
hang them high on the withered trees.
Soldiers smear their blood on the dry grass
while generals map the next campaign.
Wise men know winning a war
is no better than losing one.
Li Po, one of the greatest of the Tang Dynasty poets, was adding his voice to an entire tradition of Chinese antiwar poems in his “Fighting South of the Wall,” a recurrent theme and title as old as the Great Wall itself. The final couplet echoes a passage from Lao Tzu, equally familiar and prophetic. (10/2003)
Taylor Stoehr’s poems and translations have appeared recently in Field, Nimrod, Rhino, and New Letters. His most recent book is Ask the Wolf: Ballads and Bequests from François Villon’s “Le Testament” (with illustrations by Stoehr), published by Mariah Books. Professor Stoehr teaches English literature at the University of Massachusetts–Boston. (10/2003)