by Kuan Tao Sheng
(translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung)
You and I Have so much love, That it Burns like a fire, In which we bake a lump of clay Molded into a figure of you And a figure of me. Then we take both of them, And break them into pieces, And mix the pieces with water, And mold again a figure of you, And a figure of me. I am in your clay. You are in my clay. In life we share a single quilt. In death we will share one bed.
So this is just a beautiful love poem. This poem was written by Kuan Tao Sheng, who was a famous painter and poet from 13th century China. She wrote this poem to her husband when he was thinking of adding a second wife or mistress to the household. She didn’t tell him no, she simply wrote this poem for him.
It was common practice at the time to have mistresses, multiple wives, and concubines, and he was probably getting pressure from his peers and his patrons at court to take more women on. It was also a way to secure political power or create familial ties with other important people.
Despite all that, Kuan Tao Sheng’s husband read the words of her heart, and never took another lover. Even after she died, her husband stayed single. And actually, he was so heartbroken over her death that he asked for special permission to leave court to bring her body back to their hometown for burial. Between her death and his three years later, he painted mostly bamboo, which was her favorite thing to paint.
Moving on to what we can learn: I’d like to talk about ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a technique whereby a physical work of art is recreated in words. So, think of someone writing a beautiful and literary description of Monet’s Water Lilies. They would look carefully at the work and write about each flower, each pad, each ripple. But, ekphrasis has grown, too, to mean one piece of art based on another. So there are songs based on sculptures, paintings of poems, poems written about essays. It’s a popular subject for poetry, actually. Especially back in the day, though it is coming back around.
This poem was written for Kuan Tao Sheng herself and for her husband, and because of their love and the story behind this piece, I was inspired to write about my own lover. I’ll read that at the end of the episode.
If you’re looking for a new poetry technique or style to try, find a piece of art that sparks passion in you and write about it. What does it make you feel, think, remember? What does it look like or sound like, in the floweriest language? What does it make you want to do? What is the story behind the piece- can you retell the myth of that piece of art? My best advice with ekphrasis is this: be authentic, be beautiful, be grand.
Before I read my poem, I’m going to close us out. I appreciate you all. Thank you for listening to our podcast. You can find us on social media @writeratworkpod, on our website- writeratworkpodcast.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to join us on Twitch on Sundays at 5pm EST for livestream wordsprints. Looking for more poetry analysis from Kit? Listen to last week’s episode on Javier Zamora’s “Second Attempt Crossing”.
loving you is carving your shape from my marrow
by Kit Boyer
these hands that trace your liquid form convey to my heart the shape of you so that when you are gone out of clay can be drawn a golem to harbor me in dreaming every you that i have held fired in consuming love lies dusted with fingertips on the shelves of rooms built inside of me for only you forever is too long to love but one person but one person is never too long one self so coming to love you again every new you is as breathing these hands that touch your face are the hands that will wipe my tears and clutch my arms when you have gone from me they will reach for you in sleep and in dreaming they will run along the shelves and recall every moment of loving you