I finished reading the novel, The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein, last night. First of all, it’s an exceptional book. It’s well written, complex, yet still has engaging, powerful characters. The author peppers the story with historical names and events, but brings you into the story through her protagonist — a woman I wish I knew personally. To me, this makes great historical fiction. Throughout the story, Yuiliang, the main character, uses poetry as a calmling chant, a game, and as a seduction device. Most of the poetry she quotes to herself is from Li Qingzhao, a poet who lived in the 12th century (thank you, Wikipedia). I don’t know of any western poetry that has endured that long, and the Chinese have poems that are even older. The closest I can think of are psalms, but I don’t think the old testament counts as western literature.

Portrait of Li Qingzhao by Zhou Sicong

Portrait of Li Qingzhao by Zhou Sicong

I caress the withered flower, fondle the fragrant petals
Trying to bring back the lost time.

She’s an orphan on a boat with her uncle, who is about to sell her — either for more opium or debts. We don’t know or care which, we just know what’s about to happen and she doesn’t. She’s just remembering her mother.

It was far into the night when, intoxicated,
I took off my ornaments;
The plum flower withered in my hair.

After her first customer in the brothel. Enough said.

The author uses other poets, Li Po and Ho Xuan Huong, both of whom are even older poets. I think the author has the character personally attached to Li Quingzhao because she is a “poetess,” and she herself, as a painter, has fought her whole career against being labeled “a woman painter.”

These poets set the bar very, very high. The poems have spare imagery, but are so emotionally evocative. In my whole life, I should write one poem that comes close to any of these.

To the Tune of Mulberry Picking Bajiao*
Who planted the bajiao tree under my windows?
Its shade fills the courtyard;
Its shade fills the courtyard…

Leaf to leaf, heart to heart,
folding and unfolding,
It expresses boundless affection.

Sad and broken-hearted, lying awake on my pillow,
Late into the night
I hear the sound of rain.

It drips and splashes, cool and melancholy;
It drips and splashes, cool and melancholy…

Lonely for my beloved, grief-stricken,
I cannot endure the mournful sound
of rain.
   
 * Ba jiao [pa chiao] belongs to the musa family, grown for
   the ornament of their large striking foliage.

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