Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Grand Historian Makes a Virtue of Necessity

Dear Heart, you hear the gossip Lord Hu circulates
about how I begged the Emperor to castrate me
instead of quaffing down the poisoned cup, how base
I am to return a remnant of the blade to my father.

The slander passes in winecups around the court
once every year. More often if the border’s quiet.
My name’s divulged to new officials as a joke
or else a warning not to defame the Son of Heaven.

Defame! Because I spoke up for General Li
who fought the Xiongnu brutes until he was brought down.
Each day my bowels twist nine times. The nights! So wrote
Zhouyang: Accumulated slander destroys bone.

Sweat springs from my cold hands and runs into the ink.
I have completed writing Records—all one hundred
and thirty chapters—from the earliest sage-kings
down to the present reign—more than two thousand years.

To the fragments gathered by my father for the work
he dreamt about but did not start, I added flesh
and bones, stitched them together into history.
The Master edited one Spring and Autumn Annals

which Records extends—Essays, Chronological Tables,
Hereditary Houses. Lord Hu’s father preens
in Chapter Forty-Nine, embroidered with such true
colors that his son’s balls, in his rich robe, will shrink.

In my Biographies, kings are threaded with assassins,
male favorites, butchers, turtle-shell diviners, women,
whose names are commonly lost unless they cling like fleas
to a warhorse tail flying over bamboo strips.

My work will live and penetrate every house,
village, city, district, province, court and state.
The written word is sharper than the word of mouth.
It will scratch out my shame in Silkworm Hall. It will

revise my name. In Hell my father will have his book
though not his son. I chose, my Heart, a higher duty
when I begged him for my mutilated life. Burn
this letter in a cup of wine and drink to me. Qian.

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