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October 2018, vol 14 no 3

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Chen-ou Liu

Is the Past a Foreign Country?

gazing up at the moon
in this promised land
it's paler than the one
Li Po wrote about

The first poem I ever memorized was Li Po's “Thoughts in Night Quiet,” the best known of all Chinese poems, especially among Chinese living overseas:

Seeing moonlight here at my bed,
and thinking it's frost on the ground,
I look up, gaze at the mountain moon,
then back, dreaming of my old home.

When I was six, my father recited this poem to me as tears streamed down his face. At that time, he hadn’t seen his family for two decades since he had come to Taiwan in 1949 with the defeated Chinese Nationalist Army. To me, the poem was not long, so I memorized it only to please my father. I knew little about its meaning and the suffering that he and his generation endured due to the Chinese Civil War. It was not until the seventh year after I had immigrated to Canada that I experienced the nostalgic taste of “Thoughts in Night Quiet.” It is not only Li Po’s poem but also my father's . . . and mine.

tangled thoughts
of a childhood tree house –
in the land of snow
I turn mom's handmade pillow
towards the full moon

Note: The prose is a revision of an excerpt from "An Interview with Chen-ou Liu," which was first published in Simply Haiku, Summer 2010. Li Po's poem was translated by David Hinton.

Editor's Note: Li Po's poem can be read at the Terrain.org website.