Powerless To Amend a Broken World – The Power of Poetry in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Novel – Under Heaven

images[1]A woman, exquisitely dressed, spins lightly on her feet, then stops, her back to a man directly behind her. The man pulls her tight and calmly drives a knife through her heart.

And so dies Wen Jian, consort to an emperor and so-called most beautiful woman of the age. This scene is from Under Heaven published in 2010. Written by Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay, it’s a historical fantasy modeled on the Chinese T’ang Dynasty.

The death of Wen Jian is made more poignant when a witness, the book’s main protagonist, asks “Should there be birdsong?” His friend, a poet based on noted T’ang poet Li Po answers: “ No, and yes. We do what we do, and the world continues. Somewhere a child is being born and the parents are tasting a joy they never imagined.” And later the poet says: “We will pick our way through the shards of broken objects folly leaves behind. And some of what breaks will be very beautiful.”

(A quick note on the anglicizing of Chinese names: the old so-called Wade-Giles system has been replaced by the Pinyin system. But what makes it confusing is that many of the best-known Chinese poets still are known by their Wade-Gilles names and in some cases had a few different Wade-Giles names! For example, Li Po, who is now officially Li Bo or Li Bai under the new system, was known under the old system as Li Po, Li Pai, Li T’ai-po and Li T’ai-pai. But since he is perhaps still best known as Li Po I will stick with that name in this post! The other great T’ang poet featured in this post is best known as Tu Fu but in the new system he is called Du Fu.)

Although Under Heaven is set in an imagined empire it’s based on 8th Century T’ang China at the moment when the empire was about to descend into a civil war (the An-Lushan rebellion 755-763). This war ravaged the country with estimates of up to thirty-six million killed or displaced making it one of the worst man-made disasters in human history. (Wen Jian is modeled on Yang Kuie-fei, infamous and extraordinarily beautiful young concubine to the far-older emperor Hsuan Tsung. By all accounts her influence over the emperor, who was besotted by her, played a major role in the events that led to the catastrophic rebellion.)

In his book Great Big Book of Horrible Things – The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities, Mathew White quotes a more “modest” figure of 13 million dead for the An Lushan rebellion, still ranking it number thirteen among his so called top one hundred disasters. White also calls it the Poets’ War because two of their [China’s] greatest poets lived and wrote during this time. He is referring to Li Po (701-763) – and Tu Fu (712- 770).

Think of that: the Poets’ War. The poems written by these men are a fine reportage of the inner and outer reality of that devastating time. And so revealing that it can be named after their telling of those dark days. When critics say poetry shouldn’t be a documentary art I can point to these poets and say: really?

These two poets and their poems come alive in Under Heaven, especially Li Po, the so-called Banished Immortal, (named Sima Zian in the novel). He is a central character in the book. And Tu Fu (called Chan Du in the novel) is referenced. especially, through his poem Overnight in the Pavilion by the River. The excerpted version of that poem in Kay’s book stopped me cold in my first reading. In a wonderful moment Kay has Sima Zian (Li Po) recite an excerpt from Tu Fu’s poem. Here it is:

Full moon is falling through the sky.
Cranes fly through the clouds.
Wolves howl. I cannot find rest
Because I am powerless
To amend a broken world.

Here is a full version translated by David Young:

Overnight at the River Pavillion

Evening is walking
up the mountain paths

I lie in the high chamber
here at the River Gate

thin clouds
rest against the cliffs

a lone moon
swims among the waves

some cranes fly past
in silence

far off, a pack of wolves
howl as they chase their quarry

I lie awake
worrying about war

I have no strength, I know,
to set this world to rights.

Tu Fu from Du Fu – A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010

In Under Heaven Sima Zian responds to the poem this way:

I love the man who wrote that. I told you before, but there is so much burden in Chan Du (Tu Fu). Duty, assuming all tasks, can betray arrogance. The idea we can know what must be done, and do it properly. We cannot know the future my friend. It claims so much to imagine we can. And the world is not broken any more than it is always, always is.

To try and understand the intricacies of translating Chinese poems into English is a hard task. I found a number of versions of Tu Fu’s poem in my library but the version in Under Heaven (not attributed to a translator) moves me the most with it’s last lines:  ..I cannot find rest/ Because I am powerless/ To amend a broken world.

Here I am in the 21st century and in my worst moments watching or hearing of the man-made disasters that surround us on an almost daily basis I can feel exactly the way Tu Fu felt, born more than 1,300 years ago. It is as if no time separates us. The poem is as true today as it was then. The mark of great poetry. Kay says as much after the book’s central character Shen Tai says: It wasn’t often that you lived the imagery of well known lines ( by Li Po):

Before my bed the light is so bright
it looks like a layer of frost.
Lifting my head I gaze at the moon,
lying back down I think of home.

He goes on to say: But maybe he was wrong. Maybe if a poem was true enough then sooner or later some of those who read it would live the image just as he was living it now. Or maybe some readers had the image before they even came to the poem and found it waiting for them there, an affirmation. The poet offering thoughts they’d held already.

Under Heaven is full of astonishments like these and I don’t exaggerate when I say I have read it cover to cover at least ten times. It’s that rich and gorgeously crafted. Kay’s love for this period in Chinese history and particularly its poets is evident. And it is the poetry of this period that in a strange way becomes almost like another character in the novel. Kay stresses the political and social importance of poetry in his lightly disguised version of the T’ang. In a memorable scene in the Emperors palace two of Kay’s characters have a T’ang version of a slam poetry contest where the poems have to be made up and recited on the spot!

The wonder of this book is how the poetry of the T’ang period is so seamlessly woven through the story. Early on in the book the central character Shen Tai has exiled himself to a remote part of China, burying the dead in an old battlefield days away from the nearest human habitation. He remembers his courtesan lover he has left behind in the capital city who warned him that if he left she could be purchased as a concubine for a wealthy man. He answers: You must do what seems best to you, for your life. I do not want you to be one of those women waiting at a window above jade stairs in the night. Let someone else live those poems.

There is nothing casual about the reference to jade stairs. It refers to the poem by Li Po called Jade Stairs Lament made famous in the west through Ezra Pound’s translation published in 1915. Some say this poem, among others that Pound translated, had a transformative effect on modern poetry. Just through its images it conveys the story of a woman waiting late at night for a lover who never appears.

J.P. Seaton in his 2012 book of selected poems by Li Po says: Ezra Pound’s ecstatic experience of this poem led directly to the beginning of “Imagism”, and thereby, for better or worse, to the creation of a new kind of poetry in America. In The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry the editors add: Translations of Li Bai (Li Po) helped to establish a conversational, intimate tone in modern American poetry.

Without going into all details many translators take exception to Pound’s translations but they remain popular. Here is his version of the poem followed by Seaton’s version:

The Jewel Stair’s Grievance

The jeweled steps are already quite white with dew,
It is so late the dew soaks my gauze stockings,
And I let down the crystal curtain
And watch the moon through the clear autumn.

Ezra Pound

Jade Stairs Lament

Jade steps grow white dew.
Night, late, has its way with her silken hose.
So let the crystal curtain Fall….
In its jingling glitter, gaze on many Autumn

J.P. Seaton, translator, from Bright Poem, White Moon – Selected Poems of Li Po, Shambhala, 2012

Thanks to Kay’s book I now have a much more detailed and personal sense of the life and times of Li Po. It has added much to my appreciation for his poetry and for his extraordinary life. (Kay has just published another novel, River of Stars based on China but this time set about 300 years later in the Sung Dynasty and featuring within the story a number of its most notable poets! It is another great yarn but Under Heaven remains my favorite!)

Just a few last words on Li Po and then two more of his poems. There is something roguish and larger than life about this giant of a man (some say six and half feet hall) who fell in and out of favour with the Court and was subject to long periods of exile along the Yangtze. White characterizes him as an enthusiastic drinker, drifter, an alchemist and Taoist mystic! That comes through in Under Heaven!

Somehow, in spite a life time of excessive drinking which features in so much of his poetry, his poetry never loses the power of its description and imagery. Nor its variety. Here are two poems with such contrasting tones:

Question and Answer in the Mountains

Ask me how it is I come to perch in these
blue-green hills,
and I’ll smile with no answer; I’m happiest with
heart-and-mind just so, may be…
Peach blossoms float by here, gone into the
quite definite shadows.
There is another world, other than this one we
choose to live in.

Li Po from Bright Moon, White Clouds translated by J.P Seaton, Shamballa, 2012

War South of the Wall

Battlefield: darkness: confusion, is it fog?
Men at war, or ants all swarming…
air’s heavy; sun, a bloody red chariot wheel:
blood drying purple on bramble.
Crows argue the ends of man guts like reins.
They eat at the gate of our grief, and them so
they can’t fly free of it.
Yesterday: men on the walls;
today: ghosts who cry beneath it.
Great banners of bloodlust,
gauze spattered with crimson
droplets like tiny stars.
The pulse of the war drums throbs,
throbbing, endless.
This wife’s family: husband, sons…
the blood of the pulsing of the drums.

Li Po translated by J. P. Seaton, ibid


  1. Liz
    Posted May 16, 2013 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    “There is another world, other than this one we
    choose to live in…” And thank goodness Richard that you choose always to come back and report to us from this wondrous place.

  2. Richard
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 10:27 am | Permalink

    Liz: The other world! ANd who says we choose to live in this one! Or doesn’t it choose us

  3. Andy Parker
    Posted May 16, 2013 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Richard, for bringing to our attention this intriguing sounding novel and for the lovely snippets of Chinese poetry. I plan to order two copies–one for myself and the other for my Sinophile son.

  4. Richard
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    My pleasure! Let me know how you enjoy the book!

  5. Laurence
    Posted October 29, 2023 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    I too deeply love Under Heaven, as well as so many other of Kay’s touching, deeply human and humane works.

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