Mountain Retreat, leaf from Album

The Hard Road to Shu

Holy shit!
So murderously high!
The road to Shu is hard,
harder than scaling the blue-green open sky.
How did they do it —
those ancient kings who opened this land,
marking out fields, bringing silkworms and fishing nets?

They walked off into the mist,
and then it was 48,000 years
before we smelled the smoke of their wood fires.

Birds have always had a path
straight in from Chang’an to Emei Peak,
but when men began to cut a road,
earth split open, mountains collapsed, stout warriors had to
before iron rods were drilled into the mountainside,
and wooden planks, raised on scaffolding, were linked
by ladders straddling the sky.

Up above,
six dragons pull the sun through the treetops,
down below, the river breaks,
circling back upon itself.
Even the yellow crane’s soaring
stops here;
long-armed apes despair of ever getting to the top.

Snarly gnarly Green Mud Ridge:
nine switchbacks every hundred steps,
wrapping round the cliffs.
Touch the Bear Star,
pass through Orion,
lean back, breathe in the air!
Hold your chest,
sit down and heave a sigh.

My friend, will you ever make it home again?
I fear you’ll never clamber up
that treacherous, break-neck road.

All you’ll see are sad birds
crying in old trees, males and females
winding through the woods,

and you’ll hear the cuckoo’s call to the night moon
filling the empty mountain with sorrow.

The road to Shu is hard,
harder than scaling the blue-green open sky!
When you hear this
the bloom of your cheeks will wilt and die.

Peak on peak not a foot below Heaven,
dead pines hang headfirst down the sheer walls.
Fast rapids, raging falls
crash and clatter,
battering cliffs and barreling crags,
ten thousand gullies thunder.

These are the dangers, oh traveler,
on this long road — why on earth
would you ever come this way?

Sword Gate Pass,
spiked and sinister:
if one man blocks the way,
ten thousand can’t get through,
and if that man’s a traitor,
he changes into a wolf.

Morning and night,
beware fierce tigers and giant snakes,
sharpening their teeth to suck your blood,
mowing you down like fields of hay.

The Brocade City would be lovely,
if you ever got there,
but better just go home.
The road to Shu is hard,
harder than scaling the blue-green open sky —
lean back, look west with a long, last sigh!

(Translated by Kidder Smith and Mike Zhai, from Unkempt, which you should definitely own)

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