Butterfly Lovers

Issue FivePoetry

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By Eileen Chong

I

Born a girl.
By my father’s word,
plate of ash untouched—

Needle and silk:
opaline peacocks,
burning phoenixes.

Last of nine.
My hunger grows
beyond these walls.

Scholar’s robes.
Books and bedroll.
Inkblock and scroll.

Alone on the road that leads
to Hangzhou. The path
crests the hill and broadens.

II

My study of the birds
is incomplete. I’ve watched them
land, lay, feed, and preen.

The caged nightingale sings,
its throat hollow, then filling.
The sparrows fly so swift

I capture only their shadows.
Once, I found a dead crane
by the lake: its soft neck wrung.

I’d set my birds free.
No one can understand
the waking between dreams.

Mind of poetry,
breath of calligraphy,
sweep of painting.

III

Yes we swore to be brothers
with soil as incense on the bridge
over the river under the pavilion

There we swore to be as one
we wrote couplets and drank wine
tried to catch the glittering fish

in red ink and in the moonlight
we recited verses stroked words
into the earth which rain dissolved

IV

These ducks on the pond
cleave the water like knives.
Beneath: the desperate paddling.

How does the story unfold?
The woman is given to another.
Masks, marriage and a grave.

The deluge: stormwater swells
the corpses and they surface.
Blind maggots writhing.

The caterpillar consumes itself in order
to regenerate. It will hurt to unmake. Wait;
transmute. Your wings will graft into being.

 

Note: ‘Butterfly Lovers’ was commissioned in 2017 for Metamorphic, an anthology of poems responding to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Recent Work Press, Canberra, Australia.

The Butterfly Lovers is one of the four great legends of China, and is set in the Eastern Jin dynasty (265-420 AD). It refers to the love story between Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai.

Zhu, the ninth child and only daughter of her family, was allowed to go to Hangzhou to study, dressed as a man. Liang, a fellow scholar, and Zhu were as close as brothers, and Zhu fell in love with Liang. Liang was unaware that Zhu was a woman, but when he eventually found out and realised he loved Zhu, she was already betrothed to another, Ma. Liang sickened and died. On her wedding day, Zhu passed Liang’s grave and is said to have grieved so hard that the grave opened and she jumped in, ending her life.

A pair of butterflies then emerged from the grave and was said to be the souls of the two lovers, united at last in death. The Butterfly Lovers has been said to be the Chinese parallel of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which, of course, originated from the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

 

Artwork by Kathryn Lamont.