Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme

Florence showed me what she called the most famous of Chinese poems. She had made her own translation from a Chinese language newspaper clipping. The poem was accompanied by a cartoon-like drawing of a man lifting up from a cot, the moon in his face and eyes, the moonlight coming through an open window and shining on the cot and a bedroom floor. Florence explained the poem to me, and wanted me to help her work on her translation of the poem into English, and we enjoyed sharing language lessons. For some time after I left the school, I kept in touch with Florence, but it’s been many years now. I used to hear from her every Christmas; she would send me a long, handwritten letter in impeccable penmanship and flawless English grammar, and usage and sentence structure, and ask me to “correct” the writing for her.

I knew the Chinese poet, Li Po, who wrote the original poem. The poem has been variously translated to describe the speaker awake at night, or awakening, thinking, far from home, or perhaps far from the past, thus perhaps rethinking the past, or what we call remembering, or reflecting. The poem might suggest a bittersweet homesickness; a longing. Usually, in translations, there’s moonlight and frost, one mistaken for the other in the night, and a mountain and a moon, a confused awakening at night with thoughts of home. Just as the moonlight is mistaken for frost, the setting is mistaken for home. Or perhaps there is no mistake. The speaker awakes, and then drops back to sleep and dreams of home. Florence said that most Chinese of her generation would recognize the poem. She invited me over to her place. She wanted to present me with a few books. The books were old and travelled. One was titled Chinese Phrase Book, published by the War Department and dated “December 10, 1943.” Another was titled Chinese Military Dictionary, also published by the War Department and dated “26 May 1944.” They were military vocabulary manuals, small enough for a foot soldier to carry in a pocket. The word poem was not included in either one.

I first met Li Po in a Chinese literature in translation class at Cal State Dominguez Hills. One of our texts was the first Evergreen edition (1967) of the 1965 Grove Press Anthology of Chinese Literature: from early times to the fourteenth century, edited by Cyril Birch. I still have this book, but Li Po’s poem about the moonlight and frost and thoughts of home is not included. It is included in Robert Payne’s The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Newly Translated (1947). The translation Payne includes of the Li Po poem is the only one I’m aware of that mentions a “couch,” and the speaker’s thoughts are of the “earth,” not explicitly of home. It’s possible to read that the speaker is sleeping outdoors.

Florence inspired me to begin writing a series of variations on the theme of Li Po’s poem. I called them “improvisations,” to give a more clear idea of the method of composition, and to suggest my interest in jazz and John Cage. I started the variations, or improvisations, after I left my full-time position at the school where I had met Florence for what the Chinese poet Han Shan called the “red dust” of business (see Gary Snyder, below). And during my red dust years, I worked the Li Po theme into over 100 variations, adding to and reworking the lot of them several times over the years. Florence was very interested at the time in my decision to leave teaching. More, she was concerned. She rode the bus over to my place to visit.

Business jobs often take would be poets on the road, on one-night- or long stays in motels, where the travelling businessperson might learn something new about night thoughts and remembrance.

I do not speak or read Chinese, but I remember a few of the insights Florence gave me into the character of Chinese writing. Poetry should be an everyday occurrence, not necessarily a scholarly effort or something for a classroom, but a habit of mind, like a simple melody one might hum to oneself while pulling weeds in the garden, or like random thoughts while drifting off to sleep, the kind that turn into dreams, where memory is mixed with the present, and ordinary happenings, like a blanket slipping off the bed, assume momentous images, like running up a beach to escape a giant wave.

This poetry as a habit of mind might resemble the kind of poetry the Chinese lived with when writing and reading poetry was commonplace. Poems were written, we learn from Gary Snyder’s translation of the Lu-ch’iu Yin preface to the poems of Han-shan, “…on bamboo, wood, stones and cliffs…on the walls of people’s houses.” Li Po is not included in either of Kenneth Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese books. Rexroth seems to have preferred Tu Fu. The Li Po poem Florence taught me is included in Arthur Cooper’s Penguin Li Po and Tu Fu (1973). I also have in my library the Seaton and Cryer Li Po and Tu Fu: Bright Moon, Perching Bird (1987), which includes the Li Po poem; Vikram Seth’s Three Chinese Poets (1992), which includes the poem under the name Li Bai, which may more closely approximate the Chinese pronunciation of Li Po’s name (and Seth’s is the only translation I’ve seen to use the word “hoarfrost”); and Eliot Weinberger’s The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry (2003), which includes two translations of the Li Po poem, one by David Hinton and one by Ezra Pound.

Florence used the newspaper drawing to help explain Li Po’s poem to me, but it seemed that she read the drawing in almost the same way that she read the poem written in Chinese that appeared in the newspaper next to the drawing. The drawing may have been a kind of prose paraphrase of the poem’s Chinese characters. How many poems do we know whose essence can be depicted in a drawing? In any case, Li Po’s poem is clear and concise enough that most of the translations vary from one another only slightly and with little contradiction. This is not true of, for example, the Tu Fu poem also about night thoughts. Rexroth gives us, “My poems have made me famous…”; Hinton, “…How will poems bring honor?”; and Seth, the seemingly contradictory, “Letters have brought no fame.” But if we had only the drawing depicting the Li Po poem, our interpretation would be limited, a different kind of reading experience.

Florence’s reading suggested blending image and cultural artifact. Still, the experience is limited by distance, by the exercise of translation, by the evolution of vocabulary, by forgetfulness, and by the confusion created from metaphor. There are two urging metaphors in Li Po’s poem. One likens moonlight with frost; the other compares a present setting with one absent or past. The relationship of the two metaphors was important to Florence’s reading. Fall term had just begun, and it was clear Florence was thinking of home in a variety of contexts. It was clear she had experienced Li Po’s poem.

How might today’s readers experience the Li Po poem in their own lives, rather than making a study of it as an example of Chinese literature? We might discuss the idea that informs the poem, perhaps an effective and efficient way to both experience and study poetry, as Kenneth Koch suggested in his book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, written from his experience teaching what he called “great” poetry to children in New York City schools. After getting the idea of the great poem, Koch’s students then wrote their own poem versions illustrating that idea. One idea that might be found in Li Po’s poem, of an awareness that comes to one in the present time of something experienced in the past, is surely a common occurrence, which might explain the popularity and longevity of Li Po’s poem. Another idea found in Li Po’s poem is the common experience of awakening and initially forgetting that we fell asleep not in our own bed. That we live in an age where many of us have neither the time nor the inclination to be reflective merely accentuates those times when, falling asleep away from home, we are awakened by the illumination of some foreign light, but in our sleepiness, we might easily confuse the light with some other light, or our current bed with some other bed.

My original poems that were variations and improvisations on Li Po’s poem were handwritten in a pocket size, blank book. I reached one hundred handwritten variations, and I started to type them up. I went to one hundred and one. One hundred and one seems excessive, but an excess I fancy Li Po would have approved. I’ve continued to make changes, mostly minor but some major, to date. But I have kept to the order of the original little notebook. The variations do not follow a literal chronology, for the memory knows no order, at least mine doesn’t. My strategy was to write in a way that would be accessible to the general reader, and while the variations are personal, most if not all of them should be as easy to reach as Li Po’s original poem. The Chinese poets were artists in drawing as well as in writing. I have had only to write; yet I hope drawings are suggested. I used the word theme because I like the idea that thesis states and theme explores, and I’m more interested in exploration than statement. And so the variations continue to explore the theme Li Po set up so long ago and that Florence gave to me, long ago, now, also.

But we live in the Late Irony Age now, and the age is collapsing upon itself, and our quiet night thoughts may begin to assume more bizarre variations in forms of remembering home. I now imagine a graphic novel, “Li Po’s Restless Night,” yet another variation. Two characters now occupy the little cot. One, lifting up in the moonlight, in the first panel, says: “Near my bed moonlight spreads silver paint across the bare fir floor. I fall back to sleep, far from the warm dunes of home.”

In the second panel, both characters are now awake, the moon throwing the bed in shadowed relief, the drawing stark, black and white contrasts: “If you had not fallen asleep so drunk, you would know the difference between moonlight on the floor and frost in the grass.”

Third panel: “I awoke with a clear mind, wind through water. This would not have happened were I in my own, sober bed. Listen, it’s the waves rising down in the cove. No! It’s the train rattling across the trestle. No, still, it’s the cold wind in the pine grove.”

Fourth panel: “Go back to sleep. It was your own stupid snoring that awoke you. Quit thinking of home. It’s all gone now.”

Fifth panel: “I’m getting up and going for a walk. It’s what Li Po would have done.”

Sixth panel: “You are not Li Po, nor do you know the first thing about Li Po. Get back into bed before you go out and slip on the ice and crack your stupid skull.”

Seventh panel: “That’s not nice, and that’s not ice! That’s moonlight on the parchment.”

It is early evening, and I hike up into the dunes above the beach that reminds me of yet another time long ago. The surf seen from the silence of the dunes curls over a few surfers still in the water in the evening glass off. What’s become of my brothers and sisters? The house is empty without them. With a flop swish, the blue waves fall below the silence of the dunes. In the back yard, a lost moon throws figures into shadows. Two figures are playing a chess game. A Ping-Pong ball clips and clops back and forth across a net. A plastic ball shuffles high up into a tree. And what of my father, cactus, and my mother, twisted cypress shadow, alone on a hill in California, the sun falling now before them? These images appear and reappear throughout the variations. Drinking beer in the golden air behind the tavern, near the dry creek bed, an old couple sits talking, in the shade of a blossoming plum tree.

Eighth panel: “Why a moon, anyway? And why just one?” Why not two, as I lie awake thinking of Li Po and Tu Fu, of Florence, Son House, and misconstrue.

~ ~ ~

Note: First published at Berfrois on September 29, 2015, "Li Po's Restless Night" was expanded and published in small book format (115 pages) on December 16, 2020: available in ebook or paperback format.

Unfinished & Untitled

Some works live day in
day out works in progress
others abandoned
put out to the curb
or basement deferred

The sun sets indecisively
returning over and over
a reliable locomotive

The moon shifts shape
curls and hides
augments or diminishes
the work of the night

The best we finish is suggestion
an impression its precision
unreal if felt permanent

Light a river of silence
fished for colors
after the snowmelt
down in the valley

On Beauty

What is Beauty, that Beast in all caps?
The beauty of beauty is beauty
(“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”)
wants no thought, bears no meaning.

We may begin by stating what beauty
is not: beauty can not be purchased,
beauty is not style nor fashion,
beauty is not transitory nor fixed,
serves no function, is non-cultural.

Beauty is cosmopolitan, universal.
Beauty is humble, avoids museums.
Beauty is not needy, invites no convo.
Beauty is meaningless, for sense,
that human construct, usurps beauty
of its principal pleasure.

Meaning (definition, interpretation,
reveal, tell-tale) translates forms,
the essence of beauty, into human
terms, where it loses its native essence.

We can not paint the soul, nor post
a pic of it.

Beauty is not the opposite
of ugly, tho ugly walks hand in hand
with beauty, speaks with beauty,
but beauty has no answer,
no comment.

And yet, Eco says:
“…an orgy of tolerance, the total syncretism and the absolute and unstoppable polytheism of Beauty.”
Which is to say, “Beauty! Get out of Dodge!”

Beauty is not a value, but a virtue.

We can of course get more involved:

But we grow weary of wearing
that same old tattered dress,
and find little tenderness
in your tries and stays.

We close our talk on beauty
with a beautiful poem
by e. e. cummings:

[O sweet spontaneous]


O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have

             fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

        beauty      how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

             thou answerest

them only with


E. E. Cummings, “O sweet spontaneous” from Tulips & Chimneys. Copyright © 1923 by E. E. Cummings. Reprinted by permission of Public Domain. Copied from Poetry Foundation.

PS: We have been waiting
for your answer
this year.


Worst may happen words will be wasted
but when the Old Kingdom cattle count
comes around you’ll be taxed every one
so omit unnecessary parts of speech
and craft each comment in mindfulness

As for punctuation use sparsely as if
on a desert plain flat and dry and open
for readers are offended by periods1
while snowflakes fall like plumules
to cover the withered words of summer

Do not read for meaning but for beauty
for you cannot stop the flow of words
the catastrophe of thought fills space
with light and shadow dappled colors
The purpose of poetry is clerestory

a window you can’t see out allows
light to fill the air enclosed inside
worthy even if you have to hear organs
groan like donkeys through the lovely
indoor sky and nothing you suspicion

1“Woebot tends to avoid periods at the end of texts, because user research has suggested that people experience them as aggressive”

The New Yorker, “Can A.I. Treat Mental Illness? New computer systems aim to peer inside our heads—and to help us fix what they find there.” By Dhruv Khullar. February 27, 2023.


The queen carries no purse
not the king packs a wallet
morning comes their words
don’t freeze to mouth’s roof

No one ever asks to see their
IDs they do not live alone yet
do not sleep together either
they don’t own an automobile

No tweet feed no clock tells
tick-tock up and down halls
around the castle walls one
hears swishes but little talk

No dust accumulates no litter
allowed in the vast library no
television no stereo system
for fun they sit at the grand

piano and play God Save the
Queen and King from dust
and misery from questions
answers and such shilly-shally

Under Snow

Something there is wants the snow to stay
keeping spring sprouts warm thru the night
and day until we can begin again to grow
in the sun’s majestic magnificent glow.

Unlike the undertow of the riptide, under
snow things stay in place and time stops
the wind’s whips snap over our heads
barely disturbing our sleep down below.

My neighbor outside dressed in muffs
shovels the snow off his cement ways
while I awake but still under snow
dare not disturb a single snow flake.

There are gaps in my thoughts like
missing teeth so I can’t take my ease
like the retired rich man in Luke
who does “eat, drink, and be merry.”

I say to my soul stay under the snow
it is a gift from a keen rich boss who
knows in his other hand must throw
suns of summer to heat green souls.

At Bay

How to begin this sober day of play
not to go down none subtle catastrophe
words wander away, branch out from here
blue curly birds may have places to rest.

Ads at bay, nestled in floral concertina
why can’t you be that guy
who saves the day
from grief and grinding gears

from fears like ghosts with no roots
little bugs that crawl and sneak into ears
why can’t you understand
we don’t need a plan

we need a place to live in peaches
round and soft and downy fur –
who is talking now and to whom
and to what end these words wind

their way through the day as the snow melts
and shows the same stuff still from yesterday
the cover of the snow held such promise
but its magic doesn’t stick here long

and when the sun returns so it will
we’ll have work to keep busy and full
roads to finish out of these forests
into clearings of Monet’s bright flowers.

The light changes quickly always anew
in the dark songs of what we see
in the light tricks of what we worry
about the dark in the light.

Why can’t you be that guy
who comes to save the day
without words without song
keeps his promise all night long.

Still Bird

Still from the sill the cat peers
windowed in at the flightless
bird atop the grape pergola.

The cat flies through the night
but this bird won’t spread wings
not that we’ve ever seen.

Patient the bird still sits until
asked to fill out a form with pen
questions on feathers and hymns

and such: are you a sole
bird? how high do you fly?
are you a kind bird? what kind?

In what direction points
your beak when at odds
with others you yearn

for the sea and sing
a single note of myst
a story that obscures

your spurt in a torment
a torrent of thickel
breathfull agog gast?


A dust of snow this Valentine’s Day
not much just a sprinkle of sugar
on roofs and grass of sweetmeats
the street’s clear to come and go
social love miserly virtual treats
turns sour at the corner ignored
relics of one’s love in framed pics.

Lost love seems now the sweetest
tooth in the mouth of memory when
to bite yearningly brings back pain
without which tho there is nothing
for the heart in its card to hark back
to not words nor images nor nights
at sea dressed in red sky vapor trails.

Words last not last night’s telling
as we amble toward a late spring
watching the squirrels and crows
from icy windows and Scamble and
Cramble the cats come to smell
and scratch in the familiar places
looking for a facial comfort zone.

But in safe and ease we may feel
nothing better to go in the cold
grab a nip and feel the wet bit
scrunch of the lips in the dark
alley tongue out the back door
of your ground floor apartment
upstairs we would not gambol.

Love’s crisis longs for a headline
an ocean in which to clown one’s
cartoon visions under a laughing
audience of unidentified balloons
aloft the shape and size of hearts
made of flour and sugar and red
paint and salt water taffy.

Oh to have & hold a heart a late
night very red strawberry fruit
hugs with no words drawings
seen from our wintry limbs
high up in our trees we climb
to enjoy one another’s going
easy and around and around.

A Poetry of Oddity

Collected in poems whats
decorative which is odd
a sad iron pressed against
her forehead happy hands
waving goodbye to white
wrinkled blouses the lacy
lazy lives long now lost.

Sad too the turtle backs
stacked in a bowl as if
for a crab feed bottles
of quality wine carried
home in a grocery cart.

Ages and ages hence
consigned to collections
of periodicals we used
to play bingo at church
prayed to Jesus a good
card to win the catch.

Portrait of a lady
sitting beneath
a covey of chandeliers
her antique back
stiff and brittle with age.

The skeleton
of a barber chair
a retired fisherman
walking along a quay
a homemade boat
in the distance.

And in the rooms
above the shops
full of Chantilly lace
champaign and chagrin
we pause and pose
hoping to be collected
and not thrown out
as odd as we be old.

Cold Car

Early still dark and the cat is up
a cup of coffee before commute
past a golden sun in woods lost
to old Firestones rubber cairns.

Commutes are like short stories
back out, turn around, take off
reach the corner slow stop turn
right down the hill to the light.

The hills loom typographically
a bold outline of italicized firs
at an intersection of squirrels
and owls a tree older than any

house on the block remembers
not who lived where but winds
and howls rains and scorching
sun a few children on swings.

Houses last longer than cars
trees longer than houses the
old man recalls his home his
cars and the tree he planted

in his front yard a year prior
to the war and it lived to see
the freeway come through
odd name that, he said,

no one on it ever seemed free
especially if you missed your
offramp had to go another
mile or two get off back on.

One picks a car like a font
default curlicue bumpers
and chrome strips along
the doors inside the bowl

cold in the counter stroke
as one enters the aperture
the temperature there not
quite human in spite of the

comfort compared to the horse
drawn buggy or the old man
with a staff stumbling toward
town his rucksack full of acorns.