The Tang Dynasty ruled China from roughly 600 to 900 C.E. These poems of spiritual questing and savoring the world date from that era but show how perennial feelings of searching and savoring can be.
Nearly 1,300 years ago, one of these poets wrote: “Others say the ocean is deep, / but it’s not half the depth of my yearning.” Then the poem itself is part of the spiritual practice, as the poet concludes: “Strumming my desire into song, / my harp strings and heart come undone!”
The spiritual path of these authors — three women — is Daoism, a tradition little understood today in the West. Their poems are full of Daoist philosophy and spiritual practice.
Li Ye (the poet quoted above) was a poet and Daoist priestess from present-day Zhejiang Province. She was considered a hero to her contemporaries. Her poems are both descriptive and evocative, as when she reflects on the spring waters in the mountains where she was raised:
"Rushing waterfalls and crashing waves come alive
from the strings of my harp.
Is it a raging wind, holding back thunder,
or the low moan of a river that cannot flow?"
The other two poets, Xue Tao and Yu Xuanji, here are equally evocative and memorable. Buddhist monks, reed flutes, books of scripture, mountain temples, craggy peeks, soaring hawks, and spring waters appear in their short verses, which are each ably introduced with a few paragraphs by the translators. Religious objects and geological features are used to stand for human emotions. See, for example, the excerpt accompanying this review: “Contemplating Melancholy.”
But for each of these poets, the original source of life itself is the ultimately unknowable Dao, which the translators of this exquisite book call “the way that cannot be expressed in words.”