“Letters from the Ming Dynasty” by Joseph Brodsky

Letters from the Ming Dynasty


Soon it will be thirteen years since the nightingale
fluttered out of its cage and vanished. and, at nightfall,
the Emperor washes down his medicine with the blood
of another tailor, then, propped on silk pillows, turns on a jeweled bird
that lulls him with its level, identical song.
It’s this sort of anniversary, odd-numbered, wrong,
that we celebrate these days in our “Land-under-Heaven.”
The special mirror that smooths wrinkles even
costs more every year. Our small garden is choked with weeds.
The sky, too, is pierced by spires like pins in the shoulder blades
of someone so sick that his back is all we’re allowed to see,
and whenever I talk about astronomy
to the Emperor’s son, he begins to joke…
This letter to you, Beloved, from your Wild Duck
is brushed onto scented rice paper given me by the Empress.
Lately there is no rice but the flow of rice paper is endless.


“A thousand-li-long road starts with the first step,” as
the proverb goes. Pity the road home does
not depend on that same step. It exceeds ten times
a thousand li, especially counting from zeros.
One thousand li, two thousand li–
a thousand means “Thou shalt not ever see
thy native place.” And the meaninglessness, like a plague,
leaps from words onto numbers, onto zeros especially.
Wind blows us westward like the yellow tares
from a dried pod, there where the Wall towers.
Against it man’s figure is ugly and stiff as a frightening hieroglyph,
as any illegible scripture at which one stares.
this pull in one direction only has made
me something elongated, like a horse’s head,
and all the body should do is spent by its shadow
rustling across the wild barley’s withered blade.


Joseph Brodsky, 1940–1996

© 1977 Joseph Brodsky
“Letters from the Ming Dynasty” from A Part of Speech

Photo by Gio Almonte on Unsplash

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