Silk


(Part of a narrative poem about the Silk Road trade -a tale within a tale, each poem ending with the beginning of the next.)


Fed on the choicest mulberry leaf,
As a little emperor --sheltered,
I spend time weaving gold thread.
Forbidden to leave my cocoon,
One day I dive into a steaming cauldron.
Not for me to be an ugly moth.

What a barbaric death!
My brothers –who lived, cry...
And I sigh on hearing them
For they will never know
The scent of milk and honey
Mingled with roses
As I rest on a noblewoman’s breast

Nor taste the jasmine breath
Of the Circassian concubine I veil,
Or feel the strength as I climb
The limbs of the Genghis Khan men,
Or how lissom are those of the dervish.

But let me tell my story from the beginning,
It is said it was the empress Lei-Tzu
Who enamoured of my web of gold
First unravelled me, and spun a yarn
To robe the Yellow Emperor in silk.

Thus my fame grew till I was coveted
From East to West and North to South
By every sultan, khan, Roman emperor
and pope of Byzantium alike

And what a life I have lived since!
From China to Constantinople, I traversed
The Gobi, the Pamirs and the Tien-Shan,
Lovingly carried on camel back
And by horse cart; I dwell in palaces and temples,
Eavesdrop on the love-nights
Of Roxelane and Suleiman,
Dress lamas, Persian princes, warriors,
Venetian courtesans and Topkapi favourites;
Lay supine under banquets, and I am
The carpet under the feet of dancing-girls.

But do not think that my life
Is only one of charmed idleness,
At war, I am the archer's bow
Roped tight, till I burn --strung to break
I silence the enemy's heart with my arrow
I am the strings of the zither
That sing of love
Yet I am plucked till I wail..
Plaintive, of love’s loss.

On my travels, I encountered
Chinamen, Sogdian, Turkmen,
Mongols, and blue-eyed
Men from the west.
At the bazaars of the Gobi,
Porcelain, jade, tea, pearls,
Saffron, glass from Venice
And I whispered carpet tales
Under the stars while
Man an camel dreamed.

Right now I am the sash
At a young prince’s waist
Held in a dragon's clasp of jade;
But enough of me…let me tell you
The tale of green Jade…