Checking in on Li Bo

Earth is a strange place. We come here every year to check on him, our son, to make sure he’s doing well. We’d take him back with us, back to his life on our planet, but he’s been on Earth ever since he was a baby, sent there in a ship that wasn’t supposed to be open. By the time we finally found him, he was an adult. They had given him one of their human names: Li Bo. And while he might be ready to learn of our existence, the rest of them certainly are not. We can’t risk it. So, there’s not much we can do but keep our ship high in the sky and try to spot him with our telescope.

And they haven’t been good to him. It makes it all the harder to not land and take him away from this cruel place. Away from that horrible drink they give him that made him lose his job at the Hanlin Academy. Poor Li couldn’t get enough of it. Away from all the violence and bloodshed. and all these humans’ silly little rebellions (one of the strangest parts about humans to me is just how much they seem to want to hurt each other). And now they’ve exiled him, forced him into isolation and loneliness. I wish so badly that we could save him.

At least he has his poetry.

We’ve managed to translate most of it. Our telescopes are powerful enough to see it even from all the way up here. I can’t imagine how lonely he must feel after reading this one:

The floor before my bed is bright:

Moonlight-like hoarfrost-in my room.

I lift my head and watch the moon.

I drop my head and think of home.

I like to imagine he thinks of his real home. But I know that’s impossible. There’s no way he would know of it. But there is the matter of the moonlight. He seems to like the moon very well. There’s another poem we’ve translated with this passage inside.

I drink alone, no friend with me.

I raise my cup to invite the moon.

He and my shadow and I make three.

He views it as a friend, that glowing rock in his sky. I suppose it makes sense that one of our kind would not be accepted well among them. He seems to be capable of talking with them to some extent (if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have gotten that job at the academy in the first place). But he’s always looking to the sky in these poems. Perhaps looking to us, even if he doesn’t know it. He enjoys mountains as well, the closest humans seem to be able to get to the sky. This poem is one of my personal favorites.

The flocks of birds have flown high and away,

A solitary cloud goes off calmly alone.

We look at each other and never get bored-

Just me and Jingting Mountain.

What a nice one. Very calming to me. It seems that the closer he is to the sky, the closer he is to us, the happier he seems to be. Another one I enjoy is his one about the mountain, Heaven’s Crone. It is about a dream, but humans seem to put a lot of importance on dreams. When Li has a dream about a mountain, about meeting the sun and the moon at its peak, I have to believe that it matters to him. But then, it evaporates, gone when he awakes.

When I leave you now, you go,-when will you ever return?

He doesn’t seem to enjoy Earth much past how close it can get him to the sky. No wonder he can’t get enough of that drink, no wonder he says in another poem that

All I want is to stay dead drunk

and never sober up.

He talks about the violence, too. The wars humans seem intent on fighting for little reason. There’s another poem where he says

Beacon fires blaze without ceasing,

the marching and battle never end…

The troops lie mud-smeared in grasses,

and the general acted all in vain.

Now I truly see that weapons

are evil’s tools…

No wonder he wants back to us! No wonder he’s so obsessed with the moon and the sun and the mountains! All this bloodshed and war! Exile and isolation! Earth is truly a strange, horrible place. Could Li have gone somewhere worse than this blue and green planet in the least developed galaxy in the universe?

And he must know about us! He must know we’re up here, watching him, worrying about him! He says very clearly in another poem

…there are other earths and skies than these.

What else could that be referring to but our planet? Our skies? He must know about us, and he must be longing for us! Oh, Li Bo! We miss him terribly!

But I don’t know for certain that we would be able to please him. Or even that he would be any happier than he is on Earth. We aren’t as violent or destructive as humans are, certainly. We don’t have that drink that ruins him. And maybe his love for the sky and the mountains is a longing for us. But there is one thing we can’t give him.

All pleasures in our mortal world

are also just like this,

whatever has happened since ancient times

is the water flowing east.

Despite all our advancements, we are still mortal. Perhaps Li isn’t looking for us. Perhaps he’s looking for something greater than we can give him. Something eternal and peaceful. Something we can’t really give him. Perhaps, even if he were to live on our world, his poetry would remain the same. There’s too much that mortal existence cannot give him. He would always be discontent.

I think it’s time for us to go now. But we’ll be back next year to check in on him again.

I hope one day, he will be content.



The Norton Anthology of World Literature, by Martin Puchner et al., B, W.W. Norton & Company, 2018, pp. 1116–1123.