What’s the Wall, Anyway?

Li Ho, Tang Dynasty

Heaven is dark
Earth is a secret
The nine-headed monster eats out our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Dogs are set on us, snarl and sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the orchid-girdled,
Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends us his chariot,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.

I straddle my horse but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-Yang the waves are huge as mountains,
Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the rings on the bridle,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao slept all his life in the parted fens,
Yen Hui before thirty was flecked at the temples,
Not that Yen Hui had weak blood
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended Heaven:
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would close and rend them,
For this and this cause only made it so.
Plain though it is, I fear that you still doubt me.
Witness the man who raged at the wall as he carved his questions to Heaven.


When I looked for this poem this morning, hoping not to have to type it all out, or find the book (which I think is in the garage), my Google search demonstrated how many people have comments on this poem, how Pink Floyd (ew) used it in a song (is this THE WALL???).  If so, I think they had a lot of nerve…

I read this poem first in the 1970s in a book a friend gave me for Christmas. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend inscribed the book, “Maybe this is a book you haven’t read yet” because once I read everything. I had not been in China (yet) and had no idea that I would ever go.

I had begun my “writer’s life” at that point. I had (so far) only one story that, it appears, I will never finish. I was dedicated. I spent my weekends at my Smith Corona banging out the book. I have banged out that book four times now. It’s half banged out and saved on this laptop. If I finish, that’ll make five times.

It’s a love story.

So this poem. In my 20s, I saw the wall was an obstacle holding him back from Heaven, but at the same time he would have had nothing on which to carve his questions if he had not had a wall, making it a beautiful paradox. This morning I realized that without the wall, he would not have had questions; Heaven would spread in front of him with all its glorious answers.

In my 20s I thought it was magnificent and brave, what he was doing, using the medium at hand to write beautiful poetry. I thought the poetry — the writing — was the be-all and end-all of the whole experience of life.

This morning, with $$$ invested in PR for my book, anticipating more $$$, doubts about the decisions I’ve made, wondering if the whole point of everything is just carving the wall (because Heaven is silent), feeling quite small here in the middle of the world’s largest alpine valley, spurred to revisit Li Ho thanks to the daily prompt’s cryptic little word, “Witness” I find this poem is still a friend.


8 thoughts on “What’s the Wall, Anyway?

  1. I’m having one of those mornings, too. It’s demoralizing to get this far and still, somehow not really be anywhere different. Maybe that IS the point, that no matter how many side trips I take, I’m back on the same path. Maybe I need to get it right by repeating whatever the lesson is. If so, I think it’s high time I was told what the lesson IS.

    • Right? Maybe there’s no lesson, just the inscrutable indifference of fate. Here’s the irony; I actually believe that and live all the time as if I didn’t and I don’t know HOW I do that. I guess I answer that inscrutable indifference with my own scrutable indifference.

  2. I’m right with you there, wondering what on earth I’m doing, at the age of 70 when I should probably be knitting or something equally down to earth–writing my heart out and trying at the same time to learn everything I can about publishing, marketing and so on, ad infinitum …. imagining that the result might actually go somewhere … and all the work THAT will entail. (Not to mention the $$$ that have already flown out the window, soon to be accompanied by more.)

    I must be completely mad.

    I have a few questions myself that I’d like to carve onto that wall…

    P.S. Beautiful poem! That last line is timeless.

  3. ” . . . ; and by my God have I leaped over a wall.”–Psa.18.29
    I think they’re talking about the wall of sin that separates us from God. Or, the wall that separates the physical from the spiritual. Anyway, it’s a wall we must get over somehow. And it’s a wall of our own construction.

    • I have no idea what PF is talking about, but yesterday I was stunned to find a pretty convincing essay explaining how they were influenced by Li Ho’s poem. I have only been able to relate/bear/listen to PF’s music for a short interval in my life — and that was the three months I spent in the trough of clinical depression. I listened to “Division Bell” over and over… Anyway, here’s the essay. http://www.cjvlang.com/Pfloyd/meaning.html

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