Planting Fairy Wings
In this poor, shabby place, I barely keep well
as toxic airs trouble me to no end.
Midwinter here lacks hail or frost;
every evening, the south wind’s lukewarm.
Cane in hand, I descend to the courtyard’s edge
but my heels drag and I can hardly reach my gate.
At the gate is the Official of Cleared Lands
who comforts my drifting, withered spirit
when he tells me about a magic herb
nearby, in a field west of the Xiang River:
“Take the herb for no more than ten days
and your limps will become leaps and soars.”
I smile, clap, and hurry toward the official,
begging him to pull the plant at its roots for me.
Dense and lush, it soon fills my courtyard
with clusters of sudden, bright blossoms.
At dawn, I rise to pick and sun-dry them.
My pestle and mortar sound all through the night.
These mild fairy wings balance my insides—
the best place to treat an illness is at its source.
They scatter and oust my feverish mists
then, stretching, they cast off excess warmth.
If only I could prove this magic feat,
I wouldn’t need to keep buying sweet sedge.
I’ve heard of certain odd people’s skills,
how they can hold one breath half the night.
It requires them to breathe very deeply
while feeling the air flow up from their soles.
Self-indulgent, I’d have trouble with that,
so I’ll keep taking medicine instead.
Those who are paralyzed don’t forget to get up
and those who are poor say, “I must rise again,”
so come on, magic herb, help my feet,
make me lucky enough to run like a child!
 Liu might have composed this poem in 809 or 810. Fairy wings (Epimedium sp.) (the character [仙] in its name means “fairy” or “immortal”), also known as “horny goat weed,” refers to a genus of rhizomatous perennials in the barberry family (Berberidaceae). Most species are native to China, where the plant has a long history of medicinal use. In traditional Chinese medicine, doctors often prescribe recipes containing multiple ingredients. Fairy wings is included in recipes to strengthen bones and muscles, increase energy, and resolve erectile dysfunction, among other benefits.
Excerpted from The Poetic Garden of Liu Zongyuan by Liu Zongyuan, translated by Nathaniel Dolton-Thornton and Yu Yuanyuan. Copyright © 2022. Available from Deep Vellum.