Poetry on Heaven’s Scent: Environment & Integrity

Su Shih wrote a few poems about incense made from aloeswood, the most precious commodity on Hainan Island for Chinese traders in the mainland. He used incense as a symbol of integrity and cried out like an activist to protect the trees mocking petty officials’ offering to emperors like his lychee poetry.

Woods Hacked and Fell Like Blown Blossoms
Aloeswood Tree and poem

(Su was a visionary evironmentalist concerned with tree chopping  even over a thousand years ago. He was mocking the people who chopped down agarwoods to offer to the court so they would be favored.Since 1995 the evergreens producing the resin have been listed as potentially threatened species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.)


The rock of Aloeswood

“A cliff of lone peak leaning a long slab of rock like an inkwell
 we suspect it was sunk in deep water to get the treacherous hue.
Want to learn to sew orchid belts from the migrant?
Who would believe the young lad
has wood intestine and a stone heart?
I had encountered pine transformed to rock,
like jade with fragrance fending off evils.
If I had known hundred combats would extinct as ashes,
I would never trust words of man
that the weak can triumph over the strong.”
(There are a lot metaphors in this poem, he symbolized his integrity as jade with fragrance fending off evils. Yet he considered all his strife against evil went up in ashes against those in power.)

Incense and smoke (Incense Photo via 58.com)

  Ode to Incense

“Blow with the wind all over east and south,
 far reaching, more than what you can hear and think,
it makes your nose observe before enlightened.
Numerous scrolls of small scripts under a luminous window,
smoke vanished with a  joss stick of incense extinguished;
in mid course of life the body aging and mind in leisure.”
Embossed Incense
“Sandalwood waves spread fragrance overseas,
fumed with old cypress in west hill;
like delicious snails shelled and gathered,
dragons crowd in clouds blown into misty veil.
Incense mildly burning in flicker like a firefly.
When will the character embossed incense burn off?
Winding threads forever diverge and merge,
like silk floating in air dispersing mist enshrouded.
I hold this for your birthday,
we both serve the emperor’s ancestors,
along with scripts of Lao Tzu and Buddha
we strive in middle age to fend off flies and mosquitoes.
The late encounters in poetry and prose
would not be worth mentioning,
you follow the way of the most esteemed rulers in history,
I also beat the drum to discipline the army
and would not dare but be vigilant to repay the nation’s grace.
Just wish to be unfumed by the world,
but white hairs cannot be farmed.
When are you going to return home
and gather the scattered, deceased
and put in order the stranded and chaotic?
but this heart and mind had actually been fumed with incense,
the leisure minded scholar should have smelled it.”
(This is a poem Su wrote for the birthday of his brother also exiled on the shore just across the sea from Hainan Island. The flies and mosquitoes refer to the rascals their opponents manipulating the young emperor who did not really know what he was doing. They  both served three generations of emperors and empress dowagers who greatly valued their talents.)
Agarwood, also known as oud, oodh or agar, is a dark resinous heartwood that forms in  large evergreens native to southeast Asia when infected with a type of mould. The tree produces a dark aromatic resin in response to infection, which results in a very dense, dark, resin embedded heartwood. The resin is valued in many cultures for its distinctive fragrance and used for incense and perfumes.