Quiet Night Thoughts

by Li Bai (701-762),
translated by Talbot Hook

My bed looks over bright moonlight.
I muse: could it in fact be frost?
I lift my head and watch the moon;
I bow my head and think of home.


静夜思 , 李白




On Li Bai’s “Drinking Alone By Moonlight”

When we watch the moon together,
Picturing its solitary
Path across the sky, I wonder
Where our minds diverge. Are you
Thinking on our past or future?
Something past its bright appearance?
Mooncakes, tea, and poems waiting
Just inside to complement the
Perfect loneliness of summer’s
Passing? Maybe you’re just watching,
Me inventing all these theories.

Me? I tend to dwell in history:
Dynasties collapsing under
Full moon’s plenitude, legacies
Stretching back millennia to
Those who first ascribed a meaning
To the moon: prosperity or
Longing, family, abundance.
Always wanting something of the
Universe. And me? I guess I
Want something too. I want to
Know your mind, your dreams and musings.
What do you see in the moon now?

Setting down my cassia wine, we
Join hands, rising up together:
Laden moon, weary man, and my
Shadow, who has made us three.



Talbot Hook is a PhD student and occasional writer currently living in Connecticut.

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11 Responses

  1. Monika Cooper

    These are beautiful. The second one is quite a riddle, with an alternate pairing and unpairing that bewilders. Is the speaker addressing someone absent? I was comfortable with that, until the joining of hands at the end. Is he addressing his anima, his “shadow,” the hidden-from-him side of himself? I love the thinking about thinking that ripples through it all. It brings to mind Eliot’s question in The Waste Land: who is the third? And the weird passage of Little Gidding when the speaker speaks with a stranger: “He left me with a kind of valediction And faded on the blowing of the horn.” Also Wallace Stevens comes to mind, “The World as Contemplation,” where absence and presence interpenetrate. Or even “Nocturnal Upon St. Lucie’s Day.” It’s in that family. All the words are simple words but spun in a way to tease and trouble the brain.

    • Monika Cooper

      The brain is troubled here, by this, but the heart and soul are in peace and harmony, beauty and philosophy, pacified melancholy.

    • Talbot

      Thanks for both your kind words and interpretation, Monika. I’m afraid I have as few answers as you, though I will agree that the blurring of absence-and-presence is the critical mark of this poem. As whenever I read the Chinese greats, equanimity mixed with melancholy tends to be the dominate mood. Insofar as I was able to capture that, I’ll be content.

  2. Paul A. Freeman

    I enjoyed this, Talbot, hoping I correctly gather that ‘me’ ‘and me’ refers to the narrator and their shadow, the latter only appearing when the Moon’s about.

    I found this poem profound and fantastical. Thanks for the read.

    • Talbot

      Thanks for writing in, Paul. As with shadows under the moon, the “me” is without clear boundary and is thus perhaps a bit of both — perhaps slightly more the man trying to understand what his shadow’s about. Thanks again, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Margaret Coats

    Talbot, your poem made me think of the convention in painting that the moon is more beautiful with clouds passing over it. The illustration here has quite a lot of clouds rendered in broad wash strokes. You translate one Li Bai work beautifully, and move to another where the title gives the answer to how many are present. I recall Li Bai, moon, and shadow making three when he drinks alone. You make so much more of it. Forgetting the “alone,” I was being enchanted by poet-thinker and friend-companion viewing the moon together. This is such a lovely expression of the desire to know a friend more closely that I must refer it to an absent companion joined to the thinker by moonviewing at the same time. Can this really wonder what the shadow is thinking? That would have an application in self-knowledge, or in considering the varied strands of awareness ascending and receding within the thinker’s own mind, sometimes with two or more in the foreground at once. That’s supported by the thinker’s confession of history as prominent to him. But when we get to historical interpretations of the moon, maybe the moon itself is observing its viewers, and showing them a variety of concepts. Illuminating!

    • Talbot

      Dear Margaret, I tend to agree with you; something about the wispiness of clouds over the face of the moon tends to invite greater reflection than the moon on a clear night. The image chosen to augment my poem was thoughtful (for which I’m grateful). You’re right in your recollection. In that poem, Li Bai is drinking alone before he beckons the moon, which, with his shadow, makes them three. I’ve always found that a perfect line, so, in the tradition of Chinese hermit-poets writing to one another about (rather, through) the other’s work, I tried my hand at it, albeit in English. As Monika pointed out above, the unclear nature of absence and presence is the chief feature of this poem, right up there with introspection and awareness. As always, thanks for your thorough and thoughtful words.

  4. jd

    I believe the last time I read one of your poems I thought to myself that we would be blessed with your writing more than “occasionally”. That thought has been reinforced.

    • Talbot

      jd, thanks much for the kind words. When I can get in a few moments to write poetry, I tend to take the chance. Sadly, the PhD isn’t a beast that kindly admits of rivals . . . .

  5. ABB

    This is my favorite ‘Drinking by Moonlight’ rendition that I’ve read. Thank you for making this important poet more accessible to westerners.

    • Talbot

      Dear ABB, well, what can I say? That’s perhaps the highest praise one can give, given the abundance of translations of this poem (formal and informal) out there. Thanks much, and I’m very glad you enjoyed. I’m happy to be doing my part in spreading these works.


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