Here they stand: gardens and temples and the
reason for temples;
exact music and exact words;
the sixty-four hexagrams;
ceremonies, which are the only wisdom
that the Firmament accords to men;
the conduct of that emperor
whose perfect rule was reflected in the world,
which mirrored him,
so that rivers held their banks
and fields gave up their fruit;
the wounded unicorn that’s glimpsed again,
marking an era’s close;
the secret and eternal laws;
the harmony of the world.
These things or their memory are here in books
that I watch over in my tower.
On small shaggy horses,
the Mongols swept down from the North
destroying the armies
ordered by the Son of Heaven to punish their
They cut throats and sent up pyramids of fire,
slaughtering the wicked and the just,
slaughtering the slave chained to his master’s
using the women and casting them off.
And on the South they rode,
innocent as animals of prey,
cruel as knives.
In the faltering dawn
my father’s father saved the books.
Here they are in this tower where I lie
calling back days that belonged to others,
distant days, the days of the past.
In my eyes there are no days. The shelves
stand very high, beyond the reach of my years,
and leagues of dust and sleep surround the
Why go on deluding myself?
The truth is that I never learned to read,
but it comforts me to think
that what’s imaginary and what’s past are the
to a man whose life is nearly over,
who looks out from his tower on what once was
and now turns back to wilderness.
Who can keep me from dreaming that there was a
when I deciphered wisdom
and lettered characters with a careful hand?
My name is Hsiang. I am the keeper of the books—
these books which are perhaps the last,
for we know nothing of the Son of Heaven
or of the Empire’s fate.
Here on these high shelves they stand,
at the same time near and far,