Yellow Bird


Jiao. Jiao. The strange call outside my window.

The italicized lines comprise my translation (not of that sound). The original was composed more than two thousand years ago.

交交黃鳥、止于棘。            Yellow bird, yellow bird, flitting to the thorn.
誰從穆公、子車奄息。        Who follows Duke Mu? Yanxi of Ziche.

Fifty years ago, near my father’s hometown, they discovered Duke Mu’s tomb.

維此奄息、百夫之特。        Yanxi of Ziche, he’s worth a hundred men.
臨其穴、惴惴其慄。            But here at the pit, he shakes.

His tomb, for one person, was a grave for two hundred people. Most had been chosen by Duke Mu to accompany him in his departure, which is to say, for human sacrifice.

臨其穴、惴惴其慄。            But here at the pit, he shakes.

I imagine Yanxi standing there, waiting his turn. His face is turned downward. That is an important detail.

The Zuozhuan (ca. 400 BC) contains the earliest interpretation: “Yanxi… [had been] among the finest men of the state. In grief, the men of the state composed the poem ‘Yellow Bird.’”

彼蒼者天、殲我良人。        Heaven, you take my fine man,
如可贖兮、人百其身。        for whom I’d give a hundred men!

交交黃鳥、止于桑。            Yellow bird, yellow bird, flitting to the mulberry

The poem, like others of its time, relies heavily on repetition. It consists of three stanzas that repeat almost verbatim. Each summons the yellow bird and names a “fine man” picked for sacrifice. But the yellow bird flits to a different place in each stanza: thorn, briar, and mulberry.

The thorn is where a butcher bird impales its prey: insects, small mammals, and smaller birds.

A briar is full of thorns. The word for briar could have been translated to pain.

The mulberry tree grows thorns the length of my fingernail. I remember breaking off a leaf and seeing the upwelling from the green stem, a white sap on my hand.

My fine man, which repeats three times, also translates as my husband.

Every act of translation is a revision.

For example, the first words to the poem is actually an onomatopoeia that mimics the bird’s cry: Jiao. Jiao. Because jiao rhymes with the word for bird, niao, I opted for the repeated apostrophe of yellow bird in my translation and moved its cry

into this poem, to its beginning.

The first notable revision to the Yellow Bird poem occurred seven hundred years after its composition.

Zheng Xuan (127 – 200 CE) wrote: “To ‘follow’ means to ‘commit suicide in order to go with in death.’”

This gloss became highly influential. It implied that the deaths were, in some way, voluntary.

Ying Shao (d. ca. 200 CE) wrote: “Duke Mu of Qin, merry after a drinking bout with a large group of followers, exclaimed: ‘If we can share such love in life, let us also share sorrow in death.’ Thereupon, Yanxi, Zhonghang, and Qianhu pledged themselves. When the Lord died, they all went with him in death.”


臨其穴、惴惴其慄。            But here at the pit, he shakes.

Now I imagine Yanxi standing on the edge of it all. Face turned downward, he is concentrating, in a kind of argument, until his shaking stops.

In this translation, he even smiles.

Though each act of translation is a revision, it can also be considered a perversion.

The word revision has its root in re- (again) and visere (to see). Perversion comes from per-(away) and vertere (to turn). Therefore, while revision consists of looking, perversion is an action of the body.

The action of the body is linked to the eyes through desire and love.

Most cultures contained elements of human sacrifice, even more than love. In Abrahamic religions, the account of Isaac’s narrow escape from his father Abraham could be its revision.

Here is a possible earlier example:

Again, a man is standing on the edge. Face turned downward. He has just made an offering to God, dismissed without explanation.

He looks, a revision, at what he had offered and feels a sudden apathy towards those burnt vegetal things, as towards a weed. A briar.

It was true that he did not love them.

What could he offer that he loved? He is feeling his way through his mind with his body.

The lambs instinctively turning their mouths up, suckling for a white sap.

His brother—many years ago—suckling their mother’s milk. The insistent mouth searching for its source, turning, vertere, even in his smaller arms.

His eyes flitting as a bird

to a thorn

to his brother, whose body he had often looked at: a fine man. The shadows under the shepherd’s fine browned skin.

Cain’s voice was, I think, thick with what we could call

love as he called: come with me

come with me into the field.

Angelo Mao is a biomedical scientist. His first book of poems is Abattoir (Burnside Review Press, 2021). His poetry and reviews have appeared in Poetry, Georgia Review, Lana Turner, and elsewhere. He is also a poetry editor for DIALOGIST.