My stepmother, a spunky woman, lived well into her late eighties. During the last years of her life she complained about her weakened memory and was concerned that she would lose her mind before her body. "Read poetry." I suggested. "Memorize them. They'll make your brain ache." Strangely, her ability to read and write English was diminishing with time, even though she had lived and worked in San Francisco for over half a century. "Read Chinese poems then. The 300 Tang Poems is a good start." She went to East Wind Books and found a very nice annotated edition.
In Hong Kong where I grew up we were taught to memorize famous poems and prose. It was a terrifying process where a student would be picked to stand up in a class of fifty and recite. I have forgotten all of these passages now, except for one.
2001. I was accepted into the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. During a traditional dinner at the residence of Oakley Hall (founder), we were asked to recite a poem not of our own. As we went around in a circle I was near panic. And then this little tiny poem slipped into my mind: Li Po's Night Thoughts, the first poem I learned as a child. I recited it in Cantonese. It was an emotional recitation as I reached back in time and touched the root that was my heritage.
Here's my translation of the poem:
Night Thought by Li Po
Moonlight casts on bed/ bemused as ground frost/ head tilt to bright moon/ bow to homeward thoughts.
My stepmother passed away two years ago. I kept her book of 300 Tang poems. It was bulked up with paper clips she had placed on the pages she liked.