Introspection has not been much in vogue for, well, the last four or five centuries, at least in the West, anyway. The man of thought has become the man of action, the one who changes the world, makes things better. As we head pell-mell into the post-digital, post-handwritten, robot-manufactured world, the question of just where we might be going should give us pause for thought. Certainly the notion that the very act of thinking could itself alter the world, build its complexity and beauty, and of course its wisdom, would meet with a sceptical response these days. Yet RT suspects that something like this approach lies close to the heart of Eastern religion and art. This is the world we dream of, the world which heals us and in which we have our true place. It is not magic, but a sense of a broader connection to our surroundings.
Du Fu seems to have started his career as a gifted poet, but one who had not met with profound suffering. The collapse of China in the mid-8th century forced him to flee the capital, and to confront in a basic way his life and the unfolding of history around him. Out of his despair he refashioned the possibilities of Chinese poetry, the Chinese people, and RT might argue, the possibilities of humanity as it today struggles with overwhelming change.
Winding River 1
a last petal falling marks the close of spring;
trees shed their 10,000 tears in contentious winds.
I’ll drink my wine, then, and examine
blossoms lying trampled in the mud.
and yet, in the abandoned riverside pavilion,
kingfishers flash and mate. At the foot
of high tombs in the park, stone unicorns
rest in conjugal silence.
all things live in their joy—
exiled from the palace, I wander,
Photo: Statues in the Imperial Tomb of Tang Emperor Gaozong. Zingaro. WikiCmns. CC BY 2.0.
Poems have a shaggy-dog quality; RT never knows just what may show up at his front door next. This particular inspiration began to emerge shortly after a manuscript discussion group featuring some old poetry buddies, a situation well-known among scribblers to produce new work. And it’s been a while since any critter, however shaggy, has come to RT’s attention. And so, with a brief nod of thanks to the muse:
*****It’s always 2 o’clock.
You told the lady a lie,
shed the skin of indifference.
The moment will not end,
hissing, sliding, ash ragged in
the air. The cherub is gone.
It’s still 2 o’clock, damn them.
They’ve taken your feet, your arms,
your teeth rotten with venom.
*****So what about the fruit?
*****Of course they wanted a bite, naked
down in the hollow of truth.
3 o’clock and
the cherub, head smashed, lies
half-buried in sand. The ones that burn say:
How could you? You blink. Those are
your teeth sown in the ground, your words
*****winding across the page.
Photo: Amulet of Mithras Slaying the Bull and the God Abraxas (Walters 42868). 3rd century. Walters Museum of Art. WikiCmns; CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.
RT was 26 when this photograph was taken; Ronald Reagan was 76; Nancy Reagan, 65; Bill Clinton, 40; Hillary Clinton, 39. Wikipedia reports: In 1900, non-Hispanic whites comprised almost 97% of the population of the 10 largest American cities. By 2006, non-Hispanic whites had dwindled to a minority in 35 of the nation’s 50 largest cities. In 2000, the U.S. population stood at 281 million; today, it is estimated to be 324 million (a 15% increase). In 1990, 86% of the U.S. population was Christian; that figure has since dropped to 70%. Finally, the Pew Research Center reports that the purchasing power of American workers has remained essentially unchanged since 1964.
Certainly a lot to think about, and that is one of the reasons that RT supports Hillary Clinton in Tuesday’s presidential election. The country is in the middle of a sweeping transformation that has generated deep-seated panic and anger among Americans. What is needed at a moment like this is clear thinking.
Of course, at some level, the United States has always been about change, hopefully in the form of progress, though our country’s history demonstrates that that can take its own sweet time. Something new is struggling to be born, but that is always the case.
Look hard at the usual answers. Don’t just create jobs, create prosperity. Don’t build a wall, create a just and generous guest worker program. Work to make sure that taxes pay for necessary services that individual states and private foundations, however wealthy, simply can’t afford to fund. Above all, work to create mutual understanding and cooperation, i.e., plain old goodwill. That is challenge and achievement enough.
We are all federalists, we are all republicans, as Thomas Jefferson once put it. If the other party’s candidate gets elected, exercise your right to protest, to have your grievances and opinions heard. But also do your best to hear and respond to the legitimate worries and priorities of the other side.
And by the way, RT urges everyone to vote. Take the day off, if you have to. Elections, after all, are important.
RT thinks that Hillary Clinton is by far the better candidate. Her abilities and achievements speak for themselves. But if Donald Trump should win on Tuesday, he will not go running to the post office to get a passport application. RT believes in the system, with all its flaws and failures. It has given us our first black president, and, he thinks, it will soon give us the first woman in the oval office. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
Photo: President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton attending the Dinner Honoring the Nation’s Governors. 22 February 1987. Reagan Library Archives. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Halloween, the Day the Dead Walk; RT has been dealing with some ghosts of his own as we approach the end of the Celtic year, which may explain why out of the blue he checked out Larry McMurtry’s fine short biography of Crazy Horse, the famous Sioux warrior. Not much is known about Crazy Horse himself (though we do know that he was averse to being photographed), but quite a bit is known about the Sioux people and their struggle to save their land and way of life from encroaching settlers. And perhaps no survival from that long fight is more remarkable than this group portrait of many of the principal Sioux leaders. Though these men were active for decades, they are best remembered for their participation in the famous Great Sioux War of 1876, which gave us the Battle of the Little Bighorn, aka Custer’s Last Stand.
Hold on to your hats, folks, here they are:
To give the reader some idea of the scope of these men’s lives, RT offers a pair of brief biographical notes:
Red Cloud (1822-December 10, 1909). Best known as the leader of Red Cloud’s War (1866-1868); fought to protect the Powder River country from encroachment by whites. The Sioux were victorious, in particular winning the Fetterman Fight, one of the worst defeats the U.S. Army experiencing during its struggle with the Sioux. Also prominent as a negotiator and diplomat on behalf of the Sioux, including the negotiation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868).
Young Man Afraid Of His Horses (1836-July 13, 1893). Fought during Red Cloud’s War. A prominent Indian negotiator, active until the end of the Sioux wars in the early 1890s and especially in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
As the Dakota access pipeline protests bear witness to, the long struggle of the Sioux to preserve their traditional way of life is not yet over.
Photograph: Red Cloud and Other Sioux. circa 1860-1880. Library of Congress. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
RT has been resolutely ignoring his creative impulses (such as they were) in the face of the many tasks (not the least of which is grieving) that have followed on his mother’s death. Resolutely ignoring, that is, until a spontaneous visit to his local bookstore brought him face-to-face with an alluring poem by Kameda Bosai, a Japanese poet (or rather, scholar and literati painter) that RT had never heard of before. Well, the temptation proved too much for the sterner angels of RT’s nature, and he offers the results of his latest foray into translation below. He knows that mom would approve.
old trees crimson at spring’s glance;
waterfalls icy, smash and echo.
imagine a mountain hermit swaying,
collapsing into laughter. water-stars, wind.
(Dedicated to Andy and Janet)
RT has bursitis in his left hip. It’s an occupational hazard for those over 50, and he is treating it with ice and exercise. Unfortunately, he hasn’t found a chair that doesn’t contribute to the problem, but the long-delayed trip to Lowe’s should take care of things.
And in the meantime, he is beginning to work on a new collection of poetry, Naming the Spirit. RT had thought that this would be a relatively straightforward affair, but realities such as grief and a larger and more diverse collection of written materials than he had realized are complicating matters. And maybe they should. Additional materials may be forthcoming, if only to balance out the book’s rather somber tone. Grief after all is a kind of healing.
Here are a trio of short poems, the first two fairly old, and brighter in tone than not.
Should I take a shower?
Dirt under my fingernails,
and I feel alive.
not many places allow
a man to be beautiful
shoe laces undone.
deep mud—slipping, left leg splayed…
undamaged at 56.
Illustration: Shoelace Knot; AnonMoos. WikiCmns; Public Domain.
Glanum? Ambrussum? Vaison-la-Romaine? Somewhere in Provence, in any case. RT has a distant but distinct memory of seeing an ancient Greek city while on vacation back in the mid-1970s. The site was small and gorgeous, oval-shaped ruins of marble sited among pine trees, not far from the sea. What made the experience especially memorable was the guide’s report of the city’s population, as high as one or two thousand people, if RT recalls correctly. And all of them sheltered in a space about half the size of a football field.
Now, RT, car-less as he often has been in his life, is doing a great deal of walking these days. It takes him about 45 minutes to walk into town by the legal but indirect route. He is actually fairly lucky, since a bike path constitutes part of the trek. At least on this section, he doesn’t have to worry about getting hit by a car. Still, there is something distinctly humbling about walking along the path, which lacks shade trees, park benches, and water fountains, while cars zoom past on the other side of the grass border. His almost daily excursions make him wonder what life would be like if we still lived in pre-industrial communities. Or, to put it another way, could we get rid of cars?
Here are some facts: ancient Rome at its height (population 1 million) occupied about 5 and ½ sq. miles; Manhattan could hold six cities that size. Nearly all Romans lived in concrete and brick apartment buildings (called insulae), some of them nine stories high; apartments of 1,000 sq. ft. (about the size of a modern 1-bedroom apartment) housed families of five or six people. Most of these apartments offered running water. Romans went to great lengths (pardon the pun) via their aqueducts to ensure water quality—and their diet in many ways appears superior to ours. Those who survived into their teens (infant and child mortality were very high), often lived to be 60.
So far, things sound pretty good. Now back to walking: horses were expensive, and carriages for the rich. Though vehicles could be hired for transport (some featuring primitive odometers), nearly everyone walked everywhere.
RT will let readers draw their own conclusions. What remains with him is the memory of a beautiful city in Provence, built to human scale; human-powered; and healthy, communal, and intimate in a way hard to imagine in our own lives. It’s a beautiful day; let’s walk to the store.