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 understanding 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 would 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 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.
This poem, by Du Fu, China’s greatest poet, continues to haunt RT. The version below isn’t his first attempt at bringing the poem over into English, and certainly the poem’s reputation (its opening lines are generally considered to be the greatest ever written in Chinese poetry) has something to do with his interest. Or it may simply be that the poem is being given to RT slowly, line by line. An improvement over his previous attempt? RT will let his readers judge …
The Great Palace lies in ruins;
mountains reflect, rivers pass on.
In cities, weeds like silk pile up,
and rain slaps the flower’s cheek.
But enough of this!
Birdsong astonishes my heart.
Three months have passed
and still the beacon fires burn.
I’d pay pure gold for a letter.
Raking my head, exasperated,
I pull loose my scholar’s knot.
The hairpin dangles.
Painting: Emperor Xuanzong of Tang fleeing to Sichuan province from Chang’an; painter unknown. 11th century. WikiCmns. Public Domain.
Here are a set of haiku written in response to the emotional challenges RT has been facing over the last few months. To wit: RT’s mom has recently moved into a nursing home, where she is doing better. And not to worry: he is carrying on with a reasonable degree of calm. Sometimes it can help to share the more difficult moments …
panic’s steady undertow
love her! love her!
sirens in the driveway.
garbage bags on her bed
photos spill from a rip
copyright, 2016, The Rag Tree
Photo: Winter. GerFes. WikiCmns; Public Domain.