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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sea Conditions are Calm

Sea conditions are calm
Only moderate chop
To walk on the ferry
By a car or a plan
Except to disembark
At a distant port
Without a care

The engine stirs
From deep within
Throttling in reverse
My entire body trembles
With a hum that originates
From far underneath the deck

Sunday Morning Reply to Mary Oliver

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

     -- Mary Oliver

Each day awaking reincarnate
Each day a lifetime unto itself
Wild and precious but far from singular
Across many oceans of lifetimes
We add to the carapace of karma
We carry along on our backs

Friday, March 8, 2019

Each Tree That Speaks to Me (for Marissa)

Each tree speaks to me
More or less
Nothing but a cloven root
That has chosen thus to
Grasp at soil and such and
Address itself skyward
Here and now

So we too have planted ourselves
With each new painting or poem
More or less effectively
Recorded in paper string or stone
The tropes of our inner light
In search of its outward form
Our bark itself starts quivering at
First hint of the approach of dawn

The Fine Art of Translating Silence

As Zhuang Zhou said one day to Guan Yin
The better part of any translation
Lies in words left unsaid
The fortune still inside the cookie
Half-baked inside my head
And so it is with the fine art
Of translating silence

Implicit trumps explicit
Everyday of the week
Except Sunday
Or whatever day
It happens to be when
You first wake up and find
Your inner and outer beauty
Already in perfect conformity

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Our Daily Chleb

Chleb – the polish word for bread
Sounds equally inviting to my ear
As our native English sound
One of the first five or ten words
I ever learned to say
A source of pleasure
Best savored in the flesh
Bringing forth a glottal hum 
From deep in your throat
So deep in your chest too
Especially sinking your teeth
Into a fresh dark loaf
So sign and signified derive 
Their mutual strength
From the same root source --
The chakra of life itself
That sprouts from the ground
And you carry home underarm
But to speak of it still is
The least of its charm

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Good News and Bad News

There's good news
And bad news and
Sometimes it turns out
They are one and the same

It's the same whirlwind
That keeps reappearing
Periodically overhead

Though this time it seems
Customer service
Has finally admitted
The outage is far from local
If you get what I mean

Meanwhile the
Helicopters have begun
Circling ominously

Like a solar collector on a cloudy day
We've all got lots of excess capacity
We’re just waiting around
For sunnier days up ahead
And we just can't wait to get
The current news cycle
Out of our heads


Monday, February 25, 2019

Gan Yu 6 - Chen Z'iang

Gan Yu – 6

I beheld the Dragon pass
Through the Cycle of Changes
To the point of knowing
The essence of the Yang
And also traveled to
Darkest depths of the
Stone Forest and into
The Cave’s deepest recess
Of which no record remains

Such was the knowledge
Of the ancients
Who attained the Way
Through living in the realm
Of cosmic Union and Change
They attained Dark Mysteries
Beyond ordinary comprehension

Today how can we begin to fathom
Such profound darkness
When the common sort are
Constrained by plain sight
Or act as if drunk with delight
In their pursuit of the Immortal Elixir
But on Kun Lun Mountain
There is a Tree of Jasper
To calmly pluck its fruit
It takes a hero



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The Gan Yu by Chen Zi'ang is a remarkable collection of 38 poems that were written in the earliest years of the Tang period. Often overlooked even by scholars of Chinese literature, these poems have remained somewhat overshadowed by the brilliance of the later Tang poets, such as Wang Wei, Li Bai and Du Fu, who came to prominence over the course of the ensuing years of the 7th and 8th centuries.  

A few years ago I translated most of the poems from Chen Zi'ang's Gan Yu cycle and recently I’ve had a chance to revisit the material.    In some ways these poems present a challenge to the translator and modern reader because they are steeped in Daoist wisdom and mystery, containing many references to people, places and events from China’s rich historical and spiritual past, some real, some legendary, often a mixture of both.  For instance the Kun Lun mountains mentioned in the last stanza are located in the heart of Daoist Paradise and the Stone Forest mentioned in the first stanza (shown in the photo above) is located in current day Yunnan Province.  In the world of the Gan Yu – both the mountains and the forest enjoy this remarkably complex status – being part of a landscape that is legendary, mysterious and vividly real at the same time. 

For me this is precisely how and why the Gan Yu poems come to life.  They are filled with metaphorical richness, not so much as a matter of literary or poetic technique, but as a matter of the poet’s personal beliefs.  In other words, the world as the poet encounters and describes it is everywhere rich in portent and meaning.  Daoist poetry, for that reason, cannot be fully appreciated separate and apart from Daoist cosmology.

Gan Yu, by the way, may be literally translated as “feelings encountered along the way.”  I’m not aware of any use of these two characters in the title of a Chinese poem prior to Chen Z’iang, but thereafter Gan Yu begins to appear in the work of other poets, becoming something of a sub-genre or distinctive style of poem.   Here for instance is a fine Gan Yu poem by another Tang poet – Zhang Jiu Ling, which I previously published on the blog.

The voice or style of a Gan Yu poem is both personal and contemplative – and is particularly well suited to a poet who is prone to musing in a spiritual vein.  I think John Donne is an example of an English language poet who writes Gan Yu's to great success.   Personally, I’m very fond of the Gan Yu, and I think it’s been an important influence in my own writing, having attempted a number of Gan Yu poems of my own over the years – for example my Gan Yu 24 here,  and A Poem About the Gan Yu here and another Gan Yu poem here.   

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About the Gan Yu: