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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 ...

Monday, December 26, 2016

Western Civ. Briefly Engaged

Long Island extends eastward
Like a shadow lengthens before sunset
Out along the continental shelf
And there we gayly disport ourselves
East of Moloch the capital city
On this fertile sandbar
Where Eukarpia still
Daily touches down
And busies herself
Weaving intricate patterns
To adorn our parapets and walls 

Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Gift on Christmas Morning

Is there any difference really
Between me and the sparrow
Who has come to peck 
At the seed Marissa spread
Yesterday across the back yard 
Both of us living 
Precariously and at the largesse 
Of a munificence far beyond
Our comprehension
Which lies before us on
The rime crusted ground
Every step it seems
Another morsel found

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve - Slack tide at the Market

Christmas has come again
To Long Island's East End
The lines at the market
Are spilling over with cheer
Through the saccharine sounds
Of the Yuletide carolers
A yogurt and sour cream comes
Directly from Santa to me
Every day is a gift or
So I've come to believe

It's been another year of living
Scot free in this intertidal zone
The royalty checks have yet
To start clearing but still
There's no rollers breaking
From here to the Inlet
And from there on out
Past the final buoy there's
Not a ripple to be seen

On a day like this
When it gets so slack
You can hear the long
Withdrawing roar of ebb tide
Even standing here
Way up the Creek bed while
Thinking about Dover Beach
High and dry and waiting
On the check out line

Monday, December 19, 2016

Spontaneous Verse - a poem for Yang Guifei

Part of the legend surrounding Li Bai, the Immortal Poet, is the way he often composed poems spontaneously,  sometimes when he was deep in his cups.  By some accounts, he ended up being expelled from the Tang court when one of his drunken compositions gave offense to the Emperor's favorite concubine, Yang Guifei.

But according to my friend Steve Zhang, Li Bai was not alone in this mode of composition - extemporaneous verse was an accepted part of Tang poetic practice; at their 8th century poetry slams, the Tang poets would routinely pass the bottle and take turns composing new stanzas of regulated verse. Whether some of their couplets had been composed previously and then merely recited later on is of course difficult if not impossible to say, then or now.  But in any event, the idea of spontaneous composition apparently represented something of an ideal in terms of the purity of self-expression that it enabled a poet to achieve, much as it still does today I might add, at least among free style rap artists and others (such as myself) inclined to the belief that the best poems are those that require the least revision.

A poem may write itself
Coming effortlessly
As in a dream unprompted or
Brought by wind and driving rain
Translating the entire world
Into its own pure stream

Or as a travel advisory
For Inauguration Day
La que esta en el medio -
Best look lively  
Ready to leap quickly
Out of the Wall Builder's way

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Pseudoreality Prevails

In the Hour of the Peacock
A man without qualities
Has no need to feel
Out of place

What the world
Extorts from us
Is paid over in
Our inordinate fear
Of losing face

*  *  *  *  *

Something I stumbled on recently prompted me to start reading The Man Without Qualities.  It's a phenomenal book, albeit one that seems to have slipped through the cracks of the 20th century, never quite receiving the attention it merits.  It's also a book with strong resonance to our own time.  The story is set in Vienna on the eve of the first World War although it was written in the post-War years, when the collapse of the Hapsburg Empire was already an accomplished fact and Mittel Europa had all but surrendered to fascism's embrace.  In other words, it's a novel about the confusions and delusions attendant upon the collapse of a liberal social order.  

Pseudoreality Prevails is the subtitle of the book's long middle section, a phrase which easily could be invoked as a moniker for our present day.   Understood in this light, today's political crisis is only a symptom of a much deeper malady -- a rift in our most basic assumptions about the world and our place in it.  It's a crisis which is expressed in the proliferation of fake news and the dearth of real news, which after a while corrodes our sense of reality itself.  Reality TV has emerged as the preferred mode of discourse, the lingua franca for the newly emergent class of those who aspire to the ranks of world leadership.

Hail to our new Caeser
Who glides so readily
On the surface of things
Well attendant to ratings

It’s one thing
To be so transparent
In your self-regard
And quite another to
Be so full of cunning

Yet ever since
The fall of the Republic
The noble Romans
Knew something was
Amiss what with 
The gilded tower and
The tinsel rings waiting
To be kissed

* * * * *

And here is a great quote from The Man Without Qualities which sums up our present moment with far greater depth than I have yet to hear from any pundit in the main stream media:

In love as in business, in science as in the long jump, one has to believe before one can win and score, so how can it be otherwise for life as a whole? However well founded an order may be, it always rests in part on a voluntary faith in it, a faith that, in fact, always marks the spot where the new growth begins, as in a plant; once this unaccountable and uninsurable faith is used up, the collapse soon follows; epochs and empires crumble no differently from business concerns when they lose their credit.


Thursday, December 8, 2016

The Dream of Icarus Rising

Today is Bodhi Day.  I awoke from a dream and sat down at the computer keyboard at 4.44 am.  I had been dreaming about flying.  This has been a recurring dream throughout my life, although it is the first dream of this sort that I have had in many years.  Still I remember these flying dreams over the course of many years, going back to early childhood.  They were always vivid and gripping.  No matter how inscrutable they seemed at the time, they always brought a sense of succor and relief.  To be possessed of such a power, even if only in a dream state, provided me with deep and abiding comfort, like a guiding assurance in the middle of the night, one way or another, that everything was going to be alright.  

In my dream this morning, just as I was waking up, I remember sitting perched atop a wall.  The police and various others were in pursuit.  The wall was about 15 feet high.  In other words, it was just high enough it would likely prove suitable to use for take off, that being a height from which I am normally able (in a dream state) to leap and achieve flight.  But perched on the wall this morning, I also realized I would likely have survived if I tumbled instead of soared.  

Now after all these years I finally understand what these flying dreams are about.  I’ve cracked the code as it were of my own codex.  This is both liberating and terrifying. Mystery and enigma being our most reliable means of self-support, who will protect a spirit that finally comprehends itself?  

The dream of flying, I now realize, is a dream about immortality.  Flying is an expression of the spirit’s longing for eternity.  And here I am, on Bodhi Day, perched on top of a 15 foot wall preparing myself for whatever comes next.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Preparing for our Tang poetry podcast I found this translation from a few years back of a short poem by Li Bai.    It's another fine example of Li Bai's genius.  This Lament is a poem of great restraint.  It is also a poem about restraint.  This is essential to understanding Li Bai’s greatness  – how perfectly he matches words to meaning, making the poem an even more accurate reflection of the experience it’s meant to convey.

I have seen a few other translations of this poem that don’t quite capture the delicacy of the image in the first line.  The literal text reads – beautiful person rolls pearl curtain.  One of the standard translations of this line by Witter Bynner is –

How beautiful she looks, opening the pearly casement

In other words, in Bynner’s translation the woman who is the subject of the poem is literally standing in front of a pearl curtain or window sash of some sort.  Of course, that’s perfectly possible but I prefer to read the pearl curtain more as a metaphor for the tears themselves as they roll down her cheeks.  

Now I really don’t mean to criticize Bynner by pointing out this difference.  In fact, both literal and metaphorical readings are possible.  That’s part of the challenge and pleasure of translating classical Chinese poems into English – the compaction of the grammar and the density of the literary allusions in the original poems make precision in translation impossible.  And one thing I hope English readers can come to appreciate – sometimes by comparing various translations of the same poem, sometimes by looking to the literal translation as well – is that the original poems themselves have this richness and complexity, as all truly great poems do.   

Please indulge me in one more bit of explanation about my reading of this poem.  I said at the outset I think this is a poem about restraint.  We usually think about crying as a display of emotion but part of what I love about this poem and about the image of a pearl curtain or curtain of tears, is that it conceals just as much as it reveals, a realization which is perfectly suited to the poem’s last line – the heart’s unknowingness which could be referring to the heart of the poet, the heart of the lady (who could be confused about whether she hates her lover, herself or some rival) or the reader’s, or all hearts, for that matter, such being the nature of a true lament.  Again, this is an ambiguity much more easily rendered in Chinese than in English.

Down her lovely face
The screen of pearls unfurls

Deeply creased in a frown
Her brow flutters like a moth

But see how the tears
Only leave a faint trace

And the heart remains unknowing
Just whom it is she hates



* * * *

Monday, December 5, 2016

Remembering the Eastern Ranges

Li Bai was my first great love among the Tang poets.  It was an intense albeit brief affair.  I was swept away by the grandeur of his spirit.  I stumbled along with him upstream, transported by the pull of the moonlight, in search of the origin or elixir of God-only-knows what.   Not that I remember either of us finding anything of the sort, but every once in a while I feel drawn back to join him for another look.

Today is one of those days.  I've had a chance to reacquaint myself with some of Li Bai's great poems, as I've been preparing to record a podcast with my friend Steve Zhang about his work.  I decided to translate one of Li Bai's better known poems - long one of my favorites - as a way of reconnecting with my dear old friend, the 诗仙 or Immortal Poet.  For me this poem epitomizes the essence of his great spirit - a spontaneous lyric suffused with the deepest Daoist mystery.

* * * * *

Remembering the Eastern Ranges

Not facing
The eastern ranges
For so long
Where the roses abound
And pass through
Their bloom

The white clouds
Gather and disperse
Of their own volition
The bright moon
Declines over
A house unknown

Today I join with
The Duke's dancers
With a long sigh
Into the crowd
I'm submerged

Longing to reclaim
The eastern ranges
To throw open the gates
And sweep away
Those white clouds

    *  *  *  *  *