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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 ...

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poem for the Anthropocene

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

As Shakespeare once said
You can always take
Comfort not yet being dead  
But it's the same whirlwind
That keeps reappearing
Ominously overhead

Peak ignorance
Peak bliss
Is a Vaudeville routine
And the cognitive dissonance
Doesn't ever get
Any better than this
Present convergence
Of knowing and not
It's like being kept on hold
Endlessly by customer service 
Unsure whether the outage is local
Or civilization is that much
Closer to total collapse

Like a solar collector on a cloudy day
We all have lots of excess capacity
Just waiting around for
Sunnier days up ahead
But we'll never really 
Generate much positive energy
If the doom loop keeps playing
Inside our head

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



*  *  *  *  *

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.   

*  *  *  *  *

About the Gan Yu:  

Monday, February 18, 2019

Last Night 3 AM

Why believe me 
When I hardly believe myself
The truth of repose is diluted
When shared with anyone else

But for each of us alone
Sitting quietly on the mat
The center draws nearer as
The body settles in accord

Until suddenly the spine
Clicks straighter than before
And a golden hue emerges
From the energy restored

Then how deftly spirit slips
Free of its heavy overcoat
Stepping into the warmth
Of this inner tropic where

Now is the hereafter
Shining as if forevermore
And the Golden Light
Waxes and wanes
Across the transom
Of each breath

Writing about meditation seems like a hopeless task.  The truths available to us through meditation may be universal but it is nonetheless also a deeply personal experience that defies capture with the usual assortment of language tricks and games.  So why write about it?  At least for me, it has become an extension of the experience; the poem is part of the meditation process.  It's like second hand smoke or an echo that allows me to savor something of the original experience after the truth in the moment has faded.  

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Holding Hands in the Night

When I was a kid, no more than 13 or 14 years old, my first girlfriend - if you could call her that - offered me an invaluable lesson about life, although I didn't realize it at the time.  In fact, it's only now, a middle aged man (late middle aged, in point of fact) lying in bed with my wife in the middle of the night - it's only now that I've come to realize the lesson's full import.

Suzie was her name, cute as a button she was, with long blond hair, thick and long, cascading all the way down her back.  She was at least a year older than me, far more experienced in the ways of the world, though still virginic and regal in her bearing in point of fact.  We met at boarding school in the first and only semester of my soon-to-be-aborted boarding school career.

I was a wild one, a restless colt always pawing the dirt, and you can readily imagine how I would eagerly paw Suzie when we met on the great lawn usually a half an hour before lights out.  In an utterly becalming manner Suzie was able to still my ardor. We would stand in the dark together and hold hands.  She smiled beatifically as she explained that holding hands is a kind of sex all its own through which you can share and learn everything you need to know about someone else.

What did I know? Suzie would squeeze my hands hard enough to make them hurt, as all the energy flowed through us and filled up the night, making the stars shimmer with anticipation and desire just like a Van Gogh painting. And then the release as Suzie let go, and the energy reversed itself, making my very soul ache.

I knew less than nothing really but now, lying here in bed tonight, next to my wife whom I love with all my might, holding her hand as we lie awake in the night, I remember Suzie, and my youthful inchoate state, so impatient for life to begin, and I realize that Suzie was and still is absolutely right.

By Brad Melamed, from his 2017 series Extension Cords 

Handiwork is a distinguishing feature of our species and utterly indispensible to human civilization – the best we are capable of is most often a direct result of our manual labor.  Just think of all the creative energy that flows through our nimble forearms and down through our fingertips, making possible virtually all of our mechanical ingenuity and fine artistry – everything from deft needlepoint, drumming and guitar strumming to brain surgery and single stroke fresco mastery, we are unsurpassed in the range of what we can express and produce with our hands.  Which is not say that humans aren’t capable of great artistry even when our forelimbs are compromised by injury or birth defect, as the writer Christy Brown, who typed with his toes, demonstrated -- hands are by no means essential to our creative self-expression – it’s just that when we are ambidextrously blessed self-expression comes that much more readily to us – conveying our thoughts and feelings, whether through subtle brushstrokes or clamorously with castanets, by full and fruitful use of our two hands.

“Hands have their own histories, as the poet Rilke says. “They even have their own culture and their own beauty.  We grant them the right to have their own development, their own wishes, feelings, moods and occupations.”

So our hands are not just tools or implements that carry out the commands of our brains.  They are finely calibrated instruments in their own right, bundles of nerves not unlike antennae, through which we gather and impart information about the world.  Energy courses through us radially and passes out through our fingertips in an effortless way; but with a modicum of effort we can learn to control and better direct that flow; we can begin to wield our hands like batons or wands or dowsing rods, in order to conduct energy and impart a spark with or without directly touching whatever it is we’re working out.  They are essential conductors of human electricity – our primary means of positive exchange with the world, most of all life’s give and take.