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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 ...

Saturday, September 18, 2021

The Translation Game

One way to understand translation is that it's the opposite of writing or its mirror image. When you write, you start with a truth that’s inside you, and you use language to try and expose it to the outside world. When you translate, you start with an outside truth that’s given to you, and you must internalize it through the medium of language. Translation in that way is just a deeper form of reading, an attempt to go beyond a shallow understanding of what someone else has said by memorializing it in words that ring true to your own ear.

Red Pine, who is one of my favorite translators of Chinese poetry, has said that there are as many translations of a Chinese poem as there are translators. That's really a definitional observation and leads us to the understanding that there is no such thing as a definitive translation.  To take this thought a bit further, translation is certainly not a science, nor do I think of it as an art so much as it is a fundamental part of the human condition. We are forever translating, whether we realize it or not, the web of language that surrounds us into our personal idiom.

We pursue truth the way a hunter chases after game, except that truth is far more elusive than even the fleetest doe or buck.  No matter how many arrows we shoot, they always fall short of the mark, until we learn to shoot in the dark and with no arrows at all take aim.  Writing and translating happen through the medium of language but the truths we pursue reside in wordless silence and ultimately that’s where they always remain.

My new book of translations of Chinese poetry

called The Poetry of Awakening is now available

in paperback.  You can find it on Amazon (if you

don't mind abetting monopoly power) or on Barnes & Noble.

*  *  *  *  *

"There's something wrong here. Translating Chinese poetry isn't supposed to be this much fun" 

     --  Red Pine

When I finished the manuscript for this book, I sent a copy to Red Pine and he was kind enough to provide me with this blurb quote.  My editor, Marc Estrin, decided not use it on the book jacket because he thought it didn't recommend or illuminate the book to potential readers.  This is one case in which I find myself disagreeing with Marc.  Red Pine's blurb reads to me as high praise, at least when I translate it into my personal idiom.  Translating these poems was close to pure delight for me, and I hope at least part of that joy comes through for readers.    

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

I Hear the Spinning Earth (for @duanetoops)

Waking from a dream last night
I heard the earth's gears turning
And ringing in my ears or maybe
It was a high pitched sonic wind
Blowing steady through the trees

Pfizer and Merck might try
To medicalize this condition
But to hear the earth 
Spinning no fearful thing
It's a dizziness to be savored
Like a theremin on a planetary 
Scale the world hums as it spins

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Poetry of Awakening

Every day the same routine, as Layman Pang put it, only with myself in harmony, not right or wrong but abiding.  Today's routine is only different for me because it's the publication date for my new book, The Poetry of Awakening, an anthology of Tang spiritual poetry, The collection includes translations of 78 poems by more than a dozen Daoist and Buddhist poets, illuminating this unique tradition in which poetry merges with spiritual practice.  Layman Pang's poem about his daily routine served as the inspiration for me over the last half dozen years, as I plugged away reading and translating these wonderful poems.

I'm deeply grateful to Marc Estrin and Donna Bister of Fomite Press for their patience, encouragement and invaluable help, without which I would most likely never have seen this project through to completion, and most certainly never would have been able to produce such a handsome book.  This is the first time I have had the chance to work with a publisher in producing one of my books, and despite all my  misgivings about losing control over the process, there's no doubt it pays to have the very best professional help.  

Some but not all of these translations have already been published here on my blog.  But in case you're interested in having a copy to carry along on your next mountain trek or meditation retreat, you can buy it now on Amazon (if you don't mind abetting monopoly power), or pre-order it from Barnes & Noble.  

Here's an excerpt from the preface that explains a bit about what I find so compelling about this poetic tradition:

The poems I've chosen to translate and bring together in this collection were written in China during the first millennium of the Common Era.  They include poems by a diverse group of writers, many of them Buddhists of one stripe or another, others Daoists or fellow travelers of the Buddhist faith.  But even among those who identified as practicing Buddhists, it may be misleading to suppose much commonality of faith: Buddhist spiritual beliefs and practices in China evolved considerably over the course of the centuries in which these poems were written.  Some of the poets collected here were renowned and avowedly secular, while others lived as reclusive hermits, and still others took up orders and lived as members of a monastic community.

Diverse as this grouping of poets may be, and divergent as their life experiences and doctrinal beliefs were, the poems here represent a singular and quite remarkable poetic tradition, which I refer to as the poetry of awakening. The common aspiration was to express through poetry the nature of spiritual awakening, as they experienced it in their own lives.  These are personal poems, deeply felt, which makes them accessible, even thought they speak to us from a distant time and strange culture, and address the loftiest and most abstruse of themes.

At bottom, this tradition rests on an unresolvable paradox.  The assumption (often explicitly stated) of these poets is that the experience of spiritual awakening is incapable of being expressed in words, no matter how artfully a poem may be crafted.  The insights possessed by the awakened mind and heart simply fall beyond the capacity of language.  Why write such poetry at all, then?  Part of the wonder of this tradition is the continued striving to give voice to the inexpressible. The tension wrapped up in this paradox confers to the poems' spiritual depth and power.

Something else I find distinctive about this mode of living and writing is the fusion of poetry and spirituality into part of an integrated practice.  At their best, these poems are not simply exercises of poetic imagination, nor are they merely descriptive of the poet's spiritual life.  They seem directly integrated into the process of spiritual exploration and experience.  Poetry becomes the practice.   


Sunday, September 12, 2021

September Wind

 With a named storm

500 miles offshore today

The whole lawn is trembling

Quivering with pleasure really

In response to the stiff breeze

Its the affinity between

All living things

The same wind that

Lifts the dandelion spores

And choeographs the dance

Of the trees

Beguiles the whole world

Into a new form

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Poem for a Cloud Passing Overhead Near the End of Summer

Falling deeper into reverie
I get a glimpse of it yet
A summer breeze stirs
Across the lawn
Just as vision returns and
A cloud whispers overhead

Poems within poems 
In the things
A great poet never said
Human nature is the container
Our experience flows
Into continuously 

All the signals received
That were never sent
The ghost in the machine
That keeps us busy guessing at
Whatever might have been meant

Friday, September 3, 2021

I Slowed for Death

I slowed for Death
But he did not stop for me 
Today on the Expressway
Halfway to my destination 
I came upon the hulk of a car 
On the shoulder in flames   
Its paint blistering  
A black cloud billowing 
As it dispersed overhead

In the snarl of traffic
A sleek black sedan  
Had eased in behind me  
Its headlights flashing
Signaling me to uncertain end 
Death it seemed expected me
To pull over next

Soon as the roadway cleared
I sped away 
Pushing 75 then 80
Hoping to put some room
Between me and that black sedan   
Yet all the while it 
Stayed on my tail
Headlights flashing
And I felt my chest tighten
As I eyed the rearview

I slowed to 60 then 55
Unsure what to do next  
Until suddenly the sedan 
Veered into the passing lane
And the driver threw me
A sidelong glance
Graciously doffing his cap
Before speeding ahead 

Letting me know that surely  
We shall meet again some day
Towards my journey's end 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

What's Vladimir Doing Here

What's Vladimir doing here
I asked myself Wednesday
Exactly that question passing
Through Fremont Square

Vladimir and his pointy cap
So jaunty and free
What's up with that
Can you answer me

Everyone has an origin story
So unique we seem to be
But ultimately we're just the same
Despite all our idiosyncrasies
At least that's what 
Vladimir says to me


Tuesday, July 13, 2021

For the Love of LIfe in All its Forms

I stand at the kitchen sink
The dirty dishes piled high
And marvel at my son's banter
With his daughter
Over the changing table

How the tables have turned
Who is the baby now
And who the old man
One generation leads us forward
While the shadow of another
Falls behind

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Poem Composed in a Bed of Clover

This spring things are growing
Around me lushly like a thick bed
Of clover so much so that it feels
Like I’m a baby swaddled in a blanket
Held tightly but without the luxury 
Of being able to roll over and yet
The clover keeps growing 
All around my face

Friday, May 14, 2021

On the Ferry

Once again a fair weather crossing
Sitting masked in the bow
Forward looking in spirit
On a first post-pandemic journey
Along the outer banks of good reason
Sunning on the upper deck
With a fair mermaid in the prow

But what lies ahead soon falls behind
Coming or going rarely different in kind
Howsoever different in mind

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Spring Candelabra (a love poem to my favorite tree)

On our morning walk
Marissa and I came across
This magnolia tree possessed by
The first light from the East

A spring candelabra
Of outlandish beauty
With its shadow dancing 
On the lawn in front of us
Bobbing in a light breeze

And I stood befuddled
And transfixed having
Stumbled upon it at the
Very moment its blossoms 
Began opening this year
In staggered bursts 
Of green-yellow flame
A shot for the Year Book 

It was truly an epiphany
In the droll personal history
Of me and my favorite tree  



Friday, April 9, 2021

A Light Rain in Early Spring (by Han Yu)


From Heaven's byways
A light rain falls
Fine as silk

The grass looks
On the verge
But not yet here

Peerless is springtime
Surrounded by blessings

The willow triumphs
Shrouded in mist
An Emperor enthroned
In the Forbidden City

Thursday, March 25, 2021

A Single Spring (by Han Shan)

Today I translated this poem by Han Shan, the hermit-poet of Cold Mountain.  It's the last line of this poem that takes my breath away.  How many years lie within a single spring?  This for me captures the essence of early spring - a time filled by infinite possibility -- when all of life is crammed into a handful of days as the worms first begin turning the soil.

My home is spare
And well hidden
Dwelling far from
The earth's clamor
I tread on the grass
To make three paths
And gaze upon the clouds
Who are my nearest neighbors

The birds join me in song
There's no else to discuss
Any matters of Dharma
Each day bears the fruit
Of Karma's great tree
How many years I wonder 
Lie within a single spring 


Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Dream Machine

It comes without instructions
Nor are any needed really
The design is intuitive
You just plug it in 
And close your eyes
Tightly or ever so slightly
It matters not a bit

The pillow rises and falls
As if breathing on its own
Part of a larger apparatus 
Which delivers dreams
Directly to your head

All of which are recorded
On a flash memory card
Retrievable periodically
Subject to overwriting and error
In accordance with an algorithm
First inscribed in the Book of the Dead



Saturday, March 6, 2021

Spring Scene (by Du Fu)

This Du Fu poem (written in the mid 8th century) captures the mood of the moment for me -- the return of spring in a world that has not yet emerged from a period of disruption and ruin.  Why write poetry at a time of seeming social collapse?  Is it a sympathetic fallacy to suppose that a millennium or so hence someone may understand that much better how they are feeling?  

Spring Scene

The country lies broken though
Mountains and rivers remain
As spring returns to the city
Grasses and trees regain
The depth of green

But in the mood 
Of these days
Dew sprinkles the flowers
Like tears on the cheek
And the heart knows only regret
Watching the sparrow take flight

For three months 
The beacon fires have flared
Making a letter from home
More precious than gold

And my white hair grown
Thin from constant scratching
Won't even hold a pin


Thursday, February 11, 2021

Ode to My Tinnitus

Oh tinnitus
Boon companion
Through all these years
Harbinger of headache
Sentinel of joy
How you dissipate
When I meditate
How you follow me
Walking along the shore

One of life's constants
Yet only a figment of
My perceptual apparatus
No less barometer of my soul
Coeval and coequally formed
An auditory shadow
That can never be ignored
Persistent and cloying
No one celebrates your arrival
Or will mourn when you're gone
Much as self-awareness itself
The atman and anatman
Together entwined 
Being an effect undeniable  
Still without discernible cause  

So pleased at last to encounter
Your mercurial nature
In slightly more fixed form

Marcelo Zissu's Brain

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Singing Alone in the Mountains (by Bai Juyi)

Everyone has their habits
Mine is composing verse
Everything else has faded away
But this weakness alone 
Has stayed with me

Whenever I come across
A beautiful scene
I want to do right
As I would with friend or kin
To sing aloud or make note
About this encounter
With divine mystery

Whether I'm floating down river
Or resting half way up the mountain
When a new poem
Presents itself

Or alone on the path
Hiking up the eastern cliff
Resting my body
Against the white rock
That overlooks the precipice
And clinging to the branches
Of a laurel tree

My wild song
Shatters the peace
Of the ravine below
The birds and apes
All cry in response
Whether they're
Scared or laughing
I can't be sure

And the suddenly
The world seems
As if I'm the last man
On the face of the earth


Friday, February 5, 2021

Four Poems by Rose Ausländer

 Plum Blossoms

Why do my people love the plum blossom?
My people are plum blossoms themselves

When winter storms with snow and ice
It brings forth the pink and white blossoms

When winter rages and road is forsaken
Undaunted, the blossoms forge ahead

Their tender leaves drunk with courage
Dance quietly to the wind that howls

It's more than luck, amidst the storm,
To show pluck against such mighty power

Seven told tales of the common folk
Sing praise of the plum blossom's quiet power

And wisely teach all seven tales
With iron fight but love gently

Or by the wisdom of the Chinese sages
From strength comes tenderness and
And from tenderness strength

When terror descends upon the earth
Such that all other blossoms hide in fright

Then you bloom in your still and quiet light
Bringing confidence to the world anew

Mother Tongue

I have myself
Transformed into myself
From moment to moment

Into pieces splintered
Along the way of words

Mother tongue
Put me back together

A human mosaic


Love (vi)

We will find ourselves
again in the lake
you as water
me as a lotus blossom

You will carry me
I will drink of you

We will belong to each other
for all to see

Even the stars
will be filled with wonder
how two here have been
transformed back
into a dream
of their choosing


The Heart Unheard

I hear the heart unheard
In my breath
A clock made of air
The melody in the music box
Alive inside the temple
With muted tones
Like spinning spheres

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Standing Alone (by Du Fu)

High above a hawk soars
On the river a pair of white gulls
Windswept, squabble over their prey
So easy it seems to roam far away

The grass heavy laden with dew
Beaded still on the spider webs too
Heaven's mysteries feel close at hand
Amidst ten thousand worries
Alone I stand

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Midwinter Dreaming

Last night
In the depths of winter
I dreamt of a blue butterfly Landing on the page of the book I was reading and I wondered Is this a message from The future or the past

For it was just as
I had once sat with
My brother who read to me
Holding a book in his lap
Before I could read for myself
And the butterfly flitted
About on the page
Never quite settling down

But if only I could learn
To read deep at last
Perhaps like a butterfly myself
One day I could become incarnate
Within the text and yet
Still somehow flutter
Around the page


This poem is based on a dream I had a few night ago. I might not have written it down if not for inspiration provided by David Starzynski (@sfourstarz) who wrote this tweet that I came across in my feed earlier today:

If a butterfly appeared
in the dead of winter here,
it would be so special.
Just sayin'

Funny, because that is exactly how the dream had made me feel. So this poem is my response to David's tweet, with a tip of the hat to Zhuang Zhou of course who holds an eternal copyright on this theme.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Gazelles Upon the Hillside

I heard the falling hooves
Of gazelles upon the hillside
Yet the temple bell
Remained still and quiet

How the spirit starts to tremble
When it can reach no higher
Then silence becomes a cave
Into which such loneliness retires