busy signal, or, come hell or high water (living hagiography 2.29.2012)

A leap-year. And the leap-day. Any other leaping day of a leap year, I’d try and find something (witty-ish or mildly profound) to say. Tonight, however, all I’m getting on my maxed-out nerves is a busy signal.

A project came in that, while both of personal interest and community concern, has suddenly snapped up my attention and some time. I spent two days on the road for this, and it came at the same time we celebrated my great-grandteacher’s 90th birthday, with all the attendant celebrations, pushing back the project a couple of days more. I’m also down to the last ten days before the Jogye Order’s precepts exam, and I just received news tonight that there’s a problem with my paperwork. Whether this is truly a paperwork problem, in which case it’s a relatively simple matter of chasing a paper trail, or whether it’s a serious problem that will possibly disqualify me from sitting the exam this year, I am unable to verify as of yet. Needless to say, between projects, birthdays, studying for exams, tracking down paperwork for exams, worrying that said paperwork (or its lack, to be precise) might make studying for aforementioned exam a moot point, and trying to pin down summer and autumn plans–plans which are appearing to skate on thinner and thinner ice, since they rested on the supposition I would be receiving full precepts this spring–has me busy.

Cold Mountain and small stones will have to wait until after March 9th. That’s when the exam is scheduled, whether I take it or not; and it’s when the project comes due as well.

Wish me luck, godspeed, a clear head, a calm heart, “come hell or high water.”


cold mountain (19)

they’re given a golden cage
but locked away their plumage fades

This crow doesn’t care for either your palaces or your heights. I own everything in between. My voice gone ragged with harsh laughter, I’m not the magpie, who welcomes guests. Get away, you swans and geese, graceful but dull. Have you seen the glitter in my eyes? Do you know why, whirling up with my brothers and sisters from trees with our jarring disregard for your peace of mind, we are called both a flock and a murder? Put me in a cage: I’ll trick my way out, for fun. I’ll fight my way out, to teach you. Your god shot down nine of the old ten, but I’m the one left. And I rise black, every day, to eat your seed and scatter your senses, shining with a dark flame, burning from within.




In Korea, a magpie is thought to herald the arrival of guests at a house. In Chinese mythology, there were once ten suns, which took the form of ten crows. Houyi (后羿) shot down nine of the ten  after all ten rose at once and destroyed the earth’s vegetation and caused living beings to suffer. The notes to this poem reference a story about a woman from the south who the King of Sung demanded be sent to him; the birds in cages are women kept in the imperial chambers. The last lines of this poem, which follow the two quoted above, “not like wild geese and swans/flying up in the clouds” could reference those people, men or women, who avoid such worldly snares as imperial harems. But I’m losing patience with the insistent male voice in Cold Mountain’s poems. After reading him for 20 days and encountering a subtle bias in the poems, it’s difficult not to hear the masculine freedom implied in contrast to the feminine imprisonment.

See pp. 48-49 here for the Chinese text and Red Pine’s notes and English translation.

cold mountain (17) (18)

unfortunate building timber
gets left in a hidden valley

Bamboo feathers and pine bayonets gaurd the seam of the valley. Someone’s built a small gods’ shrine over the spring, and hikers in floroescent, multi-colored synthetics leave dippers full of water on the surrounding rocks: placating offerings. Disaster never looms, but seems to hover, like starlight glimpsed from the corner of the eye, just short of definitive substance and impossible to deny. Against such disaster the hikers fill plastic dippers and position them around the water shooting out of a clear plastic hose, rubbing their hands in supplication as if shaping balls of dough. They pray to the old and unseen gods for the two-fold blessing: the prosperity and success of kith and kin, and their safe obscurity from the demolitions of the highest reaches. Who hasn’t seen it happen? Power without humility, position without merit, and the resulting fall. All we want is to live comfortable, hundreds of lips mouth by the spring each season. As if each were a spurned worthy, unlucky only by birth, as if the world were not inherently uncaring, as if loss and ruin were not the partners of gain and increase.

but what I lament are the common bones
unnamed in the records of immortals

Immolate, from in, “upon,” and mole, “to sprinkle,” as in, to sprinkle with sacrificial meal. Self-immolation as self-anointment, to place a martyr’s crown on a common head and turns one’s flesh and bones to banners recording what others would not write.

Since February 2011, roughly 20 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against the Chinese government and Chinese rule in the Tibetan Autonomous region. For more information, please see the International Campaign to Save Tibet’s fact sheet. An internet search turns up a variety of news articles and blog posts.

For the text of the Chinese poems and their English translations, please see pp. 46-49. The internet’s been spotty, I’ve been busy: hopefully when both situations calm down I can go back to writing out the Chinese.