small stone (160)

Night-train whistle and a cricket’s sharp creak under the floor: sleep’s on a steady approach, punctuated by such music as this.


cold mountain (63)

someone speaks and they all look down

Yesterday it rained, a sudden downpour that flooded the library basement, the entryways to the dormitories; and my pants were soaked to the knee in the three minutes it took me to walk across campus. I took refuge indoors and sat in an armchair by the windows, reading, reading, until the furious patter slowed then stopped. I packed up my books, wound up my umbrella. I stepped outside into the half-light, and they were there: flocks of sparrows on the sidewalks and in the trees. I can’t remember if I heard them first, or saw them first, but there they dashed and scattered with a chorus of tiny music. Once I noticed them I couldn’t stop looking for them, hoping another one would come nearer me than the last, and perhaps gift me her lightness of wing and gracious, simple song.

cold mountain (62)

I don’t understand you, Han Shan. You pull up your nose in disdain at “worldly life,” then you spend half your poems bemoaning intrigues at court, sniffing at the state of affairs, and criticizing officials. You’re like a man who assures his host he doesn’t drink, but then spends the entire party eyeing the drinks in others’ hands. Also: your landscapes are vacant, flat caricature. For you, the mountains and oceans seem to exist simply as motifs or symbols. I can’t see that you explored them on their terms, before you borrowed them over to stand in for truth or suffering or whatever else. The world empties of complexity and richness in your poems. Every person or event or thing is either this or that, virtuous or not, with Heaven or against Heaven, approved or disapproved. I’ll tell you honestly, Han Shan, sometimes I regret getting involved with you. The black-and-white judgement you’ve laid down saddens me and makes me brittle and irritable: how aware I am of your heavy hand over the centuries, casting us aside with a dramatic sniff.

cold mountain (61)

as long as bones are rare

Bleached edge of a gull’s wing, dull sidewalks
empty in the morning, pale
silt dunes inscribed by winds,

each thing essential, when it leapt
like a sliver from the spar
and struck me,
rare, singular, unattainable, but:

a page or screen, white, open frame
to which we bind our inky tendons,
find flesh for thought—