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.
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.
with paper pants and tiles for shorts
dying of hunger and cold in the end
Your farmer and I coincide in our dark thoughts: in the midst of abundance he imagines the worst, the stores depleted, the family in ruins, and in the middle of the season of my freedom I imagine a devastating loss of independence, the heart’s penury. A room of my own has obsessed me for years, as I lived without both physically and imaginatively. Now here I am, sitting with homework and a coffee. Here I am, walking across the Green with a book. Here I am, striding down the hill from a lecture in the cool evening to go back to a small room and do what needs doing in my world. This is contentment, this is joy. Even so, there is the anxiety of living, the economy of it. It’s difficult to try and stay out here on my own, easy to go back and trade in both independence and worries for a safety net. Then I thought about the translation offer in my email today, which is drudgery of its own kind, exactly the kind of work I was going to avoid this year, except that if I want this room of my own—this university, this city, this country, this paradise gathered between my small hands—I need work of some kind to keep it so, or else I’ll find myself running back to the terrible safety I struggled to break from. I saw the terror through to the end, the shuttering of the city, the closing of this paradise, saw it collapse into a ruin of petty schedules and the brown cacophony of the inconsequential, a door that never shut on distraction and myself disintegrating uselessly into it all. I felt the death of afternoons spent lonely and happy and the taste of an apple eaten walking down the autumn-brilliant street and I can’t stand the thought of it… Like a wedge, this ridiculous business offer, like a wedge in the door already slamming shut in my mind, to prop open the sky a little. I’m talking nonsense, I know. It’s only the nerve-rattled dream-talk of a woman who sees what life is at stake, like a farmer imagining locusts when the crop is nearly ready for harvest.
Consider the petiole a ring, the unfurling green a vow: spring wedding for the trees. Love is patient, love is kind; it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all thing—how do we know the cambium doesn’t weep in fall, to lose her leaves, bearing up under passing? The darkening of heartwood, the cessation of its inner respiration, could be a quiet grieving, transmuted in endurance. To begin again in spring is not an ignorance of fall. If I were a tree, it would be the fullest love to extend myself in life again, knowing what I stood to lose.
Cold Mountain is back. I left my copy in Korea, thinking I’d have access to the on-line copy at Google books. But Google books only allows browsing up to page 75 or so, meaning I’ve lacked access. Fortunately, now I have a library card and the library has a copy of Cold Mountain. I’ll resume writing out the Chinese of the poems in a week or so.
where we raise the dust today
long ago was an endless sea
The prayer flags cast diaphanous shadows on the fence. Already, they are beginning to fray. Someday the string between the aspens will connect only faded tatters, their prayers long ago released on the wind, to travel the world and mingle with the dust of foreign places; power found in transition, in transformation.