cold mountain 8

I grew up among coyote willows and cottonwood, marking veins of water on the Great Plains. The incessant prairie wind blowing through the cottonwoods sounds like the clapping of happy ghosts. Sallow and scanty, the scruffy little willows guard the edges of ponds and rivers even at high altitude. I saw them on winter flattops, just below treeline, stiff like a dead man’s hand jutting up through the ice. If it’s the land of milk and honey you came for, take these bitter tonics instead to ease your way home. All that lies buried under the hummocks and grasses becomes the glory of next summer’s flowers.


I’ve been wondering if commenting on the Chinese poem itself was something I ought or ought not to do. One thing I didn’t realize when I began was how much I would disagree with some of Red Pine’s translations; for example, he translates the third stanza, which begins at the top of the second line in the image above, as “he can’t imagine death,” whereas I would have been more literal, with “he cries out, ‘No death today!'” Although I still intend to do a translation of a poem once every ten days or so, today I thought I’d just walk through some of the associations that led to the particular response I had, because I realize not everyone might read Chinese. For Red Pine’s translation of the poem, see the Google books copy, pg. 41.

The poem in Chinese plays a lot with the opposition between up/down, ephemerality/permanence, and life/death, although these aren’t the only pairs suggested in the poem. I started by noticing the idea of “eminence,” 俊傑, which is further played on by the character for “up,” “upward,” and sometimes by extension “best,” 上. Here, 上 literally means the man is riding “up on” his horse, but the imagery works well, since 俊傑 also means “lofty.” The English “fine young man” doesn’t quite convey the sense that 俊傑 carries, although when I scanned the poem before reading Red Pine’s translation I too picked “fine” as the way to describe the young man. The “willows” 柳楊 in the second line can refer to women, and there’s another way to approach the poem, through male/female, yin/yang, samsara/enlightenment present here. The image of the Great Plains, where I grew up, with willows and cottonwoods lining the banks of streams sometimes cutting down between rises in the land, came strong to me, though, when I thought about being on horses and pointing out willows. Despite being thought of as flat, the Great Plains undulate over the vast areas, and water (marked by cottonwoods and willows) is best seen from an elevation. And that’s where my response began.

It was also a surprise to see “milk and honey” 醍醐/石蜜 used here to denote something similar to our use of “the land of milk and honey” as a kind of ideal world or paradise. I’ve seen 醍醐 frequently in Buddhist texts to mean the refined or clarified butter of the Buddha-dharma (most excellent in quality and taste), but not in other Chinese texts to imagine an idyllic world.


new year’s resolutions: gratitude


Karel Kryl


God created, God created a sprig
so I could weave wreaths.
Thanks, thanks for pain,
which teaches me to inquire.
Thanks, thanks for failure,
that will teach me diligence
so that I could, so that I could bring a gift,
though no strength might remain,
thanks, thanks, thanks.

Thanks, thanks for my weakness,
which teaches me humility.
Humility, humility for joy,
humility without oppression.
For tears, thanks for tears,
they will teach me emotion.
For the living who, for the living who speak out
and cry for sympathy.



For the sake of longing, longing for beauty
Thanks for ugliness.
Thanks that they’ll clash,
love and hostility.
For the sake of sweetness, sweetness of sleep
Thanks for fatigue.
Thanks for the surging fires
and waterfall’s humming.
Thanks, thanks, thanks.



Thanks, thanks for thirst,
which revealed weakness.
Thanks, thanks for the torment,
which will bring deeds to perfection.
Thanks that I do love,
though fear might be gripping my heart.
Lamb, thank you,
you didn’t die in vain,
Thanks, thanks, thanks…


Original translation from the Czech by M.R. posted with permission.
All photos are of Unmun-sa and environs.
Karel Kryl was a popular Czech singer-songwriter, poet, and dissident. His debut single and album by the same name, “Close the Gate, Little Brother” (Bratříčku zavírej vrátka), was critical of communist rule and the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, led by the Soviet Union. The album was banned in 1968 and in 1969, facing imprisonment in Czechoslovakia for dissidence, Kryl sought political asylum in Germany. He returned following the Velvet Revolution in 1989; tragically, he died young, at age 49 in 1994.
To hear the album recording of Děkuji (pronounced
dehkuyeh), listen on YouTube.

Original Czech lyrics:

Stvořil Bůh 

stvořil Bůh ratolest 

bych mohl věnce vázat 


Děkuji za bolest 

jež učí mne se tázat 


Děkuji za nezdar 

jež naučí mne píli 

bych mohl přinést dar 

byť nezbývalo síly 

Děkuji, děkuji, děkuji 


Děkuji za slabost 

jež pokoře mne učí 

pokoře pro radost 

pokoře bez područí 

za slzy děkuji 

jež naučí mne citu 

k živým jež žalují 

a křičí po soucitu 

Děkuji, děkuji, děkuji

Pro touhu 

pro touhu po kráse 

děkuji za ošklivost 

za to že utká se 

láska a nevraživost 

Pro sladkost 

pro sladkost usnutí 

děkuji za únavu 

za ohně vzplanutí 

i za šumění splavů 

děkuji, děkuji, děkuji 


děkuji za žízeň 

jež slabost prozradila 


děkuji za trýzeň 

jež zdokonalí díla 

Za to že 
za to že miluji 

byť strach mně srdce svíral 

Beránku Děkuji 

marně jsi neumíral 

Děkuji, děkuji, děkuji