Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Tasha Tudor’s Legacy

Far away, up and over the hills, there was a woman who made magic come to life. She sunk her hands into the ground and life came up. She took paint and brush to paper and images came to life, sweet children, gamboling dogs and heady masses of flowers. The flowers followed her wherever she went. Tasha Tudor was committed to her own way of life and she was determined to live it with all the will she could muster out of her body and mind.

She turned back the clock and lived in the era she wanted to live in. She wove blankets, knitted socks, hauled water, cooked in a wood burning stove, made candles to light her winters, milked her goats, dyed her yarn, only wore dresses and threw lavish celebrations. And while this was going on, she painted pictures and sold them. Some were put into books and told children’s stories.

I came to know her at the start of my teenage years. I too longed to dress from an older times. I longed to live on a farm and feed my chickens, be followed by a flock of dogs. I longed to sit in front of a fire, reading books or making clothes, listening to the fire spurt and rustle. I longed to walk into my barn and bring down the hay for my horses, stepping through the sweet smelling straw while it snowed outside, cats curled into tiny bundles in the hayloft. Tasha came to me just as I was beginning to put these desires into words. A life I felt was lost to another time was being lived and it was happening now. “The Private World of Tasha Tudor,” with Richard Brown’s gorgeous photos, awakened possibility and brought glimmers of hope.

Like a fairy godmother, she popped up at difficult moments in my life. At one particularly difficult part of my life where I had lost all my bearings, where I had no idea who I was or what I should be doing and there was no one telling me what to do, she sprang up. She arrived in DVD form, “Take Joy!,” and I watched that DVD day after day for a few months. I can’t tell you exactly why I watched it so many times in a row but I watched very keenly, soaking up something that only the subconscious fully understood.

I’m not entirely sure why I watched the video so many times. The most sense I’m able to make out of it now is that I was watching a woman who created her own life, her own standards and lived this life despite what anyone else had said or done to her. She was in the twilight of her life in the video, coming to the end of a long journey and relishing it all. Her way was so different, so obvious, so blatant, so unapologetic that like a hungry tired plant, I sucked it all in. I never knew Tasha the woman but I did know her as the artist and as a role model.

The title of my blog, Sparrow Post, is a tribute to the wonderful post office she fashioned for her own children, constructed out of cardboard and paint. The postmaster was a sparrow and he had a room in the back, where he could sort mail uninterrupted. Dolls and stuffed animals posted their letters and parcels at the office and I can only imagine the play must have been intense. It fired my imagination in a brilliant storm the moment I read about it and while I have yet to make my own post office, complete with sparrow postmaster, I wanted to invoke the same whimsy, the same delight in the small things in life, in the play and the imagination that comes when we feel free.

This is the space I’m creating in this blog and I want to thank you for reading and joining me. Please read about Tasha Tudor, she really was incredible and if you feel stirred to create a story, a picture or whatever your medium is after reading this or reading about her, please share. I would love to see, honor and know your creation.

Comments (11):

  1. Firmaid

    September 27, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Fantastic Catherine. It is a comfort to read the credit you shine on Tasha. You speak to the aching longing she elicits in many, and articulate the deep subtleties of what we are missing. Perhaps the homesickness that is exposed by “a woman who lived her own life” is just the medicine needed. It is a wonderful standard to set your sights on, in your blog or elsewhere in life. Thank you for your homage to a rare soul.

  2. Jeff

    September 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Until tonight, I didn’t know the origin of “Sparrow Post”. Thank you for sharing the story.
    –Jeff

  3. Jeff

    September 27, 2013 at 10:14 pm

    I don’t know if you’re interested, but I’ve long had a web page that describes where my domain name originated: http://slidingconstant.net/about

  4. tina

    September 29, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Beautiful post about a wonderful woman. I had only known about her through magazines and books…now I must get my hands on that DVD!

  5. Catherine

    September 29, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you, dear Fir Maid! I wouldn’t have written it if you hadn’t mentioned it earlier. It also got me to stretch my mind and ferret out just what it is about Tasha that is so inspiring. Let’s be people who join the ranks of women living their own lives on their own terms! Aho! Felt good to articulate it.

  6. Catherine

    September 29, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks, Jeff, I’ll check it out. 🙂

  7. Catherine

    September 29, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Thanks, Tina! I’d be happy to loan it to you. Of course I own a copy! I checked it so many times from the library I just had to do something about it.

  8. Maria Mazhary

    March 5, 2015 at 1:29 am

    Thank you for the way in which you honor Tasha’s memory. She was also my role model in so many ways-as a supremely creative single mother- living her life fully, on her own terms, and also as a gardener…I always aspired to create the lush abandon that seemed to blossom around her, as a co-creator of celebrations and rituals, as a mother- honoring the wonder of childhood, as a lover of all things hand made, and of close kinship with animals, as an artist and in her aesthetics…it is a deep regret of mine that I never met her in person…I was just feeling the urgency to make the “pilgrimage” when she passed…but she lives on in us. Lovely to discover your Sparrow Post!

  9. Elizabeth

    April 15, 2015 at 2:29 pm

    Unfortunately I discovered Tasha Tudor after her passing. I was reading a gardening magazine and someone asked her what was her favorite flower of all she had. After a thoughtful pause she said, “whichever one I’m holding at the moment.” Bingo! I was hooked. I understood completely. After deciding to learn more about this seemingly kindred soul I searched her out in the internet. What books I found! And, I bought most of them. What I don’t have, I’m still procuring.
    In The Private World of Tasha Tudor I found we really were kindred souls. So sad to never get to meet her. But, in my little corner of the world I’m still carrying on the homemaking skills, (please, not ‘crafts’), that she so loved. Sewing, tatting, knitting, crocheting, cooking, raising most of what we eat, canning, and the list goes on. It’s good to know I’m not the only one that feels like I was born in the wrong century. After learning about Ms. Tudor, I embrace that part of myself even more. It’s good to be different.

  10. Blanche Campbell

    March 21, 2020 at 5:25 pm

    All of the materials I have found about found about Ms. Tudor show her strengths and her caring that, that as a woman, gives me hope to be able to do more than I think I can do. Her pictures show a peace within herself.

  11. Diana

    May 24, 2021 at 6:20 pm

    I grew up a child in the 1950’s, and we always had Tasha Tudor books in the house. The house I lived in was built around 1790, and had a wonderful walk-in fireplace with antique pewter items on the mantle – just like the ones in her stories. One year I received a gift of Tasha’s book, “Becky’s Christmas,” and that became my favorite children’s book of all time. Each year, after Thanksgiving was over, I would take the book off my shelf and read it every day in the days leading up to Christmas itself. It was my “magical place” to go, to escape from the world, and it would transport me right into Becky’s ( Tasha’s ) era of the 1800’s. I read that book till it fell apart!

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My Year in Reading, 2020

Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping was usually my slow time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.

Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.

They soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol for life before the pandemic: Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space and breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.

Books have always been a refuge for me, but it was in this last year that my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but to examine the writing craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became an act of sanity for me.

I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years and in the list below are some of my favorites.

 

 

I read Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time, I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and center on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.

 

 

From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books was a way to find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I read it as a teenager, but now as an adult, I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.

 

Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

 

 

The next library book that I read was Optic Nerve by Maria Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting.  The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day world.

One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplations on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away due to the pandemic.

 

 

Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She wrestles learning the local language and communicating with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly enveloping everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move in linear-fashion which affects the art of narration:

“To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.”

 

 

Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.

I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after returning it, COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to his poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’ poetry and life.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about halfway through when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on small joys that Gay encountered over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.

In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.

 

 

Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and then I nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel centers on a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.

 

 

After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters lives’ during the course of three summers. While their days are quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.

“The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.

Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.”

The sisters find their way but each one does in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.

 

 

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman living in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith and after eight years of marriage, she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. Due to the era she lived in, she was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course, she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.

 

 

Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read Pushkin Press’ new edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. Isolde centers on the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.

Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned and alone due to their self-centeredness and desperation. Levels of foreboding  ratcheted up throughout my reading of the book and when I finished the last page, I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.

 

 

A King Alone by Jean Giono is another novel that will stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking books I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alpine mountains and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:

“It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.”

A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances begins in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.

 

 

There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace by Tolstoy. A Public Space announced their read along of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’ translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge case of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.

 

The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was a terrifying time and it still is). It was very hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of the master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.

 

 

The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.

Brooks’ novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, centering on the life of Maud Martha, and they often read like prose poems. They follow Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.

One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and her on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark appeared into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to book map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it,  I decided to map it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.

While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on a Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.

Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”

There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”

 

 

During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family and by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in a slow decay.

The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel.  Much of the story revolves around family’s quest in finding her suitable husband.

The novel spans from 1936 to 1941 and throughout, there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.

The past lingers in the Makioka’s clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara,  and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amidst family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.

Newspaper installations of the Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.

While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters all throughout the WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.

A few honorable mentions:

Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well.  Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that if she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.

Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows a the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.

It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.

 

I Have Wine and Moon and Flowers: Reading Su Tung-P’o During a Pandemic

As we watch spring growth overtake last year’s dead bracken and grasses, there is both consolation and brutality. This year’s greenery melds with disease: the emergence of flowers entangles with the blossoming of a pandemic.

While the novel coronavirus rages through communities, our lives have shrunk down to fit the small rooms and little neighborhoods that we must now be still in. What do we do in this diminished space? What do we see?

 

6th Moon, 27th Sun: Sipping Wine at Lake-View Tower

 

1

 

Black clouds, soaring ink, nearly blot out these mountains.

White raindrops, skipping pearls, skitter wildly into the boat,

 

Then wind comes across furling earth, scatters them away,

And below Lake-View Tower, lakewater suddenly turns to sky.

 

2

 

Setting animals loose—fish and turtles—I’m an exile out here,

but no one owns waterlilies everywhere blooming, blooming.

 

This lake pillow mountains, starts them glancing up and down,

And my breezy boat wander free, drifts with an aimless moon.

 

Su Tung-P’o (trans. David Hinton)

 

As the great poet Su Tung-P’o knew so well, we see our own natures in everything. The outside world becomes a reflection of our own states; though if we can still ourselves enough as we gaze out, a depth opens and time becomes immaterial.

A master of reflection and stillness, Su Tung-P’o 苏童 lived nearly one thousand years ago and is considered one of great poets of the Song Dynasty. He led a brilliant and varied career as poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist. Due to his outspoken and opposing views on the government, he was jailed and sent into exile on three separate occasions.

After his experience in jail and subsequent exile, his poetry evolved and deepen and his surviving work reflect his delicate, painful relationship with loneliness and desolation.

 

Moon, Flowers, Man

 

I raise my cup and invite

The moon to come down from the

Sky.  I hope she will accept

Me. I raise my cup and ask

The branches, heavy with flowers,

To drink with me.  I wish them

Long life and promise never

To pick them.  In company

With the moon and the flowers,

I get drunk, and none of us

Ever worries about good

Or bad.  How many people

Can comprehend our joy? I

Have wine and moon and flowers.

Who else do I want for drinking companions?

(trans. Kenneth Rexroth)

 

To help alleviate the sufferings of a difficult life, he became the devotee of Zen Buddhism and his poetics reflects the practice of the “beginner’s mind,” the ability to meet each experience with equilibrium and a “spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness.”

 

At Seven-Mile Rapids

 

A light boat one loan leaf,

a startled swan two oars—

 

water and sky are pure clarity

reflecting deep. Waves smooth,

 

fish roil this duckweed mirror

and egrets dot misty shorelines.

 

We breeze past sandy streams,

frostfall streams cold,

moonlit streams aglow.

 

ridge above ridge like a painting,

bend beyond bend like a screen.

 

Here I think back to

Yen Tzu-ling’s empty old age,

 

lord and recluse one dream.

Renown’s empty then as now,

 

just mountains stretching away:

cloud mountains erratic,

dawn mountains green.

 

Out of his poetry emerges a beautiful balance, the ability to look at both joy and sorrow with gentle tranquility and wry amusement.

 

At Brahma-Heaven Monastery, Rhymed with a Short Poem of Crystalline Beauty by the Monk Acumen-Hoard

 

You can only hear a bell out beyond the mist:

the monastery deep in mist is lost to sight.

 

Straw sandals wet with the dew of grasses,

a recluse wanders. Never coming to rest,

 

he’s simply an echo of mountaintop moon—

light coming and going night after night.

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Su Tung-P’o’s poetry illuminates the beauty and loneliness running throughout ourselves and Nature. His work becomes a sort of map for this strange new world we find ourselves in: isolated yet surrounded, weary but still observing, cut off but yet deeply involved.

 

After T’ao Ch’ien’s “Drinking Wine”

 

3

 

This little boat of mine, truly a lone leaf,

and beneath it, the sound of dark swells:

 

I keep paddling in the depths of night, drunk,

pleasures of home, bed, and desk forgotten.

 

At dawn, when I ask about the road ahead,

I’ve already past a thousand ridges rising

 

beyond ridges. O where am I going here,

this Way forever leaving ever returning?

 

Never arriving, what can we understand,

and always leaving, what’s left to explain?

 

(trans. David Hinton)