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
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.
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”
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)
I’ve always thought that autumn was the most melancholy season with the its dying flowers and falling leaves, weeks of sweeping rain, and the ever plummeting temperatures but over the last few years of my life, Spring has stepped forward as a possible contender.
There is something brutal in the racing green, the tender spring flowers leaping forth before they’re smothered by the emerging foliage of tree and brush overhead. Birds and animals are racing too, hurrying to carve out territories, find a mate, build a home. Rainstorms and occasional snowstorm cause the river to overflow its banks and the parks flood, ducks go floating by in puddles turned to ponds. Spring is the rush season.
Over the last few years as I’ve struggled with chronic joint issues, Spring has been a merciless time, it’s hurling push more like a joke than anything else. In the beginning years of unrelenting joint pain, I shut myself away, ignoring the season and reading instead. But even under the weight of immense pain, being locked away became boring and unbearable and so I sat outside last Spring, unable to walk but content to look and listen. I settled into my chair every early morning and watched the treetops, noting the first emergence of light green, the tiny buds unfurling, and finally the spread of a gorgeous green canopy, all the more momentous because I had watched it emerge every day over the course of weeks. I listened to the birds too noting who was new, local, or just passing through. At last came the buzzy bumblebees, ponderous and loud, like dizzy helicopters on a mission to gather pollen.
This Spring I graduated from sitting in my backyard to walking through my neighborhood, joint pain eased over time due to correct diagnoses, correct treatments, and my own on-going work with drawing boundaries and practicing self-care. I take walks in deep gratitude, admiring the greening grass, the children and dogs passing by, and my neighbors’ tulips, daffodils, and blooming magnolias.
But as Spring works hard to cover-up winter’s pulverizing blow, I find that I cannot forget the past. Time is passing and each day shoves us forward whether we’re ready for it or not. Some go forth happily but for many, going forth is complicated, complex, and more painful than easy. And so there is a melancholy in the soft green leaves backed by the dark bark of trees, in the bright tulips springing forth out of the dank heavy mud, and in the cold breeze that causes magnolia petals to fall just after blooming. Already everything is passing, clearly illuminating the transient nature of life which sometimes is sweet and other times too painful to behold. Holding both of these emotions at once is the place where poetry emerges and who better to linger in this in-between state but Li Qingzhao, the great immortal poet from China’s Song Dynasty. Below are a few of her ci poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and Ling Chung.
The Day of Cold Food
Clear and radiant is the splendor
Of Spring on the Day of Cold Food.
The dying smoke of aloeswood incense
Floats above the jade burner.
My dream is broken and hidden
like my flower hair ornaments
Buried in a pile of cushions.
The swallows have not come back
From the Eastern Sea, but already
People are gathering wild flowers and herbs
In the meadows. The plum blossoms by
The river are gone. Catkins
Appear on the willow branches.
And then—in the orange twilight—
Fall widely spaced drops of rain.
I Gave a Party to My Relatives on the Day of Purification
Tranquil and serene, the night
Seems to last forever.
Yet we are seldom happy.
We all dream of Ch’ang An
And long to take the road back to the capital,
And see this year again the beauty of Spring, come with
Moonlight and shadow on the new flowers.
Although the food is simple, as are the cups,
The wine is good, the plums sour.
That is enough to satisfy us.
We drink and deck our hair with flowers
But do not laugh,
For we and the Spring grow old.
Fading Plum Blossoms
Spring is hidden in my studio,
Daylight locked out of my window,
My painting room is profoundly secluded.
The seal character incense is burned out.
The shadows of the sunset
Descend across the curtain hooks.
Now that the wild plum I planted myself
Is blooming so well this year
I do not need to climb the waterfall
Seeking wild plum blossoms.
No one comes to visit me.
I am lonely as ever was Ho Sun in Yang Chou.
I know that although my plum blossoms
Are lovelier than all others
The rain will soon scatter them away.
The sound of the horizontal flute fills the whole house
With a melody of dense sorrow.
I will not feel badly when their perfume dissolves
And their jade snow petals fall.
When they have all been swept away
The memory of my love for them will remain.
It is difficult to describe the beauty of their shadows
Cast by the pale moonlight.
Japanese anemone flowers open blush pink petals in the park. Their tall, delicate stems hold up the tender flowers, and in the centers glow tiny pistil-laden suns. Furry carpenter bees buzz in a frenzy, adoring the tiny suns. Like all true worshipers, they circle round and round the yellow centers, smearing themselves in joy and pollen.
I also circle a center, but the object of my adoration is the park itself. As the path guides me around and around, my body, full of the usual tensions and distresses, takes the cue, finds the beat and the measure and walks to it.
The English Romantic Poets of the early 19th century were great walkers and believed that walking was essential to writing to poetry. With the body busy, the mind can walk freely, investing in its visions and tunneling down into what were previously subterranean thoughts.
This small park is my open field, my verdure, my ramble through hill and dale. My feet move on, sometimes slowing to a near pause, other times hurrying, suddenly propelled by a new and vivid notion.
About the fifth time around, a sort of mesmerism occurs and I fall under the trance of the day. The circle becomes a mantra uttered by my feet—knees, hips, shoulders, and arms follow along and we head down the path. I must walk, I must keep walking, I must continue to walk and the resolution becomes a reassurance as a cool breeze fills my lungs; I am alive and refreshed.
I pass under the oaks and dodge their falling acorns. Sometimes I entertain the notion that squirrels are hurling them, but when I catch sight of their small triangular faces they look as startled as me. It is the oaks themselves that are throwing the acorns down. I momentarily consider bringing an umbrella, opening it when I walk under the oaks, but this an old consideration that I’ve been contemplating for years of autumns and I’ve never acted on it. Instead, I dodge and the squirrels stare hard.
Finally I have to go but the revolutions and bees in the park stay with me even after I leave, continuing with their wheeling. They pass through the days and nights, rapturous and serene, monotonous some days and a miracle on others, and on most days both. They exist in the circle that is sometimes opened, sometimes closed. Within the circle, everything changes and nothing changes each time we pass through.
In the shade of a huge chestnut tree at the edge of town, a monk made his hermitage a refuge from the world. Saigyō’s poem about gathering chestnuts deep in the mountains refers to such a place. I wrote on a slip of paper: The Chinese character for “chestnut” means “west tree,” alluding to the Western Paradise of Amida Buddha; the priest Gyōki, all his life, used chestnuts for his walking stick and for the posts of his home.
Almost no one sees
the blossoming chestnut
under the eaves
An excerpt from Bashō’s Narrow Road to the Interior, trans. Sam Hamill
It is resting to read about Bashō’s account of his travels through Edo period Japan during this fever pitch time of ours. He quotes famous poetry and writes his own, recounts the weather, mountains, landmarks, legends, and friends he visits along the way.
His haikus are numerable and they begin to sink into the soul. Nature becomes a deep, rich place, the surest area to connect with the finest thoughts and feelings.
And when I look up from reading, I remember one moment in earlier in the day. I was driving along and I beheld: the black arm of a streetlight become a tree branch of iron beauty, a perfect blue sky hung like a backdrop behind it.
I drove underneath the iron tree and was full of gratefulness that I was alive enough to see such everyday wonder.
I wish the same for you.
Artwork: Lingering Snow at Asukayama (Asukayama no bosetsu), from the series “Eight Views in the Environs of Edo (Edo kinko hakkei no uchi)”, c. 1837/38, by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重, color woodblock print, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/25293
This is the opening quote in White is for Witching. Here is the full poem with title:
my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell
I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.