Wednesday, July 31, 2013



By Mao Zedong

Translated by Willis Barnstone

The scene is the north lands.
Thousands of li sealed in ice,
ten thousand li in blowing snow.
From the Long Wall I gaze inside and beyond
and see only vast tundra.
Up and down the Yellow River
the gurgling water is frozen.
Mountains dance like silver snakes,
hills gallop like wax bright elephants
trying to climb over the sky.
On days of sunlight
the planet teases us in her white dress and rouge
Rivers and mountains are beautiful
and made heroes bow and compete to catch the girl--
lovely earth.
Yet the emperors Shihuang and Wu Di
were barely able to write.
The first emperors of the Tang and Song dynasties
were crude.
Genghis Khan, man of his epoch
and favored by heaven,
knew only how to hunt the great eagle.
They are all gone.
Only today are we men of feeling

Mao Zedong, leader of the revolution and absolute chairman of the People's Republic of China, was also a calligrapher and a poet of extraordinary grace and eloquent simplicity. The book "The Poems of Mao Zedong", translated and introduced by Willis Barnstone, are expressions of the decades of struggle, the painful loss of his first wife, his hope for a new China, and his ultimate victory over the Nationalist forces. Mao seems to be inherently proud of the changes that his men brought about, both culturally and intellectually, as endorsed by the last line.

The above poem 'Snow' was written by Mao in February 1936, four months after the victorious Long March, just after the Red Army arrived at its base in Yanan. On a certain day during a snowstorm, Chairman Mao went up a high mountain and took in the distant view. He saw the marvelous scene of a thousand li of flying snow over this whole territory and it inspired the poem.

Li: A unit for distance

Shihuang : First emperor of the Qin dynasty, who ruled from 24 7/6 to 210 B.C.

Wu Di : Emperor of the Han dynasty, who ruled from 140 to 87 B.C. The reference to Tang and Song rulers are Tai Zong of the Tang dynasty, who ruled from 627 to 649; Tai Zi of the Song dynasty, who ruled from 960 to 976.

were barely able to write; crude : These epithets suggest, in a forceful way, the emperors' lack of polish and literary talent.

Genghis Khan : The famous Mongol conqueror, who ruled from 1206 to 1227.

(The notes on emperors as given by Willis Barnstone)

Monday, July 29, 2013

The Bagel

By David Ignatow

I stopped to pick up the bagel
rolling away in the wind,
annoyed with myself
for having dropped it
as it were a portent.
Faster and faster it rolled,
with me running after it
bent low, gritting my teeth,
and I found myself doubled over
and rolling down the street
head over heels, one complete somersault
after another like a bagel
and strangely happy with myself.

This  is a poem that is, at first, perfectly reasonable and realistic— and then slides into the surreal. There is both pleasure and humor in this poem's tone and it has a kind of quiet, otherworldly tranquility.

This  charming poem strikes  just the right balance of absurdity and seriousness. And quite apart from its metaphorical meaning, it evokes a very literal and physical image - the childhood memory of running downhill as fast as I could, until I was not so much running as bounding, very out of control and very exhilarated. And, yes, strangely happy with myself.

There is also more stillness than action, as if one were describing a dream landscape rather than a human event. The  emotions seem to be contained within the images themselves and there is a sense that there is something of the flattened affect and dissociative feeling of dreams—as though the emotions seething below the surface were cloaked in a blanket of drugged calm.

It is not unlikely that "The Bagel" was an imaginative extension of an actual experience. Perhaps the author had dropped a bagel or some other small item on a windy street as he was returning home with groceries,
and found himself chasing after it, at first annoyed, but suddenly, finding himself running in the wind, feeling a surge of childlike exuberance—as if he, like the object of his chase, were tumbling helter-skelter
through the street. 

Whether that was the germinating experience or not, the poem seems a celebration of just that sort of moment.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013




    Hope, long-lasting fever of men's lives,
constant beguiler of my weary eyes,
you keep the needle of the balance poised
at the still centre between joys and fears.
   You hover at the midpoint, disinclined
to move this way or that, lest your deceit
allow too free a hand to either state:
 unbounded confidence, abject defeat.
   Who was it claimed you never killed a man?
That you're a slayer anyone can tell
from the suspense in which you keep the soul
    poised between lucky and unlucky chance.
Nor is it true your aim is multiplying
our days on earth: it's to protract dying.

The 17th century Mexican was acclaimed in her time as the "Phoenix of Mexico. America's Tenth Muse". She is now considered as one of the finest Hispanic poets of seventeenth.

Her life reads like a novel. A spirited and precocious girl, one of six illegitimate children, is sent to live with relatives in the capital city. She becomes known for her beauty, wit, and amazing erudition, and is taken into the court as the Vicereine's protégée. For five years she enjoys the pleasures of life at court--then abruptly, at twenty, enters a convent for life. Yet, no recluse, she transforms the convent locutory into a literary and intellectual salon; she amasses an impressive library and collects scientific instruments, reads insatiably, composes poems, and corresponds with literati in Spain. To the consternation of the prelates of the Church, she persists in circulating her poems, redolent more of the court than the cloister. Her plays are performed, volumes of her poetry are published abroad, and her genius begins to be recognized throughout the Hispanic world. Suddenly she surrenders her books, forswears all literary pursuits, and signs in blood a renunciation of secular learning. The rest is silence. She dies two years later, at forty-six.

I had heard a lot about this Mexican nun who had written a lot of love poetry too but never had a chance to read. In August,  while I was in Toronto, we went for a picnic to  "Thousand Islands". On return, we stopped at the city of "Kingston " for lunch. It was Sunday and adjacent to our dining place was a busy Sunday  market . A second handbook seller had many left over poetry collections. I picked 5 fine poetry collections  for a total of 10 dollars that included "A Sor Juana Anthology" brilliantly translated by Alan Trueblood with an introduction by none other than the great Mexican Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz. It was as if the book was waiting for me.

Emily Dickinson has romantically sang
“Hope" is the thing with feathers-
That perches in the soul-
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops -at all-".

 But here is a different take on Hope and  I love Sor Juana's pessimistic tone  . More realistic too.   'Hope'  often succeeds to cleverly  balance between "Joy and Sorrow",  "unbounded confidence and  abject defeat” but its true intention is to protract death.

Ref: "A Sor Juana Anthology" translated by Alan Trueblood

Saturday, July 20, 2013

It Is Night, in My Study

Miguel de Unamuno

Translated by Willis Barnstone

It is night in my study.
Deepest solitude; I hear the pounding
in my turbulent chest
it feels alone
and blanched by my mind
and I hear my blood
whose even whisper
fills up the silence.
You might say the water clock's liquid thread
is dropping to the bottom.
Here, in the night, alone, this is my study.
The books don't speak.
My oil lamp
cools these pages with a light of peace,
light of a chapel.
The books don't speak.
Sleeping are the spirits
of the poets, the thinkers, the learned.
It's as if cunning death
were all around me.
I turn at times to see if it's waiting there,
I squint into darkness.
Among the shadows I try to spot
its wary shadow.
I think of heart failure,
at my strong age. Since my fortieth year
two years have gone by.
Silence turns me about
to face a bullying temptation.
Silence and shadows.
And I tell myself, "Maybe soon
when they'll come to say
that supper is waiting for me
they'll find a body
colorless and cold
-the thing I was, waiting-
like these quiet and stiff books,
blood already stopped,
jelling in the veins,
the chest quiet
under the weak light of soothing oil,
a funeral lamp."
I tremble as I end these lines
that don't seem
an unusual testament
but rather a mysterious presentiment
from the shade on the other side,
lines dictated by hunger
for eternal life.
I finished them and am still living.

This is indeed a magnificent poem . Unamuno, who in his solitude sees very clear things that are not true. It is world of the self--and it is also the world of the other worlds beyond the self. What I love about is its piercing passion--about life and death --no qualms about it. And yet, these are our daily preoccupations too.

Miguel de Unamuno (1864-1936) was a Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher. His major philosophical essay was The Tragic Sense of Life (1913). He was a member of the group of Spanish intellectuals and philosophers known as the "Generation of '98," and a writer whose work dramatically influenced a wide range of 20th-century literature.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Stopping By rain to visit Master Shu

Stopping By rain to visit Master Shu

By Su Tung-P'o

(Translated by David Hinton)

Bamboo scratches at the window-screen,
and rain clattering in bamboo clatters.

Shutters wide-open tranquility, no dust,
mist rises from a table's cold ink-stone.

You relish in this solitude in quiet mystery
and returned to origins, wanting nothing,

sit ch'an stillness on sackcloth and mat,
stand listening to wind's voice in a bowl.

Presence and absence blank here, in cold
cap and sandal, you sprinkle and sweep,

offer thick tea rinsing depths of night,
light incense drifting all worry away,

and on my way home, fireflies meander
north-hall darkness one by one by one

This life tangled in sorrow and trouble
somehow offers such repose in idleness.

Roaming vultures regret former laughs,
earthworms lament their late awakening,

and I'am no T'ao Ch'ien for quiet integrity.
But where's karma in all this idleness?

( ch'an is derived  from 'Dhyana' in sanskrit , meaning meditation . T'ao Ch'ien is Chinese poet and Ch'an buddhist who seems to have cultivated a melancholy sort of contentment in his life.)

Some poems can be nectar for the soul like the above one by Su Tung-P'o 

One of the greatest poets of the Buddhist tradition, Su Tung-P'o (1037-1101) has been a model and source of inspiration for a millennium of Chinese and Japanese poets. He wrote from direct, verifiable experience.

A man from a family of modest means, west central China, upper reaches of the Yangtze, travels downriver at 18 and passes, first time he takes it, the most prestigious civil service examination in the empire. Same year he marries a 15-year-old bride, and goes out on his first government assignment. He serves as a major administrator, then falls into disfavor and serves time in jail and is exiled. He develops a hardscrabble farm in the south, studies with a Zen master, runs rivers and climbs peaks, writes hundreds of letters, drinks wine with friends, and through it all is always writing poems. Brought back, he serves again, and then is exiled to a remote tropical island. Two wives having died, he travels south with his lover. Back in favor once more, he dies before he can get settled in a new home. He was also a marvelous calligrapher, whose large firm free writing can be seen in the museum in Taipei. He is considered one of China's top poets. He lived in the 11th century A.D., when China was in some ways more 'modern' artistically and intellectually than 20th century America.

Su Tung-p'o's elegant, diverse poems are full of compassion, vision, the sense of the moment, the sweetness and hardness of life. It is a  a joy to meet his bright, undefeated spirit through his wonderful poems.

Source of poem:Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology [Paperback] David Hinton (Editor, Translator)

Thursday, July 4, 2013




(Translated by Ralph Nelson and Rita Nelson)

As the stubborn ant carries its load counting on it to stay alive,
that's how I find you always locked around a tear,
one of your tears that you haven't cried yet,
that you don't want to cry,
that you can't cry because it's larger than your body,
because it's larger than your body
and you can't hold it back, just as the world can't hold back its night,
against it you rest, without crying over it, to stay together,
sleeping beside it sometimes open-eyed,
and you hold it in your arms, without possessing it, the way the rail holds a train,
and you protect it with your body from desecration,
so that the world, so tiny now, can't soak it up in its handkerchief.

Loved this one. It is not easy to achieve a level of poignancy with exaggeration. Rosales remarkably succeeds in it .

Luis Rosales was a renowned  Spanish poet and essayist Spanish of the generation of 1936 .Like Lorca, he was also a native of Granada. A poet praised by Neruda for his mastery of poetic techniques , he won the Cervantes Prize in 1982 for his entire literary work.

Monday, July 1, 2013




I look over my own shoulder
down my arms
to where they disappear under water
into hands inside pink rubber gloves
moiling among dinner dishes.

My hands lift a wine glass,
holding it by the stem and under the bowl.
It breaks the surface
like a chalice
rising from a medieval lake.

Full of the grey wine
of domesticity, the glass floats
to the level of my eyes.
Behind it, through the window
above the sink, the sun, among
a ceremony of sparrows and bare branches,
is setting in Western America.

I can see thousands of droplets
of steam—each a tiny spectrum—rising
from my goblet of grey wine.
They sway, changing directions
constantly—like a school of playful fish,
or like the sheer curtain
on the window to another world.

Ah, grey sacrament of the mundane!

In the life of California poet Al Zolynas, a moment of activity, namely, washing dishes, and the moment of the poem itself are not separated, and we can even imagine that he talks to himself washing dishes and that a tape has recorded his words. This would be a new kind of coping with time, though we know that composition is an integral part of poetry, and that direct reaction to events is rather rare and the poet wrote the poem at another point of time.

We are thus inclined to consider this poem a composition on the subject of washing dishes, with a consciously maintained illusion of the present tense. In fact housework  is constantly emphasized throughout the poem with nearly synonymous words, such as “moiling,” “domesticity,” and “mundane" and repetitions of "grey".  It has some striking imageries too like wine glass rising like a chalice from a medieval lake.

This is a beautiful and accessible poem and it shows how musings on such a mundane chore like dish washing can be turned into work of art. The poem reminds me of Irish poet Thomas Moore's words -"The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest." 

Al Zolynas spent his boyhood in Australia before coming to the United States when he was 15. He taught literature and writing at Alliant International University . He  is also an  experienced Zen practitioner.