Mei Yao-ch’en and I Lament Missing The Lunar Eclipse Because of Rainy Weather, Though We Had Set the Alarm and Rose at Two in the Morning To View It, and What Else Could We Do With Our Time Now That We Were Awake But Drink Wine and Watch the New Maple Leaves Still Only Half Unfolded Bow Up and Down Like Obedient Monks to the Rain, Which In Turn Inspired These Lines By My 11th Century Guest, Written in the Style of a Poem By His Good Friend Ou-yang Hsiu

Mei Yao-ch’en and I Lament Missing The Lunar Eclipse Because of Rainy Weather, Though We Had Set the Alarm and Rose at Two in the Morning To View It, and What Else Could We Do With Our Time Now That We Were Awake But Drink Wine and Watch the New Maple Leaves Still Only Half Unfolded Bow Up and Down Like Obedient Monks to the Rain, Which In Turn Inspired These Lines By My 11th Century Guest, Written in the Style of a Poem By His Good Friend Ou-yang Hsiu

 

Don’t look up at the moon! at its old red eye clouded by the shadow of ages
Do all those lifetimes frighten you, hidden in your jade cloaks and bowing?

Don’t look! Who acts older, you whose lives have just begun, shuffling
like old men already bent beneath worshiping what falls, or the unblinking penumbra?

Somewhere south of here, the frogs chant about towers in their flooded garden
The rain laps at the steps but hesitates  like a visitor who won’t come in

Over clouds the great toad opens his eye to the light and there my love and I recline
Don’t look then! not for what you might see but for what is now looking back

Poem for the Back Cover of a Book

Poem for the Back Cover of a Book

 

This book does not care if you buy it.
This poem does not care if you buy the book.

Even I do not care if you buy the book.
The three of us have been waiting here

To tell you this, but even more—perhaps
you have just been thinking of that person

Whose love has kept you alive without you
knowing it these many years, perhaps  you

Are remembering that person now.
Are they right beside you, unaware your

Love flows stronger than ever? Have you
not exchanged words in years? We are here

To tell you—put down this book, do not look
back, you were never looking back but always

Straight through the eye of his soul.
Put down this book now and go to him.

Or, if you are still here, at a loss for words,
I will help you. Go buy this book

And leave it face down where he
will find it, and notice this poem,

That is why we are here, after all,
And we will see what can be done.

During a Visit to the Doctor, Mei Yao Ch’en and I Discuss the Utility of Fish Tanks With No Fish, After Which We Walk Around the Koi Pond in Gypsy Hill Park, And He Later Writes These Lines and Asks Me to Send Them to His Friend Hsieh Shih-hou, Who He Worries Might Be Wondering About His Whereabouts

During a Visit to the Doctor, Mei Yao Ch’en and I Discuss the Utility of Fish Tanks With No Fish, After Which We Walk Around the Koi Pond in Gypsy Hill Park, And He Later Writes These Lines and Asks Me to Send Them to His Friend Hsieh Shih-hou, Who He Worries Might Be Wondering About His Whereabouts

 

In the doctor’s office I am comforted we are surrounded by elders.
Though they have all made appointments to see the doctor, they must fill out forms

As if the doctor did not know who they were or what they suffer from.
A stranger from ten thousand moons away, even I know what they suffer from!

Near the entrance in a glass box water quietly churns. It’s a fish tank, my host says.
Inside there are no fish, just murky water. Every elder is pointing at it and smiling.

I think I know why there are no fish. I think it is a sign of tzu-jan.
We can all go back to our houses, and one day they will all be empty.

On Gypsy Hill among flowering dogwoods and beneath the gossip of ducks
the wise koi circulate like clouds. Distant enough from this cold world

They can survive the harsh winter and come to the surface for surface things.
Still they are trapped, my host says. Then give them their freedom! I tell him.

I have filled out many forms and failed many tests—that is being trapped.
Now I’m trying to pass the test as they do. You have, he says. For I have brought you home.

And I have disappeared, I answer. As when you can no longer see the bird’s nest
outside your window because of the new leaves, you know then the bird is home.

Mei Yao-ch’en: The Imaginary Portrait

from a photograph by Jonathan Chaves

from a photograph by Jonathan Chaves

Many of my more intrepid readers will know that I have been at work on a sequence of poems about 11th century Chinese poet Mei Yao-ch’en, the premise of which includes me somehow transporting him in the midst of his forty-ninth year to that same moment in my life here in the 21st century; that as Sung dynasty poets tended to do, Mei and I thought time and distance less important than wine and friendship, and that he heroically and generously consented and contented himself with being a guest in my house (and millennium) for some undetermined duration, taking it upon himself to write home occasionally about his experiences, sometimes to his friend (and his brother in law’s son) Hsieh Shih-hou.

This sequence (some would use the word “visit”) began in early February and to date comprises a dozen poems. I’m not sure how much longer my guest is staying, but I thought it time to compile them in their proper order so readers encountering them here don’t have to scroll through months of other poems or to read the sequence out of order (on the off-chance anything is to be found by reading them in order). This I will do below, as well as to keep current a separate page for these works, which you should find on the menu above at some point.

I call these poems an “imaginary portrait” because, of course, the words are not Mei’s, and while I’m not sure they are entirely mine, either, there is no one else about to take credit or responsibility for them; so they are those of a Mei of my own making, and they do across their breadth begin to sketch out a portrait of that poet for twenty-first century readers. Also, in the first and only book I was able to find about Mei’s life and work, the cover and verso of the half-title page are adorned with an image of Mei that is described as an “imaginary portrait” painted roughly six hundred years after his death. Honestly, I thought if someone could take a shot at painting the guy’s likeness after six centuries, could I trespass any more on the truth by trying to throw him a thousand years into the future and read his mind?

I was moved to write about Mei after reading wonderful translations by David Hinton and Kenneth Rexroth. Seeking out additional information I found the book mentioned above, Mei Yao-ch’en and the Development of Early Sung Poetry, by Jonathan Chaves. Published in 1976, it is a gold mine of biographical information, critical perspective, and translations of Mei’s poems. I found it just after I had written the first one or two poems and decided I’d write more.

Recently I made contact with Professor Chaves, who teaches in Washington, DC at George Washington University, to thank him for a book he wrote forty years ago. To my surprise and enjoyment, Professor Chaves responded the next day, and added:  “In Spring of 2011 I visited Mei Yao-ch’en’s hometown of Hsuancheng / Xuanchang in Anhui Province, where a new monumental statue has been erected in commemoration of him.” He included photos of the monument in its in-progress state, which may by now have been completed.  A few of these photos are below, courtesy of Jonathan Chaves.

Mei Yao-ch'en monument; photo by Jonathan Chaves.

Mei Yao-ch’en monument; photo by Jonathan Chaves.

JonathanChavesThank you, Professor Chaves!

Links to the poems, in the order they have been written (so far), are below. It’s worth noting that they will likely find themselves together as part of a larger project I’m working on tentatively titled “The Drift”…and that a future collection may see revisions or at least corrections of errors or typos on my part. For the time being, I’m just placing them below exactly as they were originally posted.

I Transport Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch‘en Nine Hundred and Sixty Four Years Into the Future to My House, Where He Writes Back to His Friend Hsieh Shih-Hou About Various Things, In This Case Fixed Overhead Lighting
My Friend the Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en, Whom I have Transported Into the Future from the Year 1050 A.D., and I Discuss Travel, Distance, and Exile, and He Reports Back to his Friend Hsieh Shih-Hou in the Form of This Poem
Sitting Together Over Jasmine Tea Because All the Holiday Wine is Gone and Talking with Mei Yao-Ch’en, Recently Transported Here by Me from the 11th Century, About the Numbers of History, After Which He Writes the Following Lines to His Friend Hsieh Shih-Hou at Nan-Yang
Inscribed on the Wall in my Home’s Upstairs Hallway by Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en, After Maybe More Than a Little Wine and a Late Night Discussion with Him about His Wife Back in the 11th Century From Where I Have Transported Him, and About the Value Poetic and Otherwise of Being Unmoored
Mei Yao-Ch’en, Whom I Have Transported Almost A Thousand Years into the Future But Who Is Nevertheless A Gracious Guest, Drinks Wine with Me After a Warm and Windy Late Winter Rainstorm and We Talk About About Our Mothers, After Which He Writes These Lines On A Towel Hanging in the Upstairs Bathroom
Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en Reflects on the Uprisings of the 11th Century as We Watch Events in Syria and the Ukraine Unfold on TV, After Which He Writes to Hsieh Shi-Hou to Ensure His Young Friend’s Safety
Some Lines by Mei Yao-Ch’en Found by Me On The Inside of a Toilet Paper Roll in My Upstairs Bathroom, In Which the Poet Whom I Have Transported To the Present Day from Roughly 1050 C.E., Answers Critics Born Three Quarters of a Century After His Death, and I Still Do Not Know How He Managed to Get This Poem In That Roll But He Does Spend A Lot of Time in There
I Take Mei Yao-Ch’en to the Grocery Store on a Mild Day in Early March Because a Late Winter Storm Has Been Forecast; The Store is Mobbed and Practically All the Shelves Are Empty; Furthermore There is No Salt for the Steep Steps Outside Our House; But There Is Wine and Cinnamon Donettes So We Buy Some of Those and After the Storm Hits My 11thCentury Friend Pens These Lines On a Giant Post-It Note I Took from Work to Chart Productivity Metrics
After the Last Snowstorm of the Season, My 11th Century Friend Mei Yao-Ch’en and I Sit at the Kitchen Counter and Watch the End of the Day, After Which He Writes The Following Lines to be Sent 964 Years Back into the Past to Hsieh Shih-Hou
After Talking About Departed Loved Ones, 11th Century Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en and I Decide to Seek Out the Yellow Springs, Where All People Who Died a Thousand Years Ago Went; Our Way There is Blocked by a Familiar Quadruped; After That Donuts Don’t Seem a Bad Idea; Sometime Later He Writes Thirty Lines in Honor of the Occasion on the Inside of the Shower Curtain In The Style of Some of His Poems About Paintings of Insects and Plants
Mei Yao-Ch’en and I, Both Approaching Fifty Years of Age Though He Has Been Dead for Nine Hundred and Fifty Two Years, Discuss the Poetics of Getting Older and Apprehending Death, After Which He Wonders How Much of This He Will Remember When He Returns to the 11th Century and Decides to Write to Hsieh Shih-Hou on the Inside of His Robe So He Can Take it With Him Even if Memory Abandons Him, but It Comes Out in the Wash After I Copy It Down, Even In The Gentle Cycle
I Take 11th Century Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en with Me On My Daughter Aurora’s School Field Trip to Washington, DC; We Walk on the National Mall and He is Made Uneasy by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; Aurora Gets Him a Hot Chocolate at the Refreshment Kiosk by The Lincoln Memorial but This Kindness Reminds Him of His Own Infant Daughter, Whose Death He Was Still Mourning When I Transported Him to the Future at the Age of Forty-Eight; Also, He Does Not Travel Well on the Charter Bus But I Have Smuggled Some Wine Aboard and He Chants These Lines As We Ride, Which Even Untranslated Leave the Teachers and Chaperones Feeling Uneasy
 

I Take 11th Century Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en with Me On My Daughter Aurora’s School Field Trip to Washington, DC; We Walk on the National Mall and He is Made Uneasy by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; Aurora Gets Him a Hot Chocolate at the Refreshment Kiosk by The Lincoln Memorial but This Kindness Reminds Him of His Own Infant Daughter, Whose Death He Was Still Mourning When I Transported Him to the Future at the Age of Forty-Eight; Also, He Does Not Travel Well on the Charter Bus But I Have Smuggled Some Wine Aboard and He Chants These Lines As We Ride, Which Even Untranslated Leave the Teachers and Chaperones Feeling Uneasy

I Take 11th Century Sung Dynasty Poet Mei Yao-Ch’en with Me On My Daughter Aurora’s School Field Trip to Washington, DC; We Walk on the National Mall and He is Made Uneasy by The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall; Aurora Gets Him a Hot Chocolate at the Refreshment Kiosk by The Lincoln Memorial but This Kindness Reminds Him of His Own Infant Daughter, Whose Death He Was Still Mourning When I Transported Him to the Future at the Age of Forty-Eight; Also, He Does Not Travel Well on the Charter Bus But I Have Smuggled Some Wine Aboard and He Chants These Lines As We Ride, Which Even Untranslated Leave the Teachers and Chaperones Feeling Uneasy

 

The ground rises but the dead do not
Their names drive straight into the earth

The black wall reflects today’s visitors
absorbs their pain but gives nobody back

I see just below the roots of jade grass
it continues endlessly and I can read the names

through my eyelids like we read terror
in earth’s shadow obscuring the moon. I know now

I have only your name. Even that will be eclipsed
beneath the jade knives, my Ch’eng-ch’eng.

Lotus Compass Points

Lotus Compass Points

 

Some times you have to go
deep enough in so
there’s no way
out
before a sense
of real direction
develops

*

Orange sun sets through gap in clouds
in the midst of a spring snow flurry

does nothing know its place?
or I have forgotten nothing

has its place here

*

Mist rises from trees
ghosts of foliage
longing for last summer
Sometimes I feel a ghost

in myself a burning off
that I mistake for rising
It clouds the moon
between us

*

Navigating mountain fog road
I slow to the speed of the visible

The sun only a white rumor
all wild empty air just out of reach

Descent brings clarity
a painted line, the next curve ahead

truths higher than any
enveloped peak