Thank you, Li Ho: [Reading 3/8/2014 at Allen Chapel AME Church in Staunton VA as part of "Rhythmic Time Between the Lines"]
Today I spent a few hours just a few blocks from my house, in a part of the world that was almost entirely foreign to me, and by bringing in a piece of work that was equally foreign I believe I helped contribute to something meaningful. Or maybe I should say that I believe that Chinese poet Li Ho (b.790) contributed–but I brought that guy with me, after all…
I was invited to participate as a member of the local writers group in a fundraiser to celebrate 21 years of the Allen Chapel AME Choir. Also there to read or perform in this small brick church said to be the oldest church established by people of color west of the Blue Ridge mountains were a handful of other poets, dancers, singers, students, and even a talented mime.
After a couple of dancers and a few poets whose work seemed pretty in tune with the occasion and the religious nature of the setting, I introduced the congregation to my old friend Li Ho. I talked about Chinese poets of the 8th and 9th centuries and how many of the things they wrote about–mountains, snow, sky–were important elements of our lives in this town. I then read the prose poem “On Translating Poetry from the Chinese” and after that read my recent translations of poems by Li Ho and Li Po.
I can tell you that in a AME church setting, people behave like they are in church. That means if they hear something they like, you know it before you’re done reading that line.
“Mm-hm,” someone says quietly. “Uh yeah!” says another voice, a little louder.
I wasn’t reading poems about God, I wasn’t giving an uproarious rendition of a Nikki Giovanni poem, I was not preaching to the choir (no pun intended)—I was bringing to this room some words and ideas that were utterly foreign to those in attendance. And they immediately got it. And I believe the reason they got it was because they were open to it and they were actively listening. That’s what they came there to do every weekend, and that’s what they were doing now–listening and responding, line by line, it seemed, to the words of a man born in 790 CE, and another born in 701 CE. For the poet born in 1965, the enthusiastic applause for each of the three poems I read was not just polite–it was part of the celebration. It was a celebration of being there, and being alive, and listening.
Later, in his closing remarks, the church’s pastor Rev. Dr. Edward Scott was speaking quietly and personally about a recent tragedy that rocked this church community, that being the death of his daughter just a few weeks ago. He was talking about suffering, the intense suffering of the dying, the grieving of the survivors, and how upon his return from Raleigh he did not at first wish to return to church, or see or talk to anyone; but how he put on his tie and shirt and shiny shoes and came to church today to listen. “And today,” he suddenly boomed in a style which I am sure was quite familiar to his congregation, “I heard tell of a TOAD on the MOON!”
He intuitively had grasped that ancient symbol, that distant watcher, as a way to connect us in that meeting hall to a Malaysia Airlines plane crash that had just happened that day–how beneath that moon was more suffering that must be met, more survivors in far-away places that must come home to grieve and be supported by their communities. He instinctively grasped the moon as elemental to identifying with missing and missed loved ones, just as Li Po and Li Ho did in their time. He found his own grief instructive, channeling it through twelve lines of verse written twelve hundred years ago and everything else he’d seen and heard that hour, into a vision of a shared world.
Suddenly I didn’t feel like my contribution to this celebration was quite so foreign, after all. And for that I can thank two Chinese poets I have never met, and one newly-met pastor of an America I’m still discovering.