The Dam and the Wall

The Three Gorges Dam

In one huge act of unremitting will,
To thirty billion tons this wall says No.
But Yes pours through the turbines of this mill,
As strange thoughts through the Wall of long ago.

(Thirty billion tons, around 30 cubic kilometers, is the amount of water impounded by the dam.)


Poems from Yichang

China Poems, 2010

The Lone White Gull (after Du Fu)

Each time I travel, it is like a death.
I die into a self I do not know.
My alien sinuses transform each breath
Into a sign of passage: time to go.

Smoggy Beijing is almost through with spring.
The hotel garden droops, the flowers have fallen,
The recent rains have wetted everything,
The sodden petals drown amid their pollen.

And is this more than travel-melancholy?
Du Fu’s old scholar, between earth and sky,
Knew all that striving, all that grief and folly
To be an education how to die.

Trapped and Free

Among these glyphs I am a child again.
I am compelled to give up all control.
I cannot drive, or speak; as if my brain
Were now the only freehold of my soul.

And so I must endure the help of others,
And let these open-hearted Chinese in,
Believe the cliché that all men are brothers,
Feel the new shapes, smells, sounds beneath my skin.

Even the illness and humiliation
Comes as a kind of gift to this old man
Whose stiffening decades of habituation
Make me as numb and willful as they can.

My needfulness has opened what was closed.
My loneliness has started a new story;
For in my state of weakness, lost, exposed,
Grace strangely turns an idle hour to glory:

The commune windows shine with pinkish light,
Tiny green gardens take up every space,
Dongqing is coming by—so young, so bright,
With all of ancient China in his face;

And I will open up my door for him,
And he will cook us herb-stew as if we
Were two old sages of another time,
Drinking rice wine and quoting poetry.

At the Edge of the Apartment Complex

The cuckoo calls across this small ravine.
Two motor-scooters lean against a wall.
The fern fronds on the cliff are brilliant green.
Two Chinese voices rise and fall.


I think of Doctor Gachet’s garden, where
Poor sick van Gogh painted the sun-baked flowers:
Did he too, after all that anxious care,
Find peace among the sky-blue idle hours?

The Butterfly’s Love for the Flower
by Wang Dongqing
(translation by Frederick Turner)

Wild tumbled clouds sweep through the sky,
the blustering storm winds blow,
Pear blossoms speckle, damp with rain,
the spring world, turned to softness with their glow;
The chilly rain can’t know their pain
who, parted, grieve alone;
Rain’s stripped a thousand petals from
the thin twigs, naked now.

A double wrinkle aches between
her eyebrows clenched with woe;
She goes upstairs and seeks to pierce
where the far windswept road’s horizons go.
“When will this yearning ever end?”
but answer there is none;
The floating willow-flowers die,
the waters softly flow.

At Home in China

The wood-doves call around the mossy cliffs;
A vendor calls, wheeling a bicycle;
The air is full of quiet hieroglyphs;
Life once again becomes a miracle.

Toddlers with oblong faces, creamy cheeks,
Ride plastic seesaws in the little park.
A woman from an open window speaks
A last word to a frail old patriarch.

I saunter down the pavement to the store,
A strange white giant smiling a “Nihao”;
Where have I seen all these sweet things before?
An old man still can be at home in Now.


To China

So I’m off to China, to teach Shakespeare for a month at China Three Gorges University. Li Bai wrote:

Farewell, Upon Passing Mount Jin Men
Li Bai (701-762)

And now at length I’ve passed beyond Jin Men
On my adventure to the land of Chu.
The mountains end, the flatlands open out,
The Yangtze meets the vast plains and pours through.

The moon is flung upon its heavenly mirror,
The clouds grow mirages of towers and sea;
But still I love the waters of my homeland
That travel with my boat a thousand li.

He also wrote:

Early Start from White King City
Li Bai (701-762)

I leave Bai Ti in its white clouds,
at dawn I’m on my way,
To Jiang Ling it’s a thousand li,
but it will take one day.
The screaming monkeys on the banks
will never cease their calls;
My light boat has already passed
ten thousand mountain-walls!

But Du Fu wrote:

At Night Far From Home He Unburdens His Heart
Du Fu (712-770)

A light wind in the thin grass of the shore,
A boat at night, tall-masted and alone;
The stars hang over a vast open plain,
The moon swims in the mighty river’s stream.

So, do my writings make a famous name?
This sick old officer should just resign.
Adrift, adrift, what kind of thing am I?
A lone white gull between the earth and sky.

Nothing really changes.