The Power of Conversation

Tuesday, 29 June 2010, 10:09 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

My old friend Charles Cameron has become involved with a very interesting conversation with an erstwhile al-Qaeda leader that has been going on in the blogosphere. Al-Masri’s reply to Charles was very interesting. Here is what I said to Charles:

This is an amazing correspondence. Bravo on being part of it.

For me the most significant thing, underlying all the others, is the
Richard/Saladin image. Basically the import of Al-Masri’s writing is
a desire for respect, to be treated as an honorable equal. That was
why he responded with such chivalry to Farrall and with such
enthusiasm to your own revelation of your warrior ancestry.

I think that the Ummah itself wants one symbolic victory, where it has
the moral advantage and the chance for magnanimous action in victory.
It was Egypt’s few days of success in the Yom Kippur war that gave it the
sense of self-respect to make peace with Israel.

[If we allowed] breathing room for the grand, generous, sexist, sentimental sense of
Muslim honor, all or most of our strategic objectives might be
achieved in negotiation.

China Photos

Tuesday, 15 June 2010, 10:44 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

Check out my China photos on Facebook.

Goodbye to China

Sunday, 6 June 2010, 21:41 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

The Traveler Packs His Tent of Words

How quickly Yichang has become my home,
How dear the places where I cooked and slept.
But for us humans, all is to and from,
And nothing can be saved and nothing kept.

Just to sit down and eat we make a place
That is the center of a little world,
And merely the direction of one’s face
Becomes a kind of tie or anchor-hold.

A dream! To waken is to leave behind
The one we were before sleep’s little death:
It is the penalty of humankind,
The rising dark between our every breath.

But always, on a ship or on a plane,
I can put up the tent of poetry,
The flimsy fabric that keeps off the rain
Of loss, loneliness, and mortality.

And Another

Wednesday, 2 June 2010, 8:41 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

At the Source of the Yang Jia Shi River

There’s been no moon since I came to Yichang.
Mist and rain hid her white face from view.
And so the ancient poets of the Tang
Seemed to say: “This was not meant for you.”

But now I’ve reached the place the Yang Jia Shi
Bursts from the mountain in three spouts of white,
Fed by the fog-wreathed crags that roar to me
The same moon-foaminess I missed at night.

Another poem from Yichang

Wednesday, 2 June 2010, 1:43 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

The Girls of China

I see your conscience and your sheer clean hair,
Your graceful carriage, pliant as a feather,
How when a duty of the heart is there,
You press determined little lips together;

I see your stylishness, your quiet chic,
As you walk arm in arm with a girl friend;
I see the trace of color in your cheek,
When there is something that you should defend;

I see you under your light parasol,
Transparent darkness in your clear brown eyes,
I see your odd thought and your forthright soul,
Obscurely simple and naively wise.

The Dam and the Wall

Tuesday, 25 May 2010, 20:39 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

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

Wednesday, 19 May 2010, 23:05 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

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

Sunday, 2 May 2010, 21:40 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

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.

A Book about Epic

Thursday, 1 April 2010, 9:28 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

As some readers of this blog may know, I am writing a book about epic. I’m going to have to look for a publisher, so I’m trying to put some words together that will entice an editor and reasonably characterize its content. So any suggestions would be gratefully received. Thanks to John MacE for his editing on this version.

Human culture can be surprisingly unpredictable in its search for new creative outlets and ideas. If need be it will reach back to its ancient roots in search of the next big thing: epic, for instance.

“Epic” is now a cult term among fantasy gamers and anime and comic book enthusiasts, and the epic themes, characters and plots are consciously and unconsciously reprised in science fiction, superhero movies, fantasy graphics, Gothic lifestyles, Renaissance Faires, battle reenactments, summer blockbusters, and music video. Evidently some kind of youth rebellion is going on against the now rather
antiquated slayers of the Grand Narratives. Perhaps ancient human needs are resurfacing, expressing themselves through popular culture because the high-culture venues of the academy and the highbrow press and art world are closed to them.

The story that epic tells is the story of human evolution as seen from the inside; it anticipates, sometimes by thousands of years, the findings of modern neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. Our ancestors were not naive about our nature.

Dozens of major epic poems, oral and written, have been surfacing across the planet among “non-Western” cultures such as the Malinese, the Mayans,the Polynesians, the Kurds, the Serbs, the
Armenians, and the Mongols, and in regions as diverse as ancient India, China, Japan, Persia, Argentina, Korea, and East Africa, proving that the grand narratives are not a “Western” but a human
invention. They are invention of peoples who have stepped beyond myth into the making of civilization, with all its tearing strains against our nature and all its dangerous promise. Uncannily, these epics repeat the same stories again and again–the beast-man and his fall, the wise woman, tragic in-law conflict, the journey to the land of the dead, the sacrificial founding of the city, the creation of the world through the creation of language, and many others.

The new generation that has rediscovered epic is well aware of the ambiguities of this gift they have appropriated from under the noses of its cultured censors. The book will explore this new-old phenomenon and begin to outline its meaning.

A New Start for Karate?

Thursday, 1 April 2010, 9:15 | Category : Uncategorized
Tags :

The following is a piece I wrote for the nascent American Amateur Karate Federation electronic newsletter. I’m hoping that interested readers will look out for the newsletter when it appears in the next few days.

On March 27th this year a meeting of historic importance for the martial arts took place at the University of Texas-Dallas, hosted by the Japan Karate Association and the AAKF Southwestern Region. I attended the seminar, and as a long-time student with more enthusiasm and years than talent and time I was curious to see how the Shotokan school would handle the great transition that the seminar marked.

A little over a year ago Hidetaka Nishiyama, the great sensei of the Shotokan school of karate, passed away after a lifetime of astonishing achievement in developing and spreading the ancient art of karate. He left behind a galaxy of martial arts talent and a great store of knowledge and expertise embodied in his students as well as in his published work.

I knew that traditionally martial arts schools have often broken up into rival fiefdoms after the era of a great integrating leader like sensei Nishiyama. I believe that what happened on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas and in meetings before and after the main occasion that weekend in March changed all that.

Significantly, the meeting was organized around an extraordinary teaching event. Robert Fusaro, Mahmoud Tabassi, Toru Shimoji, Albert Cheah, Dr. Tim Hanlon, Brad Webb and Alex Tong, the sensei of the Dallas club, presented, one after another, the distilled wisdom of perhaps two centuries of training, competition, and meditation. These were the true secrets of the art, presented in action and in training exercises, with remarkable clarity and new insight, by some of the finest athlete-artists in the world.

Other karateka reading this will be well aware of the changes that have been taking place in Shotokan: the adjustment of the stance to give more dynamical potential, the increasingly explicit study of internal body power and contraction, the analysis of the roles of different muscle groups, the work on breathing, timing, application. To the traditional spiritual, poetic, and alchemical vocabulary of China and Japan has been added the physics, dynamics, and sports-medical biology of the West, to the advantage of both. I foresee a further role for psychology, emerging from the combination of chi theory with Western neuropsychology. Many of these developing features of our art were splendidly on show at the seminar.

But what made the event unique was that each sensei built upon the work and ideas of the others. In a normal karate seminar each of these instructors would give profound knowledge and inspiration; but when the same basic yet subtle principles were illuminated in very different styles, metaphors, and physical action, suddenly karate seemed to spring from two into three dimensions, from the flat to the round. I learned approaches and methods that not only promised to improve my techniques, but also to avoid certain kinds of injury, and most important personally, to deepen my understanding of karate into the period of old age.

What was especially helpful was the creation of special sessions in which students both beginning and expert could ask questions individually of the instructors, and thus to get to know them and have them address the personal training needs of each questioner. This too was a change in the culture of karate, in the kindly spirit of sensei Nishiyama, but developed further in a way that extends extends the tradition in a new way.

What happened at the meeting, it seemed to some of us, was that the deep devotion of the leadership to teaching and to the art of karate itself had overwhelmed the traditional fiery independence and desire for precedence of the great masters. That spirit, though admirable and necessary in so competitive an art, has tended to prevent karate from speaking in a single voice. Perhaps the model of karate governance was changing from monarchy to a sort of democratic meritocracy, from rivalry in ranking to friendly and cooperative competition in excellence. Could we some day try once more for representation in the Olympics?

Whatever the further outcome of this meeting, the students were the beneficiaries, and we look forward to a new era of vitality in the fine old art of karate.