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.


A Book about Epic

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?

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.


Being, Continued

The conversation on being is getting interesting. This poem of mine from a couple of years ago might show how I like to use the word–playfully, and bringing out its linguistic oddity. Maybe a companion piece to Mary Freeman’s good poem in the comments to the last post.

Let Be

Weeding, I disturb a bee
That is bumbling in the sages,
But she has forgiven me,
Goes off to the saxifrages.

There I will just let her be,
And, since bee-ing is her being,
She will go on being free,
She-ing while I go on me-ing.

“Let it be” was how the king
In that strange old myth or story
Gave the bee its sweet and sting,
Set the heavens in their glory:

Was it permit or command?
Do we own, or was he letting,
Are we in or out of hand?
Was he making or just betting?

So he gave himself away,
Changed from he-ing into she-ing,
Where his “shall” became her “may”,
Time born out of unforeseeing.

If I weed around the sage,
Letting it achieve its flower,
Do I make a kind of cage?
Do I claim a godlike power?

But the weeds are weeding me,
Cells that are, in acting, dying;
Sage-flowers fertilize the bee,
Every selling is a buying.

So creation is a cross,
“Let” and “be” in intersection,
Where the gain is in the loss,
And the death’s the resurrection.


Being and Heidegger

I am reading another dissertation on Heidegger–a rather good one, I might add. But I am struck by a disturbing thought about this very influential philosopher.

The first concerns the central importance for his philosophy of the word “being” (“Sein” in German). I wonder whether there is such a thing (quality, action, process, event) as “being” at all. Heidegger may be right that the Greeks after Socrates had a bad habit of reifying bits of language, a habit shared by the German language and its over-easy facility for making abstract nouns. But suppose we take his critique a bit further. What if the words “be”, “is,” “einai,” “esse,” “etre,” etc are just a piece of Indo-European grammar, a copulative or a sort of preposition or article, like “and,” “of,” “with,” or even “the”? What if it got turned into a verb for convenience as a poetic metaphor or trope, then turned into a noun–“being”–and thence into a divine seal of authenticity?–and then became a huge and empty non-issue? Might not “with-ing,” “with-ness,” “of-ing,” “of-ness,” “the-ing,” and “the-ness” easily have turned into similar linguistic junk bonds or credit default swaps?

There is no verb in Chinese for “to be,” “is,” and no noun for “being,” and this great civilization has got on pretty well for the last 4,000 years or so without it. Moreover it is a civilization historically based on poetry–you had to pass a poetry exam to be one of the ruling mandarins–which casts some doubt on Heidegger’s claim that poetry has a special relationship with “being.” Science doesn’t really need the verb “to be”–the equals sign works perfectly well.

So maybe the real value of all this fuss about “being” is as a huge and splendid game, but with darker overtones lent by the European habit of denying authentic “being” to one group of people or another, and then exterminating them.


Who is the Best Film Maker in the World Today?

That, in my humble opinion, is Hayao Miyazaki. Miyazaki mines all human myths, all genres, even our dreams. His peaceful flooded landscapes–Spirited Away, Ponyo–are the landscapes of the physical soul, where we can see the prehistoric fish of our own dreadful and beautiful submarine powers swimming calmly below the surface of consciousness. One third of our lives is lived below that surface anyway–the flooded landscape is everyday reality seen truly. Powerful and charming as Avatar is, Cameron’s philosophical imagination as regards nature, the environment, and the human role as technologist and maker is utterly outdone by Miyazaki’s The Princess Mononoke. Howl’s Moving Castle is as sophisticated a study of human sexual relationships, aging, war, and spiritual power as any current mainstream novel. And the animation is great art, amazingly fabricated out of the most vulgar materials of anime and children’s stories.

It’s very interesting that the best art of our time is very often in genres regarded by our elites as childish. What is going on?


Evolution and Natural Law

I sent this little book–which contains my thinking about how natural law, both moral and legal, might be revived and put to use in the chaos following modernist and postmodernist attempts to generate binding principles of human conduct–to two publishers, one conservative, one liberal. The conservative one politely turned it down, though it had come recommended by a leading conservative intellectual. The liberal one offered me a contract and sent me a small advance. The publisher, however, overruled her very liberal editors because she found ideas in the book that she could not stomach. So I figured the book probably has things to say that might be of value and interest to the public at large. Here it is, then.


Rinse and Repeat

The “rinse and repeat” instruction line on shampoo bottles is a beautiful illustration of the tight interconnection of self-inclusion paradoxes, time, quotation marks, levels of abstraction, consciousness, and the evolution of the universe.

Very few people are found dead in showers, their heads rotted away by infinitely iterated applications of shampoo. But the instruction line on the bottle would if followed literally lead to this deplorable result. Idiots, we know, don’t know when to stop. Computers are brilliant idiots; every time one freezes, it is because it has run across the equivalent of the instruction line and gotten itself into an infinite feedback loop.

In fact it is difficult to see how the line could be amended to avoid the error. If one added “Stop” to the end of the line, the idiot (acting as a Turing Machine) might go on repeating forever and never get to the “Stop” instruction. Or if one added before the repeat command “stop after two repetitions”, the idiot might take the injunction to repeat as applying to the reading of the instructions as well as the lathering process, and on returning to the instructions would read, again, “Stop after two repetitions”, and reset its counter obediently to two. If it had a counter. And if it didn’t simply crash as a result of getting two contradictory commands.

A counter is one level up in abstraction; it implies an overview of the process, a summing-up rather than just the execution of the process. But even a simple counter won’t work in this case, as we have seen. Another level is required, to recognize and solve the self-inclusion paradox. The paradox is similar to Russell’s famous paradox of the village barber who shaves everybody in the village who doesn’t shave himself. Who shaves the barber? The issue is whether the command “repeat” applies to itself or not, and whether, if it does, its efficacy somehow ceases after the first iteration. Gödel’s even more intractable paradox, “This statement is unprovable”, contains the same implication, of a self-nested logic that goes on unendingly: “This statement: ‘This statement: “This statement: ‘….’ is unprovable” is unprovable’ is unprovable.”

The simplest components of the physical universe, quantum events, don’t seem to have a “repeat” command, which is what you need to have any kind of coherent time. But the moment enough of them reach a consensus to repeat, classical matter is born, and with it time as we know it. In the competition for survival in time between repeaters and non-repeaters, repeaters of course win, but they do so by idiotically repeating themselves into the future, rinsing and repeating, generating the next moment’s version of themselves as fast as time will allow as described by Planck’s constant.

It was only when higher forms of computational difficulty arose, from whose perspective mere repetition could be recognized and put a stop to when system survival dictated it, that higher forms of matter, especially living matter, and quintessentially conscious living matter, could begin to appear.

Which is why, except when we default to the old logic of OCD, we don’t go on lathering up.


A Better Reading Version of the Tang Poets

There is now a better version of my Tang anthology.  I hope this works.