Sunday, December 24, 2017

Apathic, and Not

Katie Kitamura, A Separation

Laurent Binet, The Seventh Function of Language

Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power

I realize that it is banal to think such a thing, but those indelible lines from Yeats's "The Second Coming" have been bouncing around my brain all week, in particular the line about the best lacking all conviction (and the worst, well, you know how it goes). As I say, not an original thought, but the great insight that flows through much of the poetry of Yeats is that more often than not courage isn't equal to desire, and that the age in which we live (the one in which he lived), prefers conformity to conviction. What was once thought of as honesty and plain speaking is now the worse form of gaucherie; what was known (long ago) as having convictions or being passionate is now seen as stridency. My circle of the world is diminutive, and I have no doubt these generalizations are faulty, but the evidence that something has given way, that a consensus has been achieved among liberal persons that moral neutrality spares one the sorts of collisions that we now prefer to avoid.  Many of the brightest people I know are cynical or apathetic. Even irony feels like a commitment to a point of view. And, the truth is, with the current regime in power, we've moved past satire and irony, into a darker realm. Perhaps the Second Coming is at hand--not the Gnostic ascent into higher wisdom of which Yeats dreamed, but an epiphany more akin to Dante's--to the Circles of Fraud, Duplicity, and Violence.  Or perhaps we must go about numbed, our feelings shot through with Novocaine.

 Katie Kitamura's strange, disaffecting little tale of a marriage on the rocks, while domestic to the point of claustrophobia, embodies this ἀπάθεια--in Greek "without passion," a Stoic notion, and a positive characteristic for those yearning to rise above the tribulations of this world. Apathy has come to describe slackers, burn-outs, compulsive gamers, the apolitical and the narcissistic.  But Ms. Kitamura does something far more interesting in her novel than merely describe (yet another!) thirty-something, educated white woman who has been burned in love and is in danger of self-immolation. (To be fair, there are plenty of educated white males in the same boat). 

The unnamed narrator receives a phone call from her mother-in-law, a preemptive demand that the (presumed) wife travel to Greece, to the tiny fishing village of Gerolimenas, to find her husband who has been uncharacteristically out of touch. What Isabella, the mother-in-law, doesn't know is that the narrator and her son have been separated for six months; there's no reason for the wife to seek out her philanderer of a husband, and yet she agrees, travels to Greece, and begins a half-hearted search for clues as to her husband's whereabouts.  

There were plenty of echoes of Paul Bowles The Sheltering Sky in A Separation--cynics abroad, the anti-Jamesian view of no-longer-innocent Americans mucking about the poorer precincts of the globe--the Greek landscape has been decimated by fires; everything is covered in gray-black ash, and the Greeks themselves, though formally hospitable, appear to the narrator to radiate a kind of menace, as if they knew something about Christopher's disappearance that they weren't disclosing. In fact, one of the female members of the hotel staff has had a fling with Christopher, at least she claims that she has done so, though in this and in much else we are left in the dark.  So much ambiguity surrounds the story that one isn't certain if there is any truth to be found, or if the narrator's mission isn't merely to confirm her own ambivalence. All we know for certain is that days pass in a desultory pursuit of a missing husband about whom we know practically nothing (he is found, spoiler alert, but I will withhold the details).

Kitamura's flat, uninflected style reminded me of an essay I read recently by James Wood on Cormac McCarthy's The Road.  McCarthy's novel is, of course, much, much darker than Kitamura's, but in I think The Road and A Separation share certain stylistic traits: Wood writes: "Minimalism can be very good for the life of fiction: description, thrown back onto its essentials, flourishes as it justifies its own existence. Worlds are returned to their original function as names." Like McCarthy, Kitamura's prose is stripped to the bone. She runs her narrator's ruminative sentences together, but the descriptive language is anything but lyrical--clinical is more like it, strangely precise yet resolutely ambiguous. 

The narrator of Kitamura's strange tale--a novel without a hero, a story without a plot--observes the world as if through the lens of a camera, with both sincerity and detachment. Here's Kitamura's narrator as voyeur, telling us her impressions of the (presumed) meaning of an interaction between a Greek cab driver and the hotel concierge who may or may not have been Christopher's lover: 

"The contempt [the concierge] felt for the [Stefano, the cab driver] man who held her in his arms! And yet there were plenty of women who would have been only too delighted to love the driver, he was handsome and not without charm, and evidently he was capable of loyalty. There was of course the problem of his temper, but women could be surprisingly accommodating, as well as optimistic, one could live in the hope that his anger would subside, especially once he was loved in return, it was not impossible. Yes, it would have been better if she let him go--if she told him that she would never loved him, that they had no future together."

Such a strange passage! The galloping parataxis, the presumptions ("evidently," "there were plenty of women," "it would have been better"). Naturally one assumes that the narrator wants the cab driver for herself, but there's little more than innuendo to support this supposition. What is striking is that Kitamura maintains this curious judgemental detachment throughout the novel. That her husband has cheated on her, that her mother-in-law demands that she travel to Greece to search for Christopher, that the concierge boasts of sleeping with her husband, that there is something both attractive and frightening about the cab driver--none of these facts do more than pique the narrator's curiosity and her penchant for what can only be called philosophical analysis: 

"She spoke with enthusiasm, nonetheless I was aware that her words did not make much sense, these things that were not true and about which I did not know (how could I have known about them, if they were not true, what there have been to know about? Or did she only mean that I did not have the same false suspicions, had not heard the false rumors?)

Such a remarkable passage.  Direct discourse punctuated with parenthetical clarifications; the aside, worthy of J. L. Austin, that one can't know anything about something that isn't true; the almost wistful "or did she only mean," regretful of a lost chance for clarity now that Maria is no longer available for questioning? I image that if Wittgenstein had read novels he'd have enjoyed A Separation.

Most of all, I was left with the impression that what Kitamura had achieved was the perfect novel of apathy--not of indifference or disengagement, but of detached and philosophical observation (perhaps the Greek setting evokes such stoicism).  Many sentences begin with conditionals--"I suppose," "perhaps," "and yet," "on the other hand," "at the same time." Most of the direct discourse is offered as a preliminary to understanding, propositions that may later be falsified, tentative conclusions awaiting further evidence: "...Perhaps all deaths were unjust, but some were more so...." and then "No, it was almost certainly as it had appeared" and the ending which drops a dark curtain of ambiguity over the entire novel: "I could only say that I was sorry, and that I agreed--although what we were waiting for, what exactly it was, neither of us could say." 


The feud between Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates has caught me up short since I am an admirer of both men, and, in ordinary times, I would have thought them to be natural allies. I must admit that I was disappointed when I read We Were Eight Years in Power for Coates has overlooked all of the less savory aspects of the Obama presidency--the drone wars, the unfulfilled promises (to close Guantanamo for example), the alliance with Wall Street that has allowed the perpetration of the conditions that brought down the world economy under Bush/Cheney. There is no doubt that Obama's election was a significant event, a moment that should have made all Americans proud. But an honest accounting of Obama's achievements must move beyond symbolism to governing.  Cornel West, never one to tread lightly, savaged Coates in an article published in the Guardian, accusing Coates of being a neoliberal (not a good thing to be these days), of betraying the struggle for social justice, and other crimes. While Coates leaves out too much, West probably goes too far--there's no clear middle ground in their debate; perhaps this reflects the overall erosion of constructive political discourse. Still, it pains me to see these two men so at odds when what is needed now are strong agreements and a way forward.


On a lighter note, I've just finished Laurent Binet's The Seventh Function of Language, an utterly engaging quasi-detective novel set in the hothouse of French intellectual history circa 1980.  The plot revolves around the investigation of the infamous laundry truck accident that eventually killed Roland Barthes. A hapless assistant professor, Simon Herzog and a humorless French police investigator, Jacques Bayard, interview such intellectual luminaries as Michel Foucault (in a bathhouse), Julia Kristeva, Bernard-Henri Levy, Gilles Deleuze, and a dozen other famous and notorious figures. Binet's heady mix of intellectual history, detective-mystery tropes (parsing obscure clues, Bayard can't refrain from mocking the pointlessness of academic culture; I kept thinking of Jim Rockford and Columbo). Yes, there are games galore, word-play and oodles of literary references--from Saul Bellow to William Empson.  Binet's is the best kind of literary entertainment--witty and provocative.  A wonderful end-of-the-year read for any talented reader. 

Happy Holidays and Good Reading in the New Year.

George Ovitt (Christmas Eve, 2017)

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Indian Macabre

In the southern Indian city of Bangalore where this short novel is set, the nonsense expression ghachar ghochar translates roughly—in the private parlance of one particular family—as “tangled beyond repair”. The fact that Bangalore is the setting of this novel about the trials and vicissitudes of contemporary middle class Indian life is anything but arbitrary. As India’s second fastest-growing metropolis, Bangalore, once known primarily as the Garden City of India, is now known internationally as the Silicon Valley of India, home to IT companies like Infosys and Wipro, as well as to such varied multinational corporations as Bosch, Boeing, GM, Google, Microsoft, and Mercedes-Benz. What this has meant for the local population is a new, greater, often violently disorienting social mobility, so that virtually overnight literally thousands of Indians have moved from lives of grim subsistence to ones of solidly middle class conventions, fears, and dreams.  

Ghachar Ghochar is the story of just such a family, in this case a poor family made suddenly prosperous by the profits of a spice company they founded. Not surprisingly the members are not entirely at ease in this new role of theirs, wrestling daily with the many challenges and responsibilities that accompany this radical change of fortune. Told in a spare, restrained, often finely distilled prose, a cleanly wry style reminiscent of R.K. Narayan, the novel, this parody really, is first and foremost that of the unnamed narrator, the son in the family, who surveys the swiftly unraveling scene around him with a cool, sardonic eye. Perhaps only at the very end does one of his eyelids twitch! Best read in a single day. Enjoy.

Ghachar Ghochar was translated from Kannada by Srinath Perur.

Peter Adam Nash  

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Work Women Do

Women’s Work: Modern Women Poets Writing in English
Philip Davis, in the introduction to his recent biography of George Eliot, states that “Literature is transmitted being.” It is an expression I love and one that seems ideal for describing the poems in this fine collection, each of which, if variously, seems an attempt to do just that, to transmit one’s life as it is lived and felt in a particular moment, in a particular place, in a particular frame of heart or mind. Consisting of the work of over 250 contributors, the poems vary greatly in style and form, and cover subjects as wide-ranging as love, loss, marriage, betrayal, memory, work, childhood, politics, race, religion, language, war, history, exile, displacement, identity, nature, longing, and death.

Opening the collection at random, I read this poem first:

The Shipfitter’s Wife

I loved him most
when he came home from work,
his fingers still curled from fitting pipe,
his denim shirt ringed with sweat,
smelling of salt, the drying weeds
of the ocean. I’d go to where he sat
on the edge of the bed, his forehead
anointed with grease, his cracked  hands
jammed between his thighs, and unlace
the steel-toed boots, stroke his ankles
and calves, the pads and bones of his feet.
Then I’d open his clothes and take
the whole day inside me—the ship’s
gray sides, the miles of copper pipe,
the voice of the foreman clanging
off the hull’s silver ribs. Spark of lead
kissing metal. The clamp, the winch,
the white fire of the torch, the whistle,
and the long drive home.

                                  Dorianne Laux

Sujata Bhatt

Brazilian Fazenda

The day all the slaves were freed
their manacles, anklets
left on the window ledge to rust in the moist air

and all the coffee ripened
like beads on a bush or balls of fire
as merry as Christmas

and the cows all calved and the calves all lived
such a moo.

On the wide verandah where birds in cages
snag among the bell flowers
I in a bridal hammock
white and tasseled

and bits fell out of the sky near Nossa Senhora
who had walked all the way in bare feet from Bahia

and the chapel was lit by a child’s
fistful of marigolds on the red velvet altar
thrown like a golden ball.

Oh, let me come back on a day
when nothing extraordinary happens
so I can stare
at the sugar white pillars
and black lace grills
of this pink house.

                                P.K. Page

June Jordan

Muriel Rukeyser


Sit down among the boxes and write a poem,
he told me; obedient, I’m writing.
Moving house, he said, is such an ordinary
thing to do—a regular activity,
especially for you—no obligation
to unpack at once or be dutiful.

Find a vacant corner and there among
half-empty cartons spilling crumpled paper,
piles of sofa cushions and rolled-up carpets,
dining chairs like acrobatic couples
or swimmers, chest to chest, one pair of legs
trialing through water, the other flailing air,

and think about important things—not builders,
plumbers, electricians. I try to remember
how it began, this restlessness: a lifetime
trying to feel at home. A need and hope, he
hints, which might be programmed in my genes,
bred in the bone—nothing to do with him—

and makes me realise again those complex
ties that hold us together: everywhere,
both of us are strangers. Then: “Let’s open
a bottle of wine and drink a toast to life,”
he smiles and holds me close, “then go upstairs.”
Why not? I ponder, putting the poem aside.

                                       Ruth Fainlight

Kay Ryan

Lucille Clifton


The universe is sad.
I heard it when Artur Rubenstein played the piano.
He was a little man with small hands.
We were bombing Germany by then.
I went to see him in a dark warehouse
Where a piano had been placed for his practice—
Or whatever he did before a recital.
He signed the book I had with me—
It was called Warsaw Ghetto.
I later heard about him—
His affairs with young women
—if only I had known—but I was
in love with you.
Artur is dead;
And you, my darling,
The imprint of your face, alert like a deer—
oh god, it is eaten away—
The earth has taken it back
But I listen to Artur—
He springs out of the grave—
His genius wired to this tape—
A sad trick of the neural pathways, resonating flesh
And my old body remembers the way you touched me.

                                                     Ruth Stone

Vona Groarke 

Anne Sexton

The men wore human skins
but removed them at night
and fell to the bottom of darkness
like crows without wings.

War was the perfect disguise.
Their mothers would not have known them,
and the swarming flies could not find them.

When they met a sprit in the forest
it thought they were bags of misfortune
and walked away
without taking their lives.

In this way, they tricked the deer.
It had wandered into the forest at night,
thinking antlers of trees
were other deer.

If I told you the deer was a hide of light
you wouldn’t believe it, or that it was a hunting song
that walked out of a diviner’s bag
sewn from human skin.

I knew it could pass
through the bodies of men and could return.
It knew the arrow belonged to the bow,
and that men only think they are following
the deaths of animals
or other men
when they are walking into the fire.

That’s why fire is restless
and smoke has become
the escaped wings of crows,
why war is only another skin,
and hunting,
and why men are just the pulled-back curve of the bow.

                                                      Linda Hogan

Mimi Khalvati
Mrs Darwin
7 April 1852

Went to the Zoo.
I said to Him—
Something about that Chimpanzee over there reminds me of

                                                  Carol Ann Duffy 

Janet Frame

This remarkably engaging collection was edited by Eva Salzman and Amy Wack. Enjoy. 
*The lead photograph is of poet, Judith Wright

Peter Adam Nash 

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Tell It Slant

Janlori Goldman, Bread from a Stranger's Oven

Each year, White Pine Press (hereafter WPP) sponsors a contest, selecting the best book of poetry from what I imagine must be hundreds of worthy submissions.  Don't be fooled by the fact that the mainstream book chat people don't write about poetry--there's oceans of wonderful poems being written these days.

This year's winner of the WPP Poetry prize was Janlori Graham's first book, Bread from a Stranger's Oven, a volume whose remarkably intelligent and heartfelt poems have been following me around all week. My general habit on workdays is to brew coffee and read the front page of the Times--one has to be half-asleep nowadays to digest what comes our way above the fold--and then, just as the sun rises above the mountains, I read a few poems to cheer me up. Wednesday was a particularly bad day, but Ms. Goldman made my day with this poem:

Yom Kippur

Today everything hurts, and I'm as close to god as I'll ever come
or want to be. I try to forgive myself, fist knocking at my chest,

a door that forgot how to open. The prayer book's spine
against my palms, I sing loudly to drown out the dandruff

flaked on the suit in the next row, sing as if I believe,
as if the fervor had not been rocked out of my by the cantor

whose polioed leg rubbed into me as we sang together in front
of the high holiday congregation, as if I were still his student

and he could still grip my waist--always his smell of yellow breath
and wear. That was when the old men said girls can never be

rabbis, girls can't stand before the torah. And now in the synagogue,
familiar as the couch leg that catches my pinky toe when I walk past it,

I think of the woman asleep in the window well, blonde wisping
out of a hoodie, sneakers on the sidewalk like slippers by a bed.

No, I'm not hungry, she said. I come to this sanctuary from that chill,
wonder if this is the night I'll open the door. If this is the night.

Many of Goldman's poems feature a detached observer whose recollection of a deceptively simple event reveals the ways in which meaning ripples out from past to present--to put it more simply--we see more as we move away from the present than we see within the moment. Or, as I've been feeling lately, there's a joke at the heart of life that I'm just too dense to decipher.

Mother, So Happy

Drunk. She walks into the Atlantic
             swims into that angle
                             where wave hits sky.

We three wait on the sand
             like eggs cupped in a carton
                          nestled and separate.

Long strokes into swells
         the ocean gulps her
                    as she shrinks to mist.

Head and arms in lunar beams
             even her teeth lit
                         by a mix of moon and sea.

Disappears as drowned
              only to surface in triumph
                           coming up for air.

Full of luck.


["like eggs cupped in a carton"--the verb makes this line memorable; also "that angle," not "the angle;" "even her teeth lit," the doubled voiceless alveolar plosive sealing the deal; and the coda--"Full of...luck!"]


Every day we listen to more lies--particularly from those who are supposed to serve us, from those we are enjoined to trust--from our bosses and coworkers--and at a certain point we cannot help but distrust not only those who tell the lies, but also language itself, as if all words were lies, as if the presumed connection between language and truth has ceased to exist. Words now bully and distort--a four-star general appears publicly to fabricate a story that (at once!) is presumed true because when lies are told with enough conviction, who cares if they are lies?

Post-truth: the idea gives me the creeps, but titillates many. Why? Well, we in the West have been fabricating the unassailable Self for three centuries; the only aspect of divinity we've failed to put on so far, the final piece of prosthesis, is the Logos, creating Our Own World from words.

It's odd that Aristotle, the first literary critic, followed the lead of Plato in accusing poets of lying, thinking, perhaps, that only what could be broken into tautology could be true.  If words are obliged to mirror the world and nothing more, then we have to presume a single way of seeing, a single world open to us all.  I don't doubt that there was once such a place, such clarity--we find this mirrored world across literature from Dante and Chaucer, through Cao Xueqin and Wu Cheng'en (for example)--and even if this concocted place were magical, it was clear that magic and truth could coexist.

I've been rereading Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, and in his brilliant survey of Western literature it strikes me yet again that it was Shakespeare who invented irony, that vertiginous sliding of language toward uncertainty. But irony carries with it a form of truth, one that winks at us, as if to say: Careful, there's more here than meets the eye! Auerbach doesn't quite say so, but after Prince Hal the West began to look askance at the presumed reality of things. Which is a far cry from behaving as if there were no truth: to acknowledge complexity is a form of modesty, not duplicity. It's the meretriciously inclined who have abandoned truth, not out of conviction, but self-interest and ignorance.

Anyway, I'm thankful for the consolation of poems. Here, at least, from Tu Fu to the late Maxim Kumin, the point of the exercise is truth-telling, the central article of faith is the urgency of communicating something fundamental to human life.  Goldman belongs to this tradition.

Winter Solstice

Bring me the old season
             that winter familiar

a slow sheathing of moon in shadow
            as if sky were a gill
                          through which all things

flow in and filter out--
             bring me a home with no right angles
                          a space of curling in

not too bright or sharp
          and bring me the time before that
                       with the garden dark with broken down

coffee grounds and rows of flowing mustard greens
           the smell of ripped roots fresh
                        from the pull

and then before that--
            to my round house a friend will come
                            or maybe the friend's mother

I'll say, Stay for dinner
            she'll say, Let me sew that button.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all. 

George Ovitt (11/19/2017)



Monday, November 13, 2017

Chasing Allusions

In the first forty-five pages of his novel Correction, Thomas Bernhard’s unnamed narrator makes some seventeen allusions, that is, direct or indirect references to people, places, events, or other works of art outside the text itself, a working familiarity with any of which would inevitably enrich one’s reading of the story. If literature is fundamentally about connecting us to others, and in this way connecting us more deeply to ourselves, then allusions are an instrumental part of this phenomenon, as they not only increase the breadth and depth of the particular characters within a given tale, helping to flesh them out, to make them sympathetic—real—to us, but they also have the nearly magical ability to expand the scope and implications of the novel itself (its themes, its language, its situation) by linking it (and us) to others in space and time in a rich, unstructured communitas of fellow human beings, each struggling to make sense of our fraught and otherwise remote and lonely lives. Well-chosen allusions give a story roots and dimension, binding us together in a rich narrative world of knowledge, purpose, and meaning.

On page 45 alone, the narrator refers to the baroque composers Purcell and Handel, to the thinkers Montaigne, Novalis, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Bloch, and Wittgenstein, and finally to the modernist composers Hauer, Schönberg, and Webern. It is then, to the latter composer, that the narrator alludes more specifically, recalling the fact that his recently deceased friend, a scientist and genius named Roithamer (in whose study he is now living as he pieces together the puzzle of his breakdown and death), was immensely fond of the work of Anton Webern, particularly the opening of his string quartets, Webern’s intensely expressive “Slow Movement” or Langsamer Satz

As you read this dense and demanding novel stop here in the story to listen to at least the opening bars, as played, interpreted, by the brilliant Quartetto Italiano:
Webern String Quartets. Each time I hear it I like to think that Bernhard himself is listening, too.

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Rectification of Names

                        The first step to wisdom, as the Chinese say, is getting things
                        by their right names.

                                                                                     Edward O. Wilson

The New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry

“In the daily assault of mendacious or empty language,” writes Eliot Weinberger in his introduction to this collection, “Chinese poetry promoted the Confucian ‘rectification of names’—that words should mean what they say, that it is the poet’s task to restore meaning, that the poet, like the enlightened ruler, was a person who stood by his word.” Writes James J.Y. Liu, in his primer, The Art of Chinese Poetry, “To the question of what poetry is, most orthodox Confucians would reply: it is primarily a kind of moral instruction. And since government by moral influence is a Confucian political ideal, the function of poetry also includes a comment on social and political affairs.” Indeed both of these disciplines—statecraft and poetry—are dependent on, if not defined by, the very words they use (or misuse), that is by their particular relationship to language.

Confucianism, often referred to as a ‘civil religion’, made a faith, a philosophy, of everyday life. Founded on humaneness, on the essential tension between tradition and innovation, the poetry it inspired is characterized by an often startlingly wide range of human emotions and experiences: “war and weather, loneliness and politics, drunkenness and minor aches and pains, friendship, gardening, bird-watch, failure, river journeys, religious and sexual ecstasy, ageing, poverty and riches, courtesans and generals, princes and children, street vendors and monks…”, on what Ezra Pound, devotee and innovative translator of some of the poems in this collection, called ‘radiant gists’, ideograms in verse, with which he experimented at length in his own Cantos. Indeed this anthology is nearly as much about the Western fascination with classical Chinese poetry and its ‘rectification of names’ as it is about classical Chinese poetry itself.  

What is important to understand about this essential Confucian concept and charge is that it had less to do with the reactionary policing of the language they used, with enforcing adherence to a collection of fixed, officially sanctioned words and phrases, than with simply (simply!) leading and writing by example, that is, with integrity of purpose and meaning. It meant, for these Confucians, striving daily to establish and maintain a working cultural and cognitive consensus when it came to the language they used, so that it served them both broadly and well, so that it served the greatest good. A ‘sentimental archaism’? I think not. One has only to listen for a minute to our current Commander-in-Chief, to read a few of his infamous Tweets, to know that—as George Orwell put it in his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language"—our language is in a bad way. 
Orwell's essay is worth considering (or reconsidering) in the light of today. While initially one might be tempted to read it as  somewhat preachy, pedantic—a schoolmaster’s scolding for adults, it is nothing of the kind. Orwell had little interest in such things, engaged instead, all his writing life, in a way that is nearly Confucian, in a fierce and protracted war against the intellectual and moral sloth that helped to give rise to the violent 20th century orthodoxies of nationalism, fascism, and communism—righteous, bombastic, expressly antidemocratic movements that resulted in the murder, destitution, and general dehumanization of tens of millions of people around the world in less than a half a century.  

One doesn’t have to look hard to see the relationship between the bastardization of our language—as we see it practiced by the current administration—and the material and moral anguish of the nation as a whole. Language matters; it always has and always will. Perhaps no one knew this better than the poets in this fine collection.

Here, by the poet Lu Chi, is the poem, “She Thinks of Her Beloved”:

It is going to rain.
The fresh
Breeze rustles the leaves of the
Cinnamon tree. It scatters
The begonias on the earth.
The falling petals cannot
Be numbered. Scarlet leaves fly
In the wind. The wind raises
Whirls of dust. All the world trembles.
It blows over the gauze screen,
Chills my flesh
And disarranges
My hair. Desolate and alone
I dream of my beloved
At the edge of Heaven, far
Across towering mountain
Ranges and roaring rivers.
I watch the birds wheel in the
Starry sky. I wish they could carry a letter. But he
Is too far away, they would
Never find the way. Rivers
Flow to the sea. Nothing can
Make the current return to
Its source. Lustrous and perfumed,
The magnolias lose their petals
All through the day and the night
I loosen the agate pegs
Of the lute and put the jade
Flute aback in its case. In the
Silence and solitude, the sound
Of my beating heart frightens me.
The moon breaks through the clouds. I try
To write a poem in the endless night.

                  (Translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

Here, by Tu Fuo, is the poem “Outside the City”

It is bitter cold, and late, and falling
Dew muffles my gaze into bottomless skies.
Smoke trails out over distant salt mines
Where snow-covered peaks cast shadows east.

Armies haunt my homeland still. And war
Drums throb in this distant place. A guest
Overnight in a river city, together with
Shrieking crows, my old friends, I return.

                 (Translated by David Hinton)

Finally  here, perhaps one of the best known of all in the west, is this poem by Li Po:
The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter

While my hair was still cut straight across my
I played about the front gate, pulling flowers.
You came by on bamboo stilts, playing horse,
You walked about my seat, playing with blue plums.
And we went on living in the village of Chokan:
Two small people without dislike or suspicion.

At fourteen I married My Lord you.
I never laughed, being bashful.
Lowering my head, I looked at the wall.
Called to a thousand times, I never looked back.

At fifteen I stopped scowling,
I desired my dust to be mingled with yours
Forever and forever and forever.
Why should I climb the look out?

At sixteen you departed,
You went into far Ku-to-yen, by the river of swirling
And you have been gone five months.
The monkeys make sorrowful noise overhead.
You dragged your feet when you went out.
By the gate now, the moss is grown, the different
Too deep to clear them away!
The leaves fall early this autumn, in wind.
The paired butterflies are already yellow with
Over the grass in the West garden;
They hurt me,
I grow older,
If you are coming down through the narrows of the
           river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand,
And I will come out to meet you
                                As far as Cho-fu-Sa.

                                   (Translated by Ezra Pound)

Peter Adam Nash