Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Duke Altum's Poem of the Week #15

One of the most valuable single books I own in my little collection is an anthology of poems from around the world called A Book of Luminous Things (edited by the great Polish poet and Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz). This book is worth its weight in gold to me. As a matter of fact, I keep the book, of all places, in my bathroom... I know, some of you are thinking "too much information," but my point is that it is that rare book you want to make sure you are dipping into regularly, that rewards you no matter what page you turn to and no matter how often you turn to it. Milosz has compiled a virtual cornucopia of GREAT poetry from every continent on the globe (with the exception of Antarctica maybe), as well as from different periods of history. The result is truly a book that lives up to its grandiose title... it is a book of wisdom, beauty and truth... a book of luminous things.

POTW #15 comes from this great anthology, and it brings us to an entirely different time and culture than has been previously featured in this series. Milosz obviously has a strong interest in and affinity for the Asian poets, and one poet who is featured several times in the book is Wang Wei (699-761), one of the three major poets from the T'ang Dynasty. Wang Wei was a poet of incredible subtlety and grace (even in translation one can assert this), and his poetry celebrates and admires the beauty of the natural world, while always casting a longing eye towards a Buddhist detachment from the pressing realities of his life as a civil servant. According to Milosz, this longing for detachment is always symbolized in his poetry by clouds...

Now I don't know much at all about Chinese poetry or history, or Buddhism for that matter, though I know enough to understand that there is much to admire in all three. But this poem stands on its own as a powerful expression of the elation and enchantment the traveler (of any age) feels when coming into a city that is new and mysterious and open to him/her. In this case, the city is approached by boat... but I recognize in these lines something I've felt myself (and I'd venture to guess has been felt by most of us in our travels, if we've been blessed with such opportunity), which is the wonder and sense of possibility that stirs in the heart as you enter a new world for the first time.

The poem also powerfully evokes the sights, sounds and (perhaps) smells that must have been prevalent in an ancient, remote Chinese city... and to be able to bring such sensations vividly to the mind's eye of a 21st century amateur American reader of poetry is in itself worth celebrating.


Morning, Sailing into Xinyang

As my boat sails into Xingze Lake
I am stunned by this glorious city!
A canal meanders by narrow courtyard doors.
Fires and cooking smoke crowd the waters.
In these people I see strange customs
and the dialog here is obscure.
In late autumn, fields are abundant.
Morning light. Noise wakes at the city wells.
Fish merchants float on the waves.
Chickens and dogs. Villages on either bank.
I'm heading away from white clouds.
What will become of my solitary sail?

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