Nancy: The old trees, mine and those I can see from the roadside, marking long forgotten house sites, are succumbing to time and shade. Perhaps, here and there, a stump sprout or a seedling from some wild forgotten meal, still bears witness to the comings and goings of settlement, still reminds us we aren't the first.
Forcing The Thicket
The apples –
not wildlings – three, no, four –
the apples are leafless;
most of the fruit has fallen
(as it has for years),
What were they, Sheepnose,
Summer Rambo, Famuse?
Does it matter?
These trees have lost their names.
Now they belong to porcupine,
to anyone who’ll force the thicket.
Their flesh is sharp, green;
it starts the saliva.
But to be shared as a sacrament,
they’ll do (remembering that they had,
once, names –
and were planted in hope).
Alan: Many years ago, in London, I picked up a little paperback copy of Burton Watson’s translations of 100 poems by the T’ang poet Han-shan. I have been searching, in one way or another, for Cold Mountain ever since.
It is not a state of mind,
these mud flats, scabbed worn woods –
nothing as jagged and cliff-like as your poems:
nothing to lead the imagination skyward through mist;
only the outward-flowing fog, sea-smoke
obscuring the ledges, islands:
a singular, ordinary coast.
Yet it is the mind that starts, here,
seeking Cold Mountain’s paths
along the shore, among the winter-fallen leaves
that trail further and further inland
away from this actual place, this actual sea.
Within a scrolled landscape
of inked strokes and washed space
I struggle, bent, the loaded basket
weighting my back, brim of my straw cone hat
almost brushing the steep ascending track.
Far above, unseen gibbons in unseen pines
ululate sorrowfully; below
the stream flashes in its rocky gorge.
Somewhere a heron fishes by smooth water
or flaps up ponderously over waves
of bambooed ridge. Somewhere
the cataract spills, sojourners rest at an inn.
I am so small here: lost in another’s world.
If I should meet anyone, I will ask:
is this the way? is this the way? but already I know
it is not.
The Black Monahka lived at the foot of my road many years ago –
many years ago the Black Monahka’s shack fell down.
The people who knew this, the people who told me, are dead.
The Black Monahka lived alone and died alone, long ago.
Today the garbage truck turned in my road.
A bag of garbage fell off the truck as it turned –
the black plastic split open, spilling its garbage.
All the papery trash blew into the woods, into
the place where the Black Monahka lived all those years ago.
Laughing, he ran from the temple kitchen
with his friend Shih-te, shouting and pointing
at the scholar-official
who came to pay them homage.
Pursued into the hills
they disappeared in a cavern
that closed behind them forever,
leaving only the three hundred poems
on bark, rocks, the village walls
to be quickly gathered
like wild mushrooms after rain.
With me, it is the poems that swallow me up,
and here is your windy cave, shallow and empty,
except for a few old toadstools at the mouth.
I walk out under a blurred egg-moon
haloed in ice,
the sky striated,
the wind edging toward snow.
The lane is hard under my feet;
there is no give anywhere.
This is a hard place: a land,
not a landscape.
Even Han-shan might think twice
about staying here,
as you and I have now, foolishly, enduring
these twenty years.
For forty generations you have lived –
if you ever lived at all – in this verse:
these eights, these fives; parallels, allusions;
character by character the hidden, the revealed.
Even in my own thick tongue with its slack rhythms,
paltry tones, you speak, offering
the same world as ever of poignancy, delight.
Somewhere among green fissured crags you yet dwell.
Reading these lines, I think,
what of my own fine teachers
a thousand years hence?
When we first came here
I imagined some day
an old man and old woman
living harmlessly and quietly
apart from the world.
Little could I know
how surely the world would find us.
Our house had to grow legs
like Baba Yaga’s hut
to chicken-dance away from danger;
the garden can be rug-rolled
and hidden at a moment’s notice.
So it is that folks
arrive to find only an owl and a crow
looking down very solemn
from a nearby tree.
In this manner we honor
through our various stratagems
the ways and teachings of the ancients.
I have tried for decades
to reach Cold Mountain
by every means I know
even though you say
I can never find it.
The closest I have come
is when, waking from a dark dream
to listen to the wind
I lie for a long time, eyes open
unsure of who I am
Ice fills the ditches, mottled, lumpy
under the coldest month of the year:
ditches that flow for a time and then stand parched
while we long for summer rain.
Ice rises on the bay in plates with a noise like animals
surfacing to breathe.
Ice forms, melts, reforms, holds the color
of evening, sloshes
at the edge of white or black water,
skins the low tide flats, marbles a line
on the shore at high. Ice is everything now.
If Han-shan wants, he can find me here,
choosing a hot afternoon some August,
sky intense, tide flowing in. We will plunge
our pale bodies in the sea and then
warm ourselves on the broad smooth rocks.
We will scoop up mud and shells,
scribble our nonsense on the stones,
watch it dry awhile and then be washed away.
“Forcing The Thicket” first appeared in Living On Salt And Stone (Stone Man Press, 1984)