A man with a limp came towards me,
begging money for liquor – spoke of cairns
built of skulls, of the wind off the steppes
on the night before battle
and the evils of cholesterol.
Some of this, I thought, he must be making up.
Besides, what was I doing here,
talking with a dead Mongol warrior,
in the middle of the life that was mine?
At the end of the street, some camels
grazing, the air mottled with flies
above ribbons of goat flesh…
Even the tourists look sick.
Even the women, that day, were not untouched.
He said: You think a life
has a beginning, middle and end?
Then he emptied his pockets
and showed me the eyes of Hafiz.
To the avocet, delicate, as whim
with fixtures, pitched in shingle,
not quite stomping, the universe is
a belly of twilit mud, an accordance
of ripples, a vouchsafe of shoreline;
his reflection is companion enough
and with his sharp canticle he pledges
himself to the clarion evening.
Child, the current of your breath is six days long.
You lie, a small knuckle on my white bed,
lie, fisted like a snail, so small and strong
at my breast. Your lips are animals; you are fed
with love. At first hunger is not wrong.
The nurses nod their caps; you are shepherded
down starch halls with the other unnested throng
in wheeling baskets. You tip like a cup; our head
moving to my touch. You sense the way we belong
But this is an institution bed.
You will not know me very long.
The doctors are enamel. They want to know
the facts. They guess about the man who left me,
some pendulum soul, going the way men go
and leave you full of child. But our case history
stays blank. All I did was let you grow.
Now we are here for all the ward to see.
They thought I was strange, although
I never spoke a word. I burst empty
of you, letting you learn how the air is so.
The doctors chart the riddle the ask of me
and I turn my head away. I do not know.
Yours is the only face I recognize.
Bone at my bone, you drink my answers in.
Six times a day I prize
your need, the animal of your lips, your skin
growing warm and plump. I see your eyes
lifting their tents. They are blue stones, they begin
to outgrow their moss. You blink in surprise
and I wonder what you can see, my funny kin,
as you trouble my silence. I am a shelter of lies
Should I learn to speak again, or hopeless in
Such sanity will I touch some face I recognize?
Down the hall the baskets start back. My arms
fit you like a sleeve, they hold
catkins of your willows, the wild bee farms
of your nerves, each muscle and fold
of your first days. Your old man’s face disarms
the nurses. But the doctors return to scold
me. I speak. It is you my silence harms.
I should have known; I should have told
them something to write down. My voice alarms
my throat. ‘Name of father – none.’ I hold
you and name you bastard in my arms.
And now that’s that. There is nothing more
that I can say or loose.
Others have trade life before
and could not speak. I tighten to refuse
your owling eyes, my fragile visitor.
I touch your cheeks, like flowers. You bruise
against me. We unlearn. I am a shore
rocking off you. You break from me. I choose
your only way, my small inheritor
and hand you off, trembling the selves we loose.
Go child, who is my sin and nothing more.
Robes of snow, crests of snow, and beaks of azure jade,
they fish in shadowy streams. Then startling up into
flight, they leave emerald mountains for lit distances.
Pear blossoms, a tree-full, tumble in the evening wind.
—Tu Mu (803-853) trans. Robert Hinton
I live here in this busy village without
all that racket horses and carts stir up,
and you wonder how that could ever be.
Wherever the mind dwells apart is itself
a distant place. Picking chrysanthemums
at my east fence, I see South Mountain
far off: air lovely at dusk, birds in flight
going home. All this means something,
something absolute: whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.
T’ao Ch’ien (365-427 c.e.)
trans. David Hinton
for John and Madeline
They tell me how they bought
An hour of silence
From a juke-box in New York
Or San Francisco once
That they now intend
To go back to their home place
For a bit of peace,
A house overlooking a lake
And a wood for kindling.
‘But you can’t fell trees
that have stood for as long
as anyone remembers?’
‘The wood we have in mind will stand
While it has lost its timber.’
Roughly-silvered leaves that are the snow
On Ararat seen through those leaves.
The sun lays down a foliage of shade.
A drinking fountain pulses its head
two or three inches from the troughed stone.
An old woman sucks there, gripping the rim.
Why do I have to relive, even now,
Your mouth, and your hand running over me
Deft as a lizard, like a sinew of water.
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet . . .
If you leave so much
As a firefly’s glimmer, –
Good Lord! Good Heavens!
Not soon, as late as he approach of my ninetieth year,
I felt a door opening in me and I entered
the clarity of early morning.
One after another my former lives were departing,
like ships, together with their sorrow.
And the countries, cities, gardens,the bays of seas
assigned to my brush came closer,
ready now to be described better than they were before.
I was not separated from people,
grief and pity joined us.
We forget – I kept saying – that we are all children of the king.
For where we come from there is no division
into Yes and No, into is, was, and will be.
We were miserable, we used no more than a hundredth part
of the gift we received for our long journey.
Moments from yesterday and from centuries ago –
a sword blow, the painting of eyelashes before a mirror
of polished metal, a lethal musket shot, a caravel
staving its hull against a reef – they dwell in us,
waiting for a fulfillment.
I knew, always, that I would be a worker in the vineyard,
as are all men and women living at the same time,
whether they are aware of it or not.
(trans. Robert Haass)
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colours of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning