On Not Becoming a Chinese Poet

On an early October day, on the cusp of the autumn color invasion when the forest looks darkest green from a summer of soaking up sunlight, I helped lead a “Hike & Write” up to Giant Ledges as part of the Catskills annual Lark in the Park festival of outings. Our group of eight included both strangers and friends. We stopped first under hemlocks on the flat saddle after scrambling up the last stretch of jumbled path boulders on the hardest part of the trail. After catching our breath, we did an “object” exercise in which we each found something that caught our eye, such as a stick or a stone or a leaf, then wrote about it three different ways: first, a literal description without embellishment, then whatever metaphors leapt to mind, and finally a poem. Several years earlier, Rich Parisio from our group had introduced me to this exercise and offered a Nancy Willard poem as an example:

Deer Skull

Look at this skull you found in the woods.
Notice the lightning that maps a road from the jaw
packed with teeth to the gap under the bony roof
that guarded the deer’s instincts, its hunger,
its memory of paths as hidden from sight
as the sinews binding the night sky
into Swan, Bear, Dipper, Southern Cross.

Look through the eye sockets, not at the loss
of sight but through windows, wide as a windshield.
Look through these moon-gates into the garden
of clouds, into the cave of planets
like holy beads breaking free
from their joyful mysteries
and crossing the heavens on their own journey.

Notice the flicker of fish, the petals dropped
like pages, the moon reading herself by her own light.
Now we are floating in the night sky,
crossing the Sea of Tranquility in the ark of a skull.
Death steers, takes all tricks, saves nothing.
If the deer had not lived, it would not have died.
If you had not lived, you could not make this journey.

Of the three steps in this exercise people find the first the hardest: literal description. After jotting down the shape and the color, I feel stymied by what’s really a scientific accounting that requires precise, sometimes technical language. It’s so much easier to think in metaphor. And in poetry we see metaphor in its fullest flowering.

Our second stop was by a spring under the sun-dappled birch trees on the back side of the ledges. Some wrote while seated up on what seemed like a lounge of boulders as big as furniture while listening to water percolate beneath the rocks. I followed the trail a bit farther to the actual spring pipe jammed into the gentle slope of exposed bedrock and ferns, a green pocket of serenity and leafy sunlight reflecting white off the rivulets of spring water slipping down through mossy furrows and eddies. Truth be told, I’m not good at outdoor writing exercises. My mind wanders like that happy little stream. I lack that “poetic irritant,” that agitation that rallies my thoughts and compels my words into a poem. I leave it to my friend Alison Koffler to use these occasions to draft knockouts that surprise even her. Seated by the spring I came up with a clever first line but little more: “Spring pipe, exhaust pipe.” The chrome was shiny, but the car metaphor didn’t carry very far. No matter. I felt recharged by soaking up the scene.

On Giant Ledges themselves, our group claimed one of the clifftop outcroppings like a private balcony box for our lunch break. This spot has some of the finest views in the Catskills, a panorama that swings around from the far northern peaks anchored by massive Hunter Mountain eastwards to Overlook Mountain that crests like a wave over a Hudson Valley gap and back to the nearby range of Wittenberg, Cornell, and Slide Mountains, the heart of the Catskills. Below us lay Woodland Valley, a broad bowl still leathery green with late summer foliage. Beside us, though, the mountain ash bushes bordering the outlook hung heavy with red berry bunches that promised autumn was close. We unpacked our sandwiches and savored the view.

For a poem worthy of such scenery, Rich Parisio, had brought his well thumbed copy of Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China translated by David Hinton. By chance, Rich had flagged a poem that my friend Roger Wall had read at his father’s funeral several years earlier. Now Roger read it to us, a poem by Po Chu-i written in the ninth century:

Climbing Mountains in Dream

Nights hiking Sung Mountain in dream,
just a goosefoot-walking stick and me:

a thousand cliffs, ten thousand canyons,
I wander until I’ve explored them all,

my stride in dream as it was in youth,
strong and sure and so free of disease.

When I wake, spirit become itself again
and body returned to flesh and blood,

I realize that in terms of body and spirit,
body grows sick while spirit’s immune,

and yet body and spirit are both mirage,
dream and waking merest appearance.

Scarcely able to hobble around by day
then roaming free all night with ease:

in the equal division of day and night
what could I gain here, and what lose?

Now I wanted to read a poem from that book. From our perch we could see the long wide ridge that separates Woodland Valley from Panther Kill, the next valley over, where I’d lived in a log cabin for my first five years in the Catskills. Bushwhacking up that ridge to the summit of Panther Mountain, which we could just see to our left past the nearby trees, had been one of the hardest and most satisfying hikes of my life. I’d proved to myself that the wilderness really did lie out my back door. One boulder I remember in particular for its moss covering had been peeled back to expose its dirt underlayer. Had a bear passed by earlier, hunting for grubs? I’d liked to think so. At the end of the generally flat ridge walk, before I’d climbed up the final steep hillside of dense conifers to the summit, I’d entered a magical park-like clearing, a natural bald rare for the Catskills with patches of short brown grass on smooth bedrock. It felt like my secret shangri-la, a private plateau for a picnic and perhaps poetry hidden up high, exposed to no one but the blue sky. From here Panther Mountain, so huge from below, was but a hill. That clearing created a miniature kingdom. From Giant Ledges we could now make it out, a khaki patch far up the shoulder of the forest green ridge.

During my cabin years, I’d fantasized of doing what the Cold Mountain poet, Han Shan, had done, at least according to legend. A recluse who lived in a cave and ridiculed the local monastery monks for their seriousness, he roamed the mountains alone and left poems on rocks and trees, as if his audience was the universe rather than people. How creative and egoless, I thought. How pure. I should be the Panther Mountain poet who slipped a poem under that bear’s moss mat and anyplace that tickled my fancy. The sun washed gray rocks in the clearing. The thicket of conifers near the top. I could hang little notepad haiku pages like holiday streamers. But, standing on Giant Ledges almost a decade after leaving the cabin, I had to admit that I’d done nothing of the kind. All my poems were saved on the computer. I’d given away none to the trees or the moss. The best I could do now was to read aloud a true Cold Mountain poem from the book.


If you’re climbing Cold Mountain Way,
Cold Mountain Road grows inexhaustible:

long canyons opening across fields of talus,
broad creeks tumbling down mists of grass.

Moss is impossibly slick even without rain,
but this far up, pines need no wind to sing.

Who can leave the world’s tangles behind
and sit with me among the white clouds?

Why hadn’t I become the Panther Mountain poet? The question agitated me for months. During my five years in the log cabin, I’d matured as a poet, arriving as someone who’d stumbled into poetry almost by chance five years earlier but now, undistracted by my previous city life, proceeding to work hard and succeed. By the time I left I’d published two chapbooks. But my poems had little to do with finding peace in the mountains, not in the Cold Mountain way.

Yet I’d been triggered to write my very first poems by our most prominent poet in the Chinese tradition, Gary Snyder, who’d helped introduce the Cold Mountain poet to America with his translations in the Fifties. In the early Nineties my wife and I had visited a Zen monastery in the Catskills for a cheap weekend getaway. Neither of us had much interest in Zen, but for $50 we enjoyed a beautiful lake setting and could come and go as we pleased. One afternoon I hiked up to a firetower and on my way down felt a whimsical urge to write poems. At the time I worked at an environmental magazine and kept journals, but had no interest in poetry. To me, it was like opera, an art form for the cognoscenti. Because of my environmentalism, though, my wife had given me Gary Snyder’s No Nature: New and Selected Poems. The first poem in the book, which I dimly remembered from reading the Beats as a teen, captivated me because it seemed so simple and true. It brought back memories of the High Sierras that I’d backpacked in college. Yet it also fit the fire tower I’d just climbed on Balsam Mountain in the Catskills.

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

At the time I was in my mid-thirties. Through prep school and college I’d grown up intending to write the Great American Novel, but had gotten terribly blocked after graduation and had found my way into journalism, instead. Poetry gave me a route around the fiction block into another means of creative writing. Yet years later, called upon to give a talk about Gary Snyder, I pulled out one of my earliest poems and was struck by how far I’d veered from his model from the start.

Blood Brothers

Remember the werewolf double feature
at the old porno theater on upper Broadway?
The seats had no room for our knees;
sticky paint covered gum barnacles.

We howled at the full moon slipping free
of bruised clouds, then the actors’ faces growing
into wolf snouts with sounds like breaking furniture.
Their blue eyes kaleidoscoped into green.

They peed on hedges and hunted subway tunnels,
leaving shredded raincoats, a beggar’s cup, teeth marks
on the turnstiles. By the office cooler the next morning,
they laughed at blood stains on their tasseled loafers.

In the end they died from silver bullets
to the heart. Filing out, we discovered snow swirling
like torn pillow feathers. A cab tried to splash us with slush
and missed. We celebrated our new lives

in Manhattan by howling at the “Don’t Walk” light
and walking. Within a year you moved home,
joined our father’s timid life. You burned
pork chops, overboiled beans, made bowls of popcorn

that lasted into Letterman. You slept in fire engine sheets
in your boyhood bed, let the clock radio whisper
soft rock all night, as if you didn’t trust
silent dreams. Your degrees

didn’t matter. You worked the Christmas season
at the Post Office, rang bells for the Census, added blank years
to your resume. Maybe you were happy. I suffered
the hunger of wolves in Manhattan.

Everywhere I saw differences between Snyder’s poem and my own. His took place in the present. Mine ruminated over memories. His had no characters or plot to speak off. Mine renewed the classic conflict between brothers. His words were simple and straight. Mine loved to describe things with metaphors. Most of all, I felt the tension of Thanatos and Eros in my poem, those subconscious forces surfacing as they constantly do in my work. But where was the tension in Snyder’s poem? There was the feeling of remove from city friends and social concerns, but not one of agitation over sex and death. His poem unfolded beyond inner turmoil.

There’s a simple answer, of course: Buddhism. He practices. I don’t. Even so, I realized that my cabin had not been like his fire tower, an observatory over the grander scale of life in a mountain wilderness. It had been, instead, my creative incubator where I’d rummaged through memories to make sense of my past. Months after Giant Ledges I visited Michael Czarnecki, my publisher at FootHills Publishing, who truly does write Chinese poetry. The key to it, he told me, is not in the writing, not in mimicking Chinese poetry, as I would have done, but in the living, in choosing to follow the simple contemplative life out which Chinese poetry naturally flows. His insight answered my quest. I no felt disappointed in not having been the Panther Mountain poet. I’d found my own route up the mountain, which, if not Chinese, was certainly my own.


On the bench in white stretch pants I told
the quarterback I quit, but didn’t admit
I couldn’t stand up because my penis had snapped.
Both halves snug in my nylon crotch, bigger,
for sure, solid as dynamite, but what if
one should slip down my leg during a play?
“Finish the scenario,” said my therapist.
“You’re the writer. What would Hollywood do?”
Awake, I had a tough time completing dreams,
but after some silence I suggested reaching down
and throwing out my cold broken pipe.
“Marvelous,” he said. “For next week
make yourself a new penis.”

Something with feathers, I decided, something
with teeth. Not the penises of art history,
the wooden lap rockets on primitive carvings
or the floral codpieces on patriotic statues,
my organ would be furtive and wild,
a bark-eater, a nocturnal predator,
a burrower and a hibernator,
an omnivore grazing twenty hours a day,
eating its own weight in blackberries.

In time villagers would share theories—
Sasquatch, Wendigo—then a cryptic photo
of a golden eye on an abandoned road.
They’d argue over footprints, collect scat
not found in any field guide. They’d fear
what could come down from above the cliffs,
where the hunter fell, found three days later
with a ham sandwich still wrapped in his pocket.

I wasn’t afraid of that mountain. All morning
I climbed animal trails past beech trees clawed
by bears, hemlocks shading owls and porcupines.
At the cliffs I filled my cup with water percolating
from moss, then scrambled up loose gully rocks.
Behind me, the valley haze twitched with dragon flies
and airborne seeds. A hawk screamed down the ridge.
I could sense it now: my penis smelled me approaching.
In the clearing where hobblebushes blossomed
with white saucers serving the fragrance of earth,
we would join in the dance that ignited the sun.

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