Americans Who Write in the Spirit of Chinese Wilderness Poetry

At a recent poets’ retreat in the Finger Lakes region, Michael Czarnecki presented me with a long awaited gift, his latest FootHills Publishing release, an anthology of five contemporary poets who write, as the title states, In the Spirit of T’ao Ch’ein, (365—427 C.E.) a founder of Chinese Rivers and Mountains wilderness poetry. Last summer while visiting Michael’s rustic home on Wheeler Hill, I’d learned how devoted he is to this tradition, sake included. That night at the retreat I settled into my tent and began reading by flashlight. I finished in the morning after being woken by the dawn chorus of birds, which included a ruffed grouse drumming on a nearby log, a familial “hello” now that I think of my late mother as a ruffed grouse. Reading In the Spirit of T’ao Ch’ein is like taking fifty cool sips of mountain spring water. Here are five samples:

The Orchid Flower

Just as I wonder
whether it’s going to die,
the orchid blossoms

and I can’t explain why it
moves my heart, why such pleasure

comes from one small bud
on a long spindly stem, one
blood red gold flower

opening at at mid-summer,
tiny, perfect in its hour.

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it’s
purely erotic,

pistil and stamen, pollen,
dew of the world, a spoonful

of earth, and water.
Erotic because there’s death
at the heart of birth,

drama in those old sunrise
prisms in wet cedar boughs,

deepest mystery
in washing evening dishes
or teasing my wife,

who grows, yes, more beautiful
because one of us will die.

—By Sam Hamill

The founding editor of Copper Canyon Press, Sam Hamill has published translations of T’ao Ch’ien and other Chinese poets. He has written or translated more than forty books.

The Echo of What Has Passed

T’ao Ch’ien would understand.
I sit drinking wine
chanting poems
dreaming of mountains.
Bills pile high at the door.
White hairs infiltrate my beard.
Daughter approaches womanhood.
Young son no longer crawls.
Late autumn, already snow
has covered the ground.
Sipping wine, I shiver
as a chill breeze
caresses me from behind

—By Michael Czarnecki

For more than twenty-five years, Michael Czarnecki has run FootHills Publishing. He lives as a poetry recluse on Wheeler Hill, or he travels the country spreading poems and stories like Johnny Appleseed.


Forty years ago, when I came to Judevine Mountain, I put away my date book. Days and months flowed by like the river. I followed a calender no smaller than the seasons.

Then one gray and wet November day, on a high plateau where open fields stretched away on both sides of the road, while I drove a tractor and a wagon down off Judevine Mountain, something compelled me to stop and wait.

After a while, a man climbed out of my chest, and down off the tractor. He straightened his tie, picked up his briefcase, looked at me, quizzically, nodded, smiled, stepped across the road, into a brown field and hurried off toward the woods.

I watched until he disappeared.
I started the tractor again and
drove off into the rest of my life.

—By David Budbill

For years, David Budbill has been writing about the fictional Judevine Mountain in Vermont as if it was his own retreat for Chinese wilderness poetry. His books include Judevine, Happy Feet, and others.

Cold Mountain 2000:
Han Shan In the City
(1 poem from a series of 51)

I’m here in the city
but there’s something wild and unknowable
about where I live.
Crooked alleys and dark shadows
make the way uncertain.
If I choose to go inside
there’s no way you’ll ever find me.

—By Charles Rossiter

Charles Rossiter edited In the Spirit of T’ao Ch’ien. Once a member of the Three Guys From Albany poetry team, he now lives in Chicago.

Fool the Bears

One way to protect your camp from bears
is to take a piss bottle you keep in the tent to piss in
(so you don’t catch a chill going outside
in below freezing temps)
and empty it each day on trees nearby
so eventually your tent is surrounded by
a circle of your urine—
but when you pour it on the trees
pour it as high as you can reach
while walking in a circle around them
so they’re circled by your piss scent from 8 feet up
to where their trunks go into the ground. Why?
That way the bear will think the creature that pissed
must have a penis over 8 feet off the ground
and departs post-haste thinking a monster lives there.

—By Antler

A Whitmanesque wilderness poet, Antler spends part of each year backpacking and canoing in the Upper Midwest and otherwise ekes out a living as a performance poet.

Let’s finish with a poem by T’ao Ch’ien himself from Mountain Home: The Wilderness Poetry of Ancient China, an anthology translated by David Hinton.

Drinking Wine


I live here in a village house 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
returning home. All this means something,

something absolute; whenever I start
to explain it, I forget words altogether.


Color infusing autumn chrysanthemums
exquisite, I pick dew-bathed petals,

float them on that forget-your-cares
stuff. Even my passion for living apart

grows distant. I’m alone here, and still
the winejar soon fills cups without me.

Everything at rest, dusk: a bird calls,
returning to its forest home. Chanting,

I settle into my breath. Somehow, on this
east veranda, I’ve found my life again.

* * * *

The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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