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New and Selected Poems: Mystery of Faith

I just watched the film Man on Fire again tonight. There are few films more disturbing about vengeance. And despite the success of its anti-hero, I see violence as a poor cathartic. I do not subscribe to the lynch mob calls for oblique justice like those hoping Roman Polanski will be extradited and forced to pay for his own alleged sins and those of a growing mob’s perpetrators of pain.  It seems to me that it is a bit late to revisit the morality of either Polanski, his accuser or the reportedly power abusing prosecutors and judges in his case.

My motto has become: “Writing well is the best revenge.”  Having to examine, catalogue and give order to horror in order to render it into art can effect great healing. But, I am sympathetic to those who scream our in the name of justice because where forgiveness of abuse is possible, the ability to forget is a myth.

Father Dan Maio, who was in charge of a Pueblo, Colorado youth program in the 1970’s was the epitome of evil: The proverbial wolf in priest’s clothing. Maio, the subject of the poem below, used the power entrusted to him as a priest to emotionally wound dozens of diocesan Catholic youngsters from decent homes and several mentally challenged inmates housed at the Colorado State Hospital. He used drugs, music, personal charm and manipulative psychological seminars and retreats to lure his victims. He was protected by church-bred reverence for his station and the misguided arrogance of accomplices like his assistant Father Jerry Varrone and his confessor Bishop Buswell. This was written both for catharsis and to give credence, and hopefully some measure of comfort, to the pain expressed by those he and others like him have hurt.

Mystery of Faith

There were many boys who knew the sound of black

patent leather coming down the hardwood hall

a floor above the nuns, like Mary Elizabeth,

existing on a belief in simple answers

but who would never feel

the drool, the musk

or late day stubble

on their cheeks

Maybe Sister came here once to answer the same questions:

How do you forget the making and breaking of a spirit?

How do you wash away the incense of aggression?

When does grown-up flesh release its hold

on small bones?

How do women stand it? I cannot forget even one turn of cold brass

or stillness rushing from the room, or prayers taking me

from my body, eyes fixed on the rectory’s stained ceiling.

I would be yanked back by the horrifying

rituals of the familiar: the thin vinegar

of communion wine on his breath,

the tiny cruciform medallion

raping against my chest,

vapors of toxic celibacy

everywhere

I’d try to hold my breath when he left,

and scrub the stiffening linen,

remove every corporeal trace

of the god who claimed

he was a delinquent’s

last and only chance

Sometimes I thought I knew more about being a woman

than did Sister Mary and I longed for her easy beliefs.

But, I never risked asking the questions

that can destroy such a faith

forever

When do we accept, like her, a God like the wind

who polices the night, rattles doorknobs and whispers

reassuringly to us past locked doors

that I can close my eyes again

to the dark?

American Poet in China,poems,Poetry,sexual abuse

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Stone Pillow: New and Collected Poems: “Apertures”

I was just looking at Flickr photos that I snapped during a trip to Lanzhou in Gansu Province, China. It has been a couple of years since I took what was a life changing journey over the Yellow River and along the Silk Road. Gansu is the China I most love–sorry Guangzhou–with its dozens of ethnic groups. Despite its terrific poverty it is with rife with Confucian, Taoist and rich Buddhist temple bells and beautiful, delicate relics from Qing, Ming and Sui dynasties; and many of them can be found only a few meters from each other. And then there are the dozens of poems cradled in the giant Buddha’s arms and a countryside recites them in a different voice every spectacular season.

The pictures called to mind a poem I wrote a few years ago about how love for a person or place remains perfect, and  young even as we move through our inescapable developmental phases.

Apertures

I was just looking

through a photo album

one of those musty, three-tiered

prison blocks full of parents

slowly leaning away from each other

and children running at a standstill:

escaping more perfunctory poses.

There is one of you

just after I read you that poem

by another writer

about a woman

with your votive smile, inner nakedness

and a mid-afternoon firestorm in her hair

that he wished he had touched.

He told me once, his faced engraved

with regret, that he visits her often now,

though he didn’t attend the funeral.

When we first met

I heard

still hear your body

moving under your clothes:

the long felt silence of a temple bell.

Behind you, curtains were whispering

like nylons.

Why is it

that we capture ourselves

sometimes forever

in a flat semblance of the truth?

It is why

in pictures of me I am alone

standing outside my heart

with nothing for me to compare

until the day I’m holding you,

in a portrait with more

than a passion of intention,

and with a look as serious as a kiss.

American Professor in China,China Expat,Chinese Monks,Confucius Slept Here,Gansu,Heartsongs,Lanzhou,love,Personal Notes,Photos,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Travel in China,中国

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Stone Pillow: New and Selected Poems “Fishing for the Moon”

Poet Li Young-Lee has often spoken of certain works as “quarrels” with his father. Many of mine, like Fishing… fall into the same category. Studies have been done that imply that the post-death emotional impact of a family member’s passing is far greater for those who had a strained relationship with the deceased.

My father was, at various times in his life someone easy to quarrel with because we were nothing alike. It was a long time in coming that I really believed, and not as an apologetic attempt at self-delusion, he did as best he could with what nature and nurture had given him. Life was not easy: He spent his teen years in a Masonic sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis during the Great Depression before joining a traveling carnival where he worked as a roustabout before heading off to WWII in the infantry.

When he died ironically there was only one person, other than me and my mother, who viewed his body at the funeral home. Ironically, it was his fishing partner, a black man several years my father’s senior. The two of them would sit for hours without saying a word to each other. It is only now that I am awed by the quiet simplicity in both of them and I often lament being cursed with far too much formal education. How wonderful it would be to spend a day with my only ambition being to carry home a creel of fish to a faithful wife who valued food and survival skills far more than money or talk.

This poem was written while I was studying for my MFA. My daughter loved the early drafts as much as she loved my father.  She hated the deconstructed versions that academic critique groups foisted me, an insecure writer.  I have since tried to give it back some of its original emotional charge while not handing it over to sentimentality or subjective shorthand.

bk10

Fishing for the Moon
On the lake’s granite surface

The moon’s blind eye kept watch

As small stars, silver lights, fell.

Lures cast by my father that would raise

My sleepy head  and I would listen

For fish that would wound the calm,

Flare into the enormous night air,

and fight him reeling them toward shore.

One night, in my late teens,

An indecisive breeze touched us both:

I remember the familiar odor of age,

Cigar ashes rubbed into overalls,

And Lucky Tiger hair balm on a black

Forever military scalp.

At thirty-five or so, I tried to quit my ascensions

Away from tobacco farmer beginnings:

Theology, the military (but as an officer of course)

And accepted I was no match for the tattooed arms

And yielded to the strength of experience,

His eighth-grade smugness, and the once embarrassing

Southern vowels and long lines that could coax

Fishing tackle to scribble success across a lake.

I walked the reservoir’s circumference

The night he died and listened to icy respirations

Give in to winter. Drowning in his own fluid,

He sometimes smiled: a delirious toothless smile,

Like he had just landed a keeper.

I remember promising, no lying, in the nursing home

To him that I would take him fishing again.

But, he died before I knew how bad I would feel.

His eyes went white: turned inside, toward the water,

While his naked fingers would query the deep, dry pocket

Left from the injury: the Vietnam head wound.

It was a year after the seizures

That his arms fell limp at his sides

And the man who could not read anything

Except inland tides and solunar tables

Lay helpless in a hard bed.

They say it was pneumonia.

I say it was the lake claiming him

Where I returned his ashes: reticent,

Swirling near the bank they ebbed

Toward the center, where I cast

Lure after lure, fishing for the moon.

Personal Notes,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized,Vietnam,War

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Stone Pillow: New and Selected Poems

The only Photograph of Her Affair


Her husband believes it’s a mistake

Yet wonders why she holds on

To what appears to be nothing

More than a tree, small bit of sky

And a tangle of shadows below.

She tells him an unconscious bump

Must have snapped the shutter

On what could be

morning or evening anywhere

Women are vigilant

and men so quickly distracted

She believes he’ll never know

That her lover is near

And she sits, back against a plum tree

With a flower print skirt

Tucked between white thighs,

Soft blonde threads glistening

With dew, and a delirious heat rising

from the tender grass below

There were tiny birds above

Deep in an anarchy of leaves

And limbs. And hungry mouths

Made small cries. The unmistakable

Sounds of dawn or dusk.

–Lonnie Hodge

American Poet in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized

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Stone Pillow (New and Collected Poems): The Clearing

The Clearing

–for EB (’94)

I wanted to turn your grief

to dew that deer carry

every morning from the safety

of thicket beds into sunrise

I would have gathered your face close to mine

and looked long into the deep worry

stones of your dark, well worn endurance

I could have embraced you

the way the deer seem to take turns

stepping ahead, watching

and browsing with cautious confidence

just ahead of sunrise

American Poet in China,American Professor in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow,Uncategorized

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Stone Pillow: New and Collected Poems 1994-2009

When poetry gets under your skin,even the breaking of daily bread becomes a nuisance until you get to paper and pen or a computer keyboard. To keep from going completely mad, I have decided to publish, between the usual stammering blog epistles from China, 70 of those nagging poems: some soaked in long shadows, a few needing work and hanging out in shivering constellations ahead of me, and a several new transcriptions of old voices that were drowned out by fear, silenced by critique (academics, out of habit can deconstruct an ego right along with a good piece of writing)  or those that I poorly deciphered  and committed to paper because I was an inexperienced translator of my own heart….

When I have them all placed here on OMBW, I will order them into as cohesive a collection as the myriad experiences of my life these past few years will allow and then offer them to you as a PDF. But, first things first: I just have to get them down on virtual paper. I hope you don’t mind.

I will start with one that some of you may have read before:  It is a poem that I first wrote to explain how I feel about a profession that has nourished me for three decades and was inspired in part by a visit to the Appalachian Mountains with three writing teachers on a retreat where where I finally really understood the quote by Jacques Barzu:In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day’s work.  It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years.” He was talking about students and teachers…

Teaching

I want to be witches knees and elbows:
roots just barely visible enough above the ground
to stumble into a child’s imagination forever.

I want to be a breeze blowing through
a community of Aspen trees–barely forceful enough
to waken leaves, while not quieting the birds

I want to be the loneliness in the center of a Chinese Fiscus seed
dropped from some kid’s pocket at the Colorado Sand Dunes,
and everyone guessing how it is I came to be there.

American Poet in China,Poetry,Stone Pillow

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AN AMERICAN POET IN CHINA

My first mentor during my MFA training in poetry Mark Doty had won coveted several awards before I met him and he went on to claim every major award, save the Pulitzer, in and out of the U.S.: The National Poetry Series, Britain’s T.S. Elliot Prize (the only American to ever win and he is nominated again this year), The L.A. Book Critics Circle, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, A Guggenheim Fellowship and now the National Book award. He is America’s best Lyric Poet.

I started going through work, finished and unfinished, after learning of his selection for the National Book Award. His award awakened in me my deep respect and admiration for all he taught me and has prompted me to invite my fickle muse to visit with hopes she’ll have me back. It was during my search that I discovered this post…

Here it is  recovered again from the past with a still unfinished poem added at the bottom….It is far from complete, but you’ll understand why after reading it…

AN AMERICAN POET IN CHINA

I was blog-roll diving last year over at China Rises and saw a listing for An American Poet in China. Now that peaked my interest! I opened the site in another tab, and then another and once more just to be sure: I was looking at my own site.

I am not sure what prompted Tim to label the link as such, but I am grateful. Of all the salutations or titles that I have proudly worn, or have had foisted on me, poet and teacher are the two I most cherish.

Google did not fail me as I went on a hunt for an American Poet in China: I found Tony Barnstone, once an English teacher in China and now Professor of English at Whittier College (Nixon’s Alma Mater) His books include Sad Jazz: Sonnets; Impure: Poems by Tony Barnstone; The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry; Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry; Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Poems of Wang Wei; The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters; and the textbooks Literatures of Asia, Africa and Latin America, Literatures of Asia, and Literatures of the Middle East. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana, Barnstone lived for years in Greece, Spain, Kenya and China before taking his Masters in English and Creative Writing and Ph.D. in English Literature at U.C. Berkeley. You can find his work here: Barnstone

You see? There is life after ESL teaching.

And I came across an old acquaintance Li-Young Lee: He was born in 1957 in Jakarta, Indonesia, of Chinese parents. His father, who was a personal physician to Mao Zedong (His book, banned in China, is The Private Life of Mao Zedong) while in China, after being released from imprisonment in a leper colony following Mao’s death he relocated his family to Indonesia, where he helped found Gamaliel University. In 1959 the Lee family fled the country to escape anti-Chinese sentiment and after a five-year trek through Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, they settled in the United States in 1964.

Li is the author of Book of My Nights (BOA Editions, 2001); The City in Which I Love You (1991), which was the 1990 Lamont Poetry Selection; and Rose (1986), which won the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Poetry Award; as well as a memoir entitled The Winged Seed: A Remembrance (Simon and Schuster, 1995), which received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. His other honors include a Lannan Literary Award, a Whiting Writer’s Award, grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He lives in Chicago, Illinois, with his wife, Donna, and their two sons.

He is one of the most passionate writers in America. Many of my phone calls and visits with Li-Young Lee left me believing that I was indeed talking to someone who was hard-wired to an enviable spiritual reality that he successfully struggled to make sense of in his work. I once asked fellow poets at Vermont College to describe him and every single poet, man or woman, called him “beautiful”. A few of his poems are here: LEE

And to my great surprise I found my name. In March of last year the National Endowment for the Arts in America published a retrospective of their last forty years of support and development of Literature in America here. My name was there along with Alice Walker, Issac Bashevis Singer, Eudora Welty, Mark Doty and Li-Young Lee. All of us, and hundreds more in the last 40 years, were once (in some cases twice) given $20,000 fellowships to support our work. I remember it as the most humbling and affirming moment of my life.

The NEA was embroiled in controversy the year I won my fellowship. Attacks by Senator Jesse Helms and many others, following the famed “Piss Christ” piece, ended many NEA programs.Helms and I exchanged many letters on the subject and would themselves make for a special post. The literature program survived its critics because it employed a blind selection process: Only 2% of applicant writers that year, individuals who had already published a required minimum of 20 poems in 5 national magazines or journals, were further encouraged to create work with the help of the awards decided by a distinguished panel of American editors and writers. Most of us are now academics and a few of the thirty chosen that year have gone on to great celebrity.

I have a new book finished, but I am not sure it is ready yet (For a poet, it never really is ready) and I will get to it soon enough because I know were I to have listened to that inner voice of doubt every time it sounded off I would never have published anything. I will let you know when I am OK with its imperfections. Poetry is for me like prayer was for C.S. Lewis: He did not believe that his petitions changed God just as I am doubtful my poetry changes those who read it…But, Lewis knew his supplications changed him as my work changes me…

Here is a FREE anthology by past and present grant winners that the NEA put out as a 40th year gift. I missed inclusion as they new only that I was in China, but had no address for me. I know you will enjoy it. And here is a link to a brilliant writer/translator of Chinese literature (and past NEA Fellow) David Hinton. Enjoy!

And finally my last work–still in progress:

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

—for Ms Yue

When she called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I had to walk

into the thick heat of Southern China

toward our prostitute of a River–beautiful

after dark and flattered by artificial light.

I found it especially hard to breathe

because she reeks of smoke and poverty.

During the day, the sky, a gray cataract,

will ignore the whore whose name

no one speaks with longing in their voice

The water was unlined:

a corpse without worry as I prepared

a place in my memory

for what I would destroy perhaps forever:

The hair, the forty-five years

of silk still glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

She asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. I was told to cut

and shave the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlight, fires,

and the wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and the forgotten.

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”

when it is a name like hers that you clutch

deep in your throat. As strong as she

will be, and as proudly high as she has always

held her head, the quarrel with her body

will not always look this well.

I addressed sorrow in suffocated sobs

and the still water confirmed my questions with silence

Cartoon, copyright Cagle.com

American Poet in China,Asia,China Cartoons,Chinese Poetry,Personal Notes,Poetry,中国

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Memorial Day

memorial day

As part of his therapy while trying to recover from a head wound suffered in Vietnam my father used to make the poppies that the American Legion sells on Memorial day.

Here is the poem that was written three years after the famous In Flanders Fields that most of us know….

We Shall Keep the Faith
by Moina Michael, November 1918

Oh! you who sleep
in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead
.Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

Retrieved from an earlier post:

I had the chance to mountain climb with an aging PRC Army Veteran of Tibet and Tiananmen Square. He had that “thousand yard stare” soldiers who have been amidst senseless death can see in the eyes of another.

Years ago, as a corpsman at the Army’s Academy of Health Sciences, I was almost detailed to collect bodies in the Jonestown Massacre. Many of my friends went and are forever changed. I know medics, who went to Vietnam as conscientious objectors, and came back morphine addicted. It was one way, albeit not a good one, to cope.

Soldiers and Paramedics in New York, Iraq and New Orleans have acknowledged that there was a self before the tragedies and a different human, with a different world-view, that emerged from the devastation.

When most of the school children of a Chinese rural village, dozens, drowned in their classrooms, and left these hand prints on the windows trying to escape, it was the army who first saw the prints and then had to search through the mud for their bodies….

HANDS

When I traveled, during Vietnam, in uniform I was vilified by many as part of the Military Industrial Complex. I did not get too many salutes.

As the war becomes more unpopular in Iraq, as the world increasingly calls us a police state, remember this: Governments declare war. Officials deploy troops. Hurricanes and earthquakes obey no warnings. And it is the soldier, and the victim, who carry with them, forever, the stench of death. It is like a house fire: you can never seem to rid yourself of the smell of smoke.

Love the soldier. They all write poetry and letters of longing home to their loved ones.

Hate the war, hate the floods, hate the notion that we are not close to getting it right, socially or environmentally, just yet.

Pray for the men, like my father, and soldiers of all nations who gave up sleepless nights and often, like my father, their lives, before and after battles, for you and the missions that they were asked to fulfill.

Salute them all with words and deeds today.

With special good wishes to the Wed. Heroes crew/blogroll. Most of you are not accessible from China, so I cannot get to you and often cannot receive mail or link out to you properly. Keep up the good work.

cartoons,Holidays,Homeland Security,In the news,Intercultural Issues,Poetry,Tibet,Veterans,Vietnam,Violence,War,中国,中文

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40 Years Beyond Saigon…

The Wall Between the Names

I don’t know if you have ever noticed, but if you stand
at the base of the wall at the apex when it is quiet you can
feel a warmth ….It’s as if you’re being surrounded by all the
spirits of the wall.

—The Last Firebase

There is a wall between the names

It is the color of residue in driftwood pockets
The shadow in the soft pocket of a head wound
It is their hair and their eyes dark and full of falling
The oil on worthless roads. Factory smoke and ashes
It is charcoaled faces. Shapeshifting under night flares
The toothless smile of a man who no can longer move his legs
A million fragmented hearts pulled below its granite suface
The veils of widowed girls, telegram ink, short bursts of words
It is the color of disappearance and passing

There is a wall between the names.

— On the 40th Anniversary
of the mortar attack near Saigon
that eventually took my father’s life

For those of you who did not go to Vietnam I know that you too, as said by David Lehman, planned your lives around it just the same. And for those of you who know war, or are obliquely affected by it, I hope that you can one day dismantle the worst of weapons: memory…

American Poet in China,Asia,Personal Notes,Poetry,Vietnam,War,中国

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How Long is a Cancer Year in China?

THE UNSINKABLE MS YUE

I think cancer years, the 12 month periods we endure when we or someone we know is battling a disease, are agonizingly longer than normal. And during those years our bodies seem to age in accordance with our perception of the passage of time distorted.

I was scouring old posts about The Unsinkable Ms Yue to add on a new site meant to raise funds for her and The League of Extraordinary Chinese Women when I came across the draft of a poem written one year ago.

The good news is: Ms Yue, though in some discomfort and worried about some lymphatic swelling, has cowed cancer for a full year. Her hair has grown back to the extent that she can almost tie it back with a band. Here is a written toast to Ms Yue, one of dozens of poetic anniversaries that will serve, by comparison, to happily distance her from disease.

AFTER BEING ASKED TO CUT HER HAIR

When she called, yesterday evening

or the night before, I had to walk

into the thick heat of Southern China

toward our prostitute of a River, beautiful

after dark and flattered by artificial light. I found it

especially hard to breathe because she reeks

of factory smoke and poverty.

During the day, the sky, one grey cataract,

ignores the whore whose name no one speaks

with longing in their voice The water was unlined:

a corpse without worry as I began to prepare

a place in my memory for what I would destroy

perhaps forever: The hair, the forty-five years

of silk still glistening with the kisses

of an adoring mother and vigilant father

She asked to me conceal the evidence

of the waning of the infinite. I was told to cut

and shave the perfect blackness, the magnificent

mystery of the history of moonlight, fires,

and the wind that has run fingers

through the remembered and the forgotten.

“Love is so short, forgetting so long”
Continue Reading »

American Poet in China,Cancer Journal,China Editorials,China Photos,Poetry,The League of Extraordinary Chinese Women,The Unsinkable Ms Yue

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