Back to the Coffee House with Tu Fu

by Tom Wolpert on May 28, 2021

My self-assigned duty to write the next and final post on Citizens United has expanded into a major project. Like all such projects, it’s taking way longer than expected. In the interim, my daughter Elise married Alex at Auburn Valley State Park in Delaware, my son Nathan and daughter-in-law Rochelle brought Roslyn into the world in Downingtown, my daughter Laurie married Matt in West Chester and my daughter Amy moved in with us after her affairs in the state of Washington concluded. Our law practice has grown simply by showing up at the office through a pandemic and answering the phone. Anyway, those are my excuses and I’m sticking with them.

Also, I reached my 70th birthday. If you reached back deep into my past, there would have been some doubters in the crowd, whether such an event would ever see the bright light of day, me chief among them. My in-laws, Terri and Wayne, to my surprise, graciously (because we don’t typically exchange birthday gifts) bought me a $50 gift card at Barnes and Noble. It’s good to be 70.

Off I went to one of my favorite haunts, searched diligently, but couldn’t find anything that was really grabbing my interest. Half an hour of prowling bookshelves turned into 45 minutes without success. Soon they were announcing that the store would be closing in 15 minutes. When all else fails, what can anyone do, but turn to poetry? Back, back I went to the poetry shelf.

I was down on my knees, sorting inch by inch through the spine labels of obscure authors at the bottom shelves. There I happened upon The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, Expanded and newly translated by David Hinton, a New Directions Paperbook Original. The cover design was of a Landscape in the Spirit of Verses by Tu Fu, 1576, a cover art detail by Wen Chia, designed by one Joan Wong. The cover art landscape displayed a stark upright hill-mountain dotted with small groupings of Asian trees, fingers of a waterfall in the background. It was delicate, oriental, serene, with that slight touch of sadness, of resignation, that marks so much of far-eastern artwork. The Introduction by David Hinton suggested he cared about the work he was translating and cared about the poet.

As it turned out, at least according to Mr. Hinton, that the “Chinese Poetic tradition is the largest and longest continuous tradition in world literature -” and “Among the countless poets in the ancient Chinese tradition, Tu Fu (712-770 CE) is generally acknowledged to be the greatest. (By the way “CE” means Christian Era, which is more traditionally expressed as A.D., Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, as in Jesus our Lord, raised from the dead through the Spirit of Holiness and ascended to the Father, but we’ll give Mr. Hinton a pass on that point).

Mr. Hinton further explained – Tu Fu’s poetry reflected “a poetic engagement with the full range of human experience – the everyday and routine, the unsavory and ‘unpoetic,’ private spiritual cultivation and philosophic exploration, public poems about social injustice and the horrors of war.” As I stood at the bookshelf in Barnes and Noble, reading the first few poems of Tu Fu’s, I found Mr. Hinton’s description to be accurate. Tu Fu was a writer and man of maturity, of reflection, of deep human experience in both his private life and the public lives of the Chinese people of the 8th century. It was a time of civil war and of wartime deprivations and tragedy in China, brought to our attention over a period of 1300 years and 7,000 miles, by a poet. The first purchase on my gift card was committed.

Here are some excerpts of Tu Fu’s poetry (please forgive the line spacing – I find the WordPress text-editor maddening to deal with in connection with line spacing poetry):

War-Cart Chant                                                                                                                                            

War-cars clatter and creak,
Horses stomp and splutter:
Each wearing quiver and bow, the war-bound men pass.                                                                                                   

Mothers and fathers, wives and children – they all flock
Alongside, farewell dust so thick you can’t see All -Solar,

Grief’s bridge. They get everywhere in the way, crying
Cries to break against heaven, tugging at war clothes.

. . .

Has no one seen
How bones from ancient times
Lie, bleached and unclaimed, scattered along shores of

Sky-Blue Seas – how the bitter weeping of old ghosts is
Joined by new voices, the gray sky by chittering rain.


Onward Across Borders                                                                                                                             

So far from my village, O sent so far
Away into deep Weave River county.

Reporting dates are final. Any who
resists gets tangled in nets of calamity. . . .

Shouldering a spear, lost, my parents’
Love lost. I choke down silence and go.


New Year’s Eve                                                                                                                                          

Songs over pepper wine have ended.
Friends jubilant among friends, we                                                                                                                                    

Start a stable racket of horses. Wind-
Lamps blaze, scattering forest crows.                                                                                                                                              

Dawn, the fortieth year of my flight
Into dusk light’s over. Who changes,                                                                                                                                               

Who even slows this dead dazzling
Drunk in the wings of life we live?


Dharma-Mirror Monastery                                                                                                                       

Lives imperiled, we left for this new land.
Steady struggle’s only brought bitter grief,                                                                                                                                     

And traveling mountain depths wounds me.
But sorrows end in a cliffwall monastery’s                                                                                                                                        

Old ways: graceful emerald-lichen purities,
Chilled bamboo-sheaths crackling in the wind,                                                                                                                               

Wild churn of mountain-root streamwater,
Thin rain misting slow across pine treetops                                                                                                                                     

As faint-haze cloud hides morning clarities.
The sun rises veiled – then breaking clear                                                                                                                                       

Ignites half the red-tile roof incandescent,
Reveals precise doors and window-lattices.                                                                                                                                     

I lean on a staff, forgetting what’s to come,
And it’s noon before I step inside the gate.                                                                                                                                     

A cuckoo deep in far-sky shadow calls out:
this, isn’t this where my sparse path ends?


I could go on quoting Tu Fu’s poetry, poems with titles like Pounding Clothes (where he laments to his distant wife, you my love listen to sounds beyond empty skies) or Standing Alone (where he laments the fateful separations and poverty of his unsettled life, Heaven’s loom of origins tangling our human ways too, I stand facing sorrow’s ten thousand sources). But if I continued to quote Tu Fu’ poetry at too great a length, probably Mr. Hinton would sue me. I would invoke the doctrine of Fair Use.  Poetry like Tu Fu’s should not be hidden.

Hinton does a masterful job translating a great poet.  The translation captures a sense of a compact, ideographic style of Chinese poetry crafted by fitting word-symbols together as if they were tangible pieces of an emotional, philosophical puzzle. Reading the poetry of Tu Fu slowly, you meet the man, appearing from a distant place and time – but most assuredly, a man like myself – dragged out of his home by events, missing his wife and family, drinking with his friends, drenched in floods, wondering what controls his life, noting as he trudges along the beauty that surrounds the devastation by war and onslaughts of nature itself, as that same nature composes itself into an astonishing still life. And finding refuge in a monastery.

A central element of Tu Fu’s poetry is what I liked so much about Allen Ginsburg’s poem, Howl. The public, cultural and political lives we lead, or have imposed upon us, colliding with the private lives we experience – that also is poetry.  Far be it from me to not be inspired by and try my hand at such poetry. We are in my Post-Apocalyptic Coffee House of Grace. Everyone who enters should be ready with a poem:

A Partisan Political Poem Inspired by Tu Fu                                                                                             

Dense device news images, war symbols,
Electronic flags for virtue signaling,
Cable battalions crashing words,
Bits and bytes to slash resentments.
Your culture is canceled.                                                                                                                                                                        

The rose trellis blossoms merlot-red,
Young dogwoods signal to snow-flowered clematis vines.
My neighbor practices fly casting,
A prowling red fox crosses the golf range,
An untrained eye might capture peace.                                                                                                                                                 

Bitter reproaches are the nation’s public life,
Drenched in a hurricane of angry initials.
My country, tis of thee, sweet land of – of –
.  .  . Strange delusions and coded disease –
Newscast algebraic death and spreading, scalding sorrow.                                                                                                                                       

By flutter and din cardinals announce their vivid indifference
To our passions. Neighborhood Cottontails are unconcerned
About elections. Children on trampolines find no
Evidence of collusion. My granddaughter has learned
To squeal and smack her lips for solid food.                                                                                                                                                         

Flail with ten fingers to lash the keyboard letters together,
Harpoons we forge to annihilate the legendary
Phantom Fakewhale. The demons we fear dance away,
Immune to our hatred, giddy, glaring,
Feasting on reheated conspiracy bones.                                                                                                                                           

Church steeples are unmoved by impeachments.
Spring peepers have but one answer to every pollster.
We walk our hamster trail every evening, unmolested
By foreign intrigues. If our southern border is porous,
Yard signs announcing graduations yield no clue.                                                                                                                           

The ghost electricity howls in the bones of her face,
So said one of our poet-prophets,
Living to see the analog become digital.
The electric guitar current banished folk songs,
And turned polar negative.                                                                                                                                                                    

There are weddings in flowered state parks,
Solemn ceremonies and fathers being
Reminded by their newly-married daughters,
On the fleeting dance floors of caterers
Of the lullabies they once sang.                                                                                                                                                        

Reprisal and revenge – intended for
Our adversaries, a nightmarish dream of
Certain colossal political victory,
Driving our opponents into political dust –
Impertinent, elude us altogether.                                                                                                                                                      

Amazing, gracious are the gifts we are given.
Aaron’s dead wood blossoms into living vines,
Its fruit pregnant with mystery and promise.
We carry around miracles, dumbfounded
And uncomprehending.                                                                                                                                                                   

My country, once inspiring songs of alabaster cities
And dazzling shining seas,
Inspires now bitter retorts and muttered curses,
Stratagems for crushing a partisan enemy
Like a nest of deplored cockroaches.                                                                                                                                                             

I will sing no Pollyanna songs.
A wormwood truth is better than
No truth at all. Like a prophet of old,
I will mount my watchtower to
Query my God,
And wait.


Appended here is the text of a letter I wrote recently to Darryl Blackwell, inmate at SCI Mahanoy.

Dear Darryl,

Greetings in the Lord! Greetings in the eternal life we have in Jesus Christ, our Savior! It’s been considerable time since I wrote you at any length. We have been talking so much more frequently on the telephone in the last year, and then we had the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only have we had to deal with the pandemic, but there has been the DOC administrative clumsiness and lack of information that is so often the product of bureaucracy. I look forward to soon being able to visit you in person!

I have something to ‘show’ for this last year, pandemic or not. My daughter Laurie was married Friday, November 6, 2020, in West Chester, at the home of her groom’s parents. My daughter Elise was married Saturday, May 15, 2021 at the Auburn Valley State Park in Yorklyn, Delaware. Two daughters done, one to go! The weddings were each beautiful in their own way. Laurie’s was smaller in number, a wedding in a backyard, but decorated and joyous. Elise’s was in a flowered state park with a pond and rose trellis that was once a mansion and accompanying grounds. This mansion was not owned by the DuPonts, but another affluent family who finally gave up on the ancestral home and donated it to the state. There was also an antique care museum on the site.

One of the warmest moments of Laurie’s wedding day was prior to the ceremony, when Laurie and Matt sat on a bench under a tree in the backyard, and the photographer photographed them kissing. Both Laurie and Matt are quite reserved people, not given to many outward displays of affection or any kind of conspicuous emotion, and to see them kiss like that was memorable. A nice photo resulted!

One of the very nice moments of Elise’s wedding was when the first dance came after the ceremony, when the bride’s father dances with his daughter. I had forgotten, but when Elise was a child I used to sing the same lullaby to her every night, Amazing Grace. In our home, when she was a childe, Elise’s room was at the end of the hall, and I think she felt a little remote down there. It was a surprise to me, but when the time came for our dance, the song she chose was Amazing Grace. ‘Tough guy’ that I am (at least to opposing counsel), it was impossible not to have memories flooding back and get a little teary-eyed and emotional. Brides are very beautiful.

My youngest daughter Amy is not seeing anyone seriously now, and has moved for about four months to Maui, Hawaii. Her job as an on-line registered nurse serving companies who have retained the services of her employer, allows her to work nearly anywhere in the world. But her work shift in Hawaii is 5 am to 2 pm, because of the time differences. Hopefully, she’ll be able to adjust. As the youngest, she was once a ‘homebody,’ but now she is a jet-setter and world traveler. I’m thinking pretty hard about visiting her in Hawaii – I’ve never been there – but that isn’t definite yet. I’m not sure Erma would come with me – she is not a very enthusiastic traveler on airplanes. When the plane takes off, she grips my arm with sweaty palms.

I think Amy is also doing some spiritual searching, but I do not inject myself into such matters unless asked. She is still young enough to think that going to a new place, a world-famous scenic spot is exciting – and the longer the better. As she spends time there, I expect it will become more clear that what is exciting is not always what is satisfying. The distance between her and us, her family, is 6000 miles. There are only so many mixed Mai Tai cocktails you can drink, watching a beautiful sunset over the Pacific, before the charm of the cute little parasol swizzle sticks wears off and even the sunset fails to satisfy the soul.

My son, Nathan, has changed jobs and now works in a responsible, data analyst/project manager type of position for Vanguard. He is a new father to our granddaughter, Roslyn (she just oozes cuteness!) and a devoted father. Rochelle, my daughter-in-law is of course devoted, but devoted is hardly adequate to describe my Rochelle. She is totally sweet and thoughtful, but also has never met a detail of any task, including childcare, which she didn’t master top to bottom and front to back. She also works for Vanguard in a compliance-audit type of position (she’s a CPA) and will be returning to work after the conclusion of her maternity leave, which is occasioning some sighs and mixed feelings in her. She was selected recently to interview for a very senior position as a Director in the company with significant management responsibilities, which was flattering – but then another woman who had ten years more experience was selected, which wasn’t surprising, but disappointing.

My son’s growth as a person has been interesting to observe: he has always been an intelligent person, always competitive and capable, but he has also become a careful person. He closely weighs the pros and cons of any possible future course of conduct. In this respect, he truly exceeds me – shooting from the hip and figuring it out later was my mantra, for a long time. But some maturity has belatedly found even me, I suppose, although that sounds suspiciously like old age.

Erma is plugging along with her job with the University of Delaware. While she can do the job from home, it’s acceptable, although the bureaucracy of the department she’s in has been frustrating her. When the graduate school she works for opens in the fall for students and professors being there in-person, she wants to be able to continue to work from home at least a couple of days a week. The commute from West Chester PA to Newark DE was always a long one, 50 to 70 minutes. Now they’re doing construction work on I-95 around Wilmington, apparently with only one lane to be able to pass, and her commute could turn into a serious nightmare. So we will see what we will see, I guess.

My work is busy. The combination of the natural aging of the cohort of people who practice law, and the pandemic, has caused us to receive more calls from potential clients. I think a number of older attorneys got used to working from home, and got used to a workload of about one-half to two-thirds of what they had formerly done, and decided that was really all right. For them, it wasn’t necessary anymore to grind through a lot of first-time callers, with secretaries dropping new-caller telephone message pink slips in front of their noses – since most first-time calls to a lawyer aren’t really fruitful for purposes of legal representation. Nevertheless, I have still managed to avoid coming into the office on most Fridays, although it is also typical that I have some work to do that day, albeit from home.

The Covid pandemic has been hard on everyone, but especially on those like yourself who are ‘stuck’ in an institution, whether nursing home, prison, veterans center, etc. As we’ve talked on the phone, pretty much as soon as they open up Mahanoy for visitation, I’ll come up. I’m listening to Charles Erland’s album Intensity on Youtube as I write this letter – thanks for the recommendation! After this, but on my Bowers & Wilkins speakers set up for Airplay, I’ll catch up with your further recommendations: Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major (K. 467) and Concern for Piano and Harp in C (K.299-2 Andantino). I’m also listening to Bach, Oboe Concert in F Major by the Netherlands Bach Society.

It sounds like your transition into another unit has been relatively smooth, except for the noise problem. I am glad you are in single-cell status again; hopefully you won’t experience a repeat of the problem you had with your last cellmate. If you are getting out with a tier-sized cohort for a couple hours a day, that is also some good news. Try to get some exercise – walking is something Erma and I try to do every evening for about 45-50 minutes. Your walks are a priceless benefit for the “whole man!” I know you have been very attentive to improving your diet – keep up the good work!

I looked over your application to the Veterans Organization, including the Medical Evaluation provided by Dr. Rodgers. If I read it correctly, it shows: stable, general population inmate. Has several chronic medical conditions; followed at Chronic Clinic every 6 months; keep on (?) meds. The diagnostics Dr. Rodgers presented were hyperlipidemia, arteriosclerosis, asthma, eczema, and edema. I can’t make out all the medications, I see Lipitor, Lasix, Lopressor, Nitroglycerin, aspirin, Zyrtec, and several I can’t read. Your activities of daily living assessment speech was pretty much a “1.” (best possible) under almost every category.

I know that you have had symptoms of chest pains, leg pains and irregular heartbeat. Also, I know that you have experienced cracked and discolored skin, lethargy, shortness of breath, vertigo and swelling of feet and ankles. Yet the Lord has blessed you and kept you – maybe under difficult circumstances – but as the Apostle Paul says, hardship produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Hopefully, your change in housing will improve the situation.

I read over also the Final Appeal Decision of your Grievance 899681. At least at this time, it appears that the issue is moot: you have been moved into a single-cell status. Hopefully you won’t have to revisit this issue again. By the way, I’m currently holding $2,336.43 for you in my Prison Trust Account. I also just received your check for $700.00, but it hasn’t been deposited yet.

I’ve been doing some reading in the Book of Numbers in the Old Testament:

   17 [a]The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. Place them in the tent of meeting in front of the ark of the covenant law, where I meet with you. The staff belonging to the man I choose will sprout, and I will rid myself of this constant grumbling against you by the Israelites.”

   6 So Moses spoke to the Israelites, and their leaders gave him twelve staffs, one for the leader of each of their ancestral tribes, and Aaron’s staff was among them. Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the tent of the covenant law.

  8 The next day Moses entered the tent and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the tribe of Levi, had not only sprouted but had budded, blossomed and produced almondsThen Moses brought out all the staffs from the Lord’s presence to all the Israelites. They looked at them, and each of the leaders took his own staff.

  10 The Lord said to Moses, “Put back Aaron’s staff in front of the ark of the covenant law, to be kept as a sign to the rebellious. This will put an end to their grumbling against me, so that they will not die.” 11 Moses did just as the Lord commanded him.

  12 The Israelites said to Moses, “We will die! We are lost, we are all lost! 13 Anyone who even comes near the tabernacle of the Lord will die. Are we all going to die?”

The budding of Aaron’s staff was certainly a miracle which looked forward to the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The dead wood of a staff sprouted, budded and blossomed – looked forward prophetically to the Cross of Christ. That wood which was absolutely dead, was made alive, not only alive, but with buds, blossoms and fruit – prophetically looking forward to our Savior, Jesus, himself. And we are His buds, blossoms and fruit.

It is interesting that this miracle was so benign in its way, which panicked the Israelites. It was nothing like the judgments in Egypt or the judgment immediately preceding on Korah’s rebellion. Living a spiritual life is in its own way more difficult – we are more unaccustomed to it – than seeing great acts of judgment. The Israelites had seen God’s judgments in the Ten Plagues on Egypt. Job’s comforters were comfortable with the idea of God’s judgment, so that if bad things happen, God must be punishing that person.

But a miracle like the budding of Aaron’s staff, which looks forward to everlasting life, which looks forward to that time when we will see the entire creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.… – well, all that is hard to take in.

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. So said Isaiah, and so repeated Zechariah. Moses and Aaron didn’t know what to do with this miraculous blossoming staff, although they obviously sensed it had great spiritual significance. So they hit something with it! And the Rock produced Living Water. But the point of the miraculous staff which budded, blossomed and produced fruit, is not that you hit something with it. The point is the everlasting life, the victory over death, the eruption of life from that which is dead, which is the power and the glory of Jesus our Lord.

So we are brothers in the Lord, fellow blossoms, buds and almonds sprouted from the resurrected life of the Son of God, raised from the dead by the Spirit of Holiness, ascended to the Father and there seated at His right hand.

in Christ’s love and fellowship,


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