T’ao Ch’ien, Wang Wei and Li Po Drop by the Coffee House

by Tom Wolpert on November 20, 2021

Courtesy of translator David Hinton, three more Chinese poets, dating from 365 A.D. to 761, have arrived for tea and poetry readings in my Coffee House of faith.  The years are distant, the geography is distant, but for just such reasons, the dialogue has substance.  Their images and observations, their collective plights and pleasures, present a clean palate, an unmarked canvas, on which to taste, to paint.  Like royal characters in a Shakespearean play, we will conduct our debate in free verse.

T’ao Chien (365-427 A.D.) was lonely, paradoxical, enigmatic, spiritual, longing, isolated, contemplative, resigned.  Warfare raged around him, a real-world game of thrones.  Here is an excerpt from Returning to My Old Home:

      We moved to the capital in another time,
      it seems, only leaving for home after

      six years.  Today, our first day back
      I grieve.  Sad things are everywhere now.

      Terraced fields remain, still unchanged,
      but in the village, entire houses simply

      vanished.  And out walking, I find old
      neighbors here mostly dead.

In T’ao’s poem Home Again Among Gardens and Fields, he writes:

      Nothing like the others, even as a child,
      rooted in a love for hills and mountains,

      I fell into their net of dust, that one
      departure a blunder lasting thirteen years.

      But a tethered bird longs for its forest,
      a pond fish its deep waters.  So now, my

      land out on the south edge cleared, I
      nurture simplicity among gardens and fields  . . .

      Life is its own mirage of change.  It ends
      vanished, returned into nothing.  What else?

Sometimes wandering mendicants meet a friend.  In Begging Food, Tao writes:

      Hunger came and drove me out.  No
      idea where I’d end up, I went on

      and on, and coming to this village,
      knocked at some door.  Seeing in my

      senseless muttering why I’d come,
      you gave all I needed, and more:

      we chatted on into evening, pouring
      cups of wine we downed in no time,

      and savoring the joy of new friends,
      we chanted old poems and wrote new.

T’ao was torn in three directions: a government job, which was far from home and miserably lonely (all I wanted was to be home with my family again), but which provided some income; his life at home farming, (I worked hard farming, but we never had enough; the house was full of kids, and the rice-jar always empty), and simply to leave everything behind (my dream is to walk out all alone into a  lovely morning).

With such melancholy and wistful forces at work within him, naturally his thoughts turned to death and mortality, with its implacable outcome plainly visible.  Trying to sort through it, he wrote a poem Form, Shadow, Spirit, beginning with

      Form Addresses Shadow.

      Heaven and earth last.  They’ll never end.
      Mountains and rivers know no seasons,  . . .

      They call us earth’s most divine and wise
      things, but we alone are never as we are

      again.  One moment we appear in this world,
      and the next, we vanish, never to return.  . . .

      I’m no immortal.  I can’t just soar away
       beyond change.  There’s no doubt about it,

      death’s death.  Once you see that, you’ll
      see that turning down drinks is for fools.

In this three-part poem, T’ao gives Shadow the opportunity to reply:

      Who can speak of immortality when simply
      staying alive makes such sad fools of us? 

      We long for those peaks of the immortals,
      but they’re far-off, and roads trail away . . .

      Resting in shade, we may seem unrelated,
      but living out in the sun, we never part.

     This togetherness isn’t forever, though.
      Soon, we’ll smother in darkness.  The body

      can’t last, and all memory of us also ends.
      It sears the five feelings.  but in our

      good works, we bequeath our love through
      generations.  How can you spare any effort?

In the third part of the poem, Spirit answers.  The resemblance between T’ao’s character Spirit  and the emotional tone of Solomon’s Book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, is unmistakable.

      The Great Potter never hands out favors,
      These then thousand things thrive each

      of themselves alone.  If humans rank with
      heaven and earth, isn’t it because of me?

      And though we’re different sorts of things
      entirely, we’ve been inseparable since

      birth, together through better and worse,
      and I’ve always told you what I thought.  . . . 

      Young and old die the same death.  when it
      comes, the difference between sage and fool

      vanishes.  Drinking every day may help you
      forget, but won’t it bring an early grave?

In another poem, as T’ao is thinking of the impoverished Ancients, so important to Chinese culture, he asks, “is there any solace?”  In the 17th chapter of Acts, the Apostle Paul addresses some people with an equally learned culture and history, perhaps more inclined to discussion and less inclined to be wistful, the Athenians.  Perhaps with a touch of irony, Paul announces, “I noticed, as I strolled around admiring your sacred monuments, that you had an altar inscribed: To An Unknown God.  Well, the God whom I proclaim is in fact the one whom you already worship without knowing it.”  (Acts 17:23, JB).   T’ao stretches the limits of natural revelation, almost longing as it were, to hear the Apostle Paul’s speech.  Even if he were to question it – it would mean something to T’ao to hear it. Whatever his reaction, I doubt that T’ao would burst out laughing.  [For more, see The Selected Poems of T’ao Ch’ien, translated by David Hinton, Copper Canyon Press, 1993].

Wang Wei was both a poet and a painter (701-761 AD).  Wei expressed himself most forcefully as an artist by asserting he wished to disappear within himself to lose his identity.  Mind empties away, no room for confusion. So Wang Wei wrote in his colorfully titled poem At Azure-Dragon Monastery, for Monk Cloud-Wall’s Courtyard Assembly.  After giving us his stunning language-colors, Wei declared that there really is no lasting color at all.  In his monastery high up, Wei heard the roosters in the capital below, he watched the riders on the southern roads, he saw the trail of smoke across boundless distances and lavish greens at the furthest forest edge.  The western sunset shone for him over imperial tombs, ten thousand villages lay underneath his gaze without a taint to disturb the very limits of his sight – all, apparently, so his mind can empty away. 

Wei wanted to empty existence.  In Zen Buddhism, its early Chinese form characterized as Ch’an in Hinton’s introduction to Wei’s poetry, “the distinction between being (yu) and (nonbeing) (wu) arises.” In a very succinct manner, Wei chases down this wu in his poem Deer Park. 

     No one seen.  Among empty mountains,
     hints of drifting voice, faint, no more.

     Entering these deep woods, late sunlight
     flares on green moss again, and rises.

Because this poem is so compact and well-known, Hinton spends some time unpacking it in his introduction.  Hinton concludes his discussion of Deer Park with the phrase, “the darkness of night enveloping the entire world.”  As Hinton explains, this is the darkness of wu.  With respect to wu, some responsive poetry is appropriate – but first let us put a friendly cup of wine in Wei’s hand and see what else he may write.

      Playfully Written on a Flat Stone

      Dear stone, little platter alongside cascading streamwater,
      willow branches are sweeping across my winecup again.

      And if you say spring wind explains nothing, tell me why,
      when it scatters blossoms away, it blows them here to me?

Wei, like other Ch’an poets, strives for simplicity; so being simple, or even a simpleton, has a more positive connotation for him than for us.  Notwithstanding, Wei has a knack for expressing the ‘be-here-now’ emphasis within nature that is refreshing in zen thought (note the rather amusing name for the valley in question; Wei is not a man impressed by royal titles).

     To ask about Duke-Simpleton Valley
      is to be gone already in search of it,

      but it’s never far from mind itself.
      Stop searching and you arrive here

      where people wander without danger,
      look without seeing profound depths.

      You who drift a world of dust hoping
      to return – what other home is there?

In his poem Climbing to Subtle-Aware Monastery, Wei writes that he will be inhabiting emptiness beyond dharma cloud.  Wei will find dharma companions to experience ch’an stillness, but people on city walls see only white clouds.  It is similar to the sentiment of Jack Kerouac’s novel, Dharma Bums.  Enlightenment is for the enlightened few. 

Occasionally something else flashes through Wei’s poetry.  In Master-Flourish Ridge he asks, is there no limit to all this grief and sorrow?  Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, to express his appreciation of that which Wei appreciates in his poem, East Creek, Savoring the Moon

      From between hewn peaks, a far-off moon
      emerges at the edge of my brushwood gate.

      Ten thousand trees sharing its clear skies
      as shadows blur toward the heart of night,

      its radiance offers emptiness white images,
      and its ch’i invests wind with ice-cold dew.

      The valley’s silent.  Autumn streams echo.
      Deep among cliffwalls, scraps of azure haze

      linger.  Crystal pure, it enters isolate dream,
      opening shadows, embracing empty peaks,

      then I wake at my ch’in window confused:
      pine creek at dawn, not a thought anywhere.

Unbelievingly white in the sun, was the square top of Kilimanjaro. And then he knew that there was where he was going.  So wrote Ernest Hemingway.  Ice-cold dew, isolate empty peaks and square tops, unbelievably white in the sun, exert a considerable pull.  Then again, why seek ye the living among the dead? a visiting angel once asked a small group of rather puzzled women. For more of the poetry of Wang Wei, see The Selected Poems of Wang Wei, translated by David Hinton, New Directions Paperbook,  2006.  It’s worth getting the book just for the cover-art, “Wheel-Rim River,” by an unknown artist, after an apparently lost original by Wang Wei. 

Li Po was born in 701 and died in 762, making him a contemporary of Wang Wei’s and Tu Fu.  That means that in China at this time, armies are burning fields and cities.  Let us quote first David Hinton’s impression or presentation of Li Po.  “His work is suffused with Taoism and Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism, but these seem not so much spiritual influences as the inborn form of his life  . . . He moved through this world with an unearthly freedom from attachment.”   My impression of Li Po differs – I find Li Po sadder, drunker, lonelier, more wistful and vulnerable to death, less inclined to find religious solace in a still-life.  He finds what is available in a jar of wine, but it is hardly enough.  But one appreciates the poet by reading his poetry, so let’s see.  (‘Celestial Star River,’ referred to in Li Po’s poetry, is the Milky Way).

      Gazing At The Lu Mountain Waterfall

      Climbing west toward Incense-Burner Peak,
      I look south and see a falls of water, a cascade

      hanging there, three thousand feet high,
      then seething dozens of miles down canyons.

      Sudden as lightning breaking into flight,
      its white rainbow of mystery appears.  Afraid

      at first the celestial Star River is falling,
      splitting and dissolving into cloud heavens,

      I look up into force churning in strength,
      all power, the very workings of Creation.

      It keeps ocean winds blowing ceaselessly,
      shines a mountain moon back into empty space,

      empty space it tumbles and sprays through,
      rinsing green cliffs clean on both sides,

      sending pearls in flight scattering into mist
      and whitewater seething down towering rock.

      Here, after wandering among these renowned
      mountains, the heart grows rich with repose.

      Why talk of cleansing elixirs of immortality?
      Here, the world’s dust rinsed from my face,

      I’ll stay close to what I’ve always loved,
      content to leave that peopled world forever.

In his poem, Ch’ang-Kan Village Song, Li Po writes a poem in the voice of his wife.

      At fourteen, when I became your wife,
      so timid and betrayed I never smiled,

      I faced wall and shadow, eyes downcast.
      A thousand pleas:  I ignored them all.

      At fifteen, my scowl began to soften.
      I wanted us mingled as dust and ash, . . .

       At sixteen, you sailed far off to distant
      Yen-Yu Rock in Ch’u-T’ang Gorge . . .

      It’s September now.  Butterflies appear
      in the west garden.  They fly in pairs,

      and it hurts.  I sit heart-stricken
      at the bloom of youth in my old face.

      Before you start back from out beyond
      all those gorges, send a letter home.

      I’m not saying I’d go far to meet you,
      no further than Ch’ang-feng Sands.

And what might Li-Po be doing, perhaps while his young wife awaits him?

      Something Said, Waking Drunk on a Spring Day

      It’s like boundless dream here in this
      world, nothing anywhere to trouble us.

      I have, therefore, been drunk all day,
      a shambles of sleep on the front porch.

      Coming to, I look into the courtyard.
      There’s a bird among blossoms calling,

      and when I ask what season this is,
      an oriole’s voice drifts on spring winds.

      Overcome, verging on sorrow and lament,
      I pour another drink  Soon, awaiting

      this bright moon, I’m chanting a song.
      And now it’s over, I’ve forgotten why.

Collecting all Li Po’s references to wine-drinking would be no small task.  So let’s pick out one more shard of his poetry, from Drinking alone Beneath the Moon:

      I hear clear wine called enlightenment,
      and they say murky wine is like wisdom:

      once you drink enlightenment and wisdom,
      why go searching for gods and immortals?

Perhaps somewhere, there is really a happy drunk – but Li Po isn’t convincing me.  Looking out over a vast expense from Hsin-P’ing Tower, Li Po writes the eye reaches beyond what ruins our lives.  Regardless of disposition, most people react to senseless war and bloodshed the same way.  In War South of the Great Wall, Li Po writes hawks and crows tearing at people, lifting off to scatter dangling entrails in dying trees. Tangled grasses lie matted with death, but generals keep at it.  And for what?  In a poem about a farewell dinner, Li Po expresses a sense of loss that captures more than one kind of separation:

      But slice water with a knife, and water still flows
      empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.

      You never get what you want in this life, so why not
      shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?

Oncoming mortality is never far way.  Listening to a monk play a ch’in, a musical stringed instrument, Li Po concludes night coming unnoticed in emerald mountains, autumn clouds banked up, gone dark and deep.  Li Po wrote many ‘concluding’ poems – I’ll pick this one, called After an Ancient Poem, to present both his form of goodbye as well as that slenderly-expressed possibility that there might be something beyond knowing.   But Li Po knows that moon-rabbits and timeless trees don’t help much, no matter how well-entrenched in his culture’s mythology – what he is sure of is pure lament

      We the living, we’re passing travelers:
      it’s in death alone that we return home.

      All heaven and earth a single wayhouse,
      the changeless grief of millennia dust,

      moon-rabbit’s immortality balm is empty,
      and the timeless fu-sang tree kindling,

      Bleached bones lie silent, say nothing,
      and how can ever-green pines see spring?

      Before and after pure lament, this life’s
      phantom treasure shines beyond knowing.

For more of Li Po’s poetry, see The Selected Poems of Li Po, trans. by David Hinton, New Directions Books, 1996


Poets should not be shy, but should share their gifts and their friendship.

Returning To My Old Home

Walking introspective California hills pushes me home,
coming back, the late-November leaves have fallen,
the visionless train, its windows dark, says little,
offers no solace, announces a Pennsylvania hometown.

Recruited and recruiter, a highway crosses windshield-windowed
enigmatic snowy fields, still-naked, theme-songed.
Stunned and hopeful, as baffled as any lost sailor,
I paddle away, watching the Noe-Valley shipwreck sink.

What next? The ash-arising phoenix
has already taken a stand, made a statement,
no matter how uncertain. Leaping from failure
to failure, the mountain goat finds a trail.

So others have puzzled, storm-racing through lightning.
Mighty towers have taken stands, made declarations,
scholars have gone before to map out the soul.
Institutions guard direction casually.

The Great Potter does indeed hand out favors.
Sainted children, inheriting, distributing, disburse their gifts
like the sun and rain – to the good and to the evil,
offhandedly to the simple, no less freely to the worldly-wise.

The soul-kitchen is refuge for a haunting night.
The soul-map finds an ancient festival,
wherein a man boldly declares himself to be
not merely a man at all.

Railroad Tracks and Coal Yards

Anthracite coal once came down from Pottsville to Reading.
Steel tracks that once had been markers of power
and battle lines for strikers and fierce Coal & Iron police,
became long balance-beams for a dreamy child in Lansdale.

I walked the tracks, explored the coal yard,
and climbed the grey-brown ladders of the ice house.
I bike-raced through the alley past the metal finishing plant
where 60-gallon barrels leaked and one day fluorescently burned down.

Powers and spirits had unsealed red horse-and-rider plans,
who had Higgins-landed at  Normandy, flew at Hiroshima, fought at the Yalu 
and blockaded Cuba. No boy was rebuked for a schoolyard fight.
Many books were read, but a Dallas tower told the tale.

Ghosts fought at the Gulf of Tonkin, but it was reason enough.
In Saigon scented Buddhists burned themselves, fiery images of change. 
Track steel had new, harder purposes in thumping Hueys and B-52s –
my ticket was punched for a long day’s journey into night.

Of Polished Mirrors and Roosters

At elevated Azure-Dragon Monastery, five enthroned, exquisite senses
made the poet’s mind a polished mirror to survey the imperial expanses.
Overlooking two California-urban valleys spilling off 22nd Street near Castro,
a rooster’s crow interrupted my cinematic-vivid, rented-room sleep.

Ch’an mind was cleansed in a monk’s courtyard, wide open, unlimited.
A poet-monk’s ears were keenly tuned to hear distant roosters below.
My mind was troubled to distinguish white-flag, minimum-wage reality
from darkly-colored, heavy-metal, howling dreams.

Pure perception strips and clothes the five sparkling senses, but who made them?
If there are spaces beyond, with vast expanses, from where?
Is the undisciplined, distant-peaked, crowing world so small,
to be dismissed as a dream, the mind a casual trinket to discard?

Perhaps some ruler, returning from a distant journey,
will assemble his poets for an accounting in a courtyard most high.
What did you do with my priceless gifts, that no rooster ever owned?
Held thou my gifted senses so lightly – to be only throne-clouds?

I labored to find sober; that morning a machine shop to sweep.
Faith, years away, but wu castles in the air make war against 
slow bricks of faith. The voices are no longer faint, the mountains no
longer empty, thanks be to God, who has ascended on high.

The tenant’s story which ignores the Landlord is only half-told.
The sun will rise again on the green moss, lit by a glorious Lamb.
Deep woods, flaring sunlight, mountain peaks, ten thousand villages,
are pregnant with ethereal beauty indeed – not emptied of moonlight.

Wheel-Rim River, its willows and bamboo groves, were made for us,
lively, crowing children-inheritors of the One, the Ancient of Days –
not us for them, as untainted and sunset-polished as they are.
We are more than what we have, by his Word, minded, not confused,
but will full-measure our lavish blue peaks and lush-silk expanses in praise.

O, Li Po

Here in this coffee house, you have made our laughing table
wet with spilled wine. Your cheeks are flushed with merriment,
your eyelashes wet with tears. You drain a chain of winecups and
offer chasm-deep goodbyes. O, Li Po, wait – you have nowhere to go.

One will join us, Li Po – we will have a peaceful visitor. Your
poetry will have an audience. Your soul will have a friend.
Disarm yourself, my friend, of your cups, your tears, your goodbyes.
You need here no Ch’an defense against empty skies and icy peaks.

Grim messengers are turned aside at these doors. No pale
imperial official appears at this threshhold to remind a carriage awaits.
This shop is purified, regenerated, renewed, by larger purposes.
I promise on great authority – when the stone is rolled away, it never rolls back.

Both intoxicated – you with old apricot wine, my wine newer, potent.
Yet I am well-versed in liquid shadows, Li Po. Your careless alleys
are not unknown to me. They run down to a river of flowing night-wine,
decorated with a silvery moon-plastered seal, invitation to a drowning.

You ramble about, Li Po. Farewells fill your poetry. You don’t say why –
your encrypted mortal-movements are a refuge. High-mounted gibbons read
your passing, unraveling stranger-heart. Grief of separation, tears of frustration,
puzzled, isolate questions are common fare, I know, for runaways of any age.

You and your friend, Tu Fu, are seated on my wordspirit-invitation.
I saw from a hidden, gift-given scroll, we eat from the same rice bowl.
Sounds of war and the illness of his body make Tu Fu grief-touched,
greyer, less boisterous – but Fear-Wall Gorge is behind him also.

Falling blossoms, autumn thoughts, burning grief, tangled death-grasses
and ch’in music for drinking – Li Po, you look west for a vanished home,
a friend, calling across distances. Hear me, a wandering pilgrim bringing
a strange message – heaven tipped over. Indeed, who has believed our report?

Exiled – out drinking and serenading a sea-born moon on Dragon Mountain,
where late lonesome light has sorrow. There is Mongol war under your Great Wall,
war in azure Revelation-heaven. I cannot make a Star River home for you,
Li Po, but what the Spirit permits, rice-cakes and plum wine, I will provide.


A Serious Three-Fold Conversation with Hsieh Ling-yun

Hsieh, aristocrat of China, from youth made ready to rule, scion, calligrapher, poet,
sober and spiritual, a settled, separated mirror-still mind – no wine spills on this table.
My youth, arrested and sent to a juvenile, tiny-windowed hall, set high on a California hill,
not for sublime ch’an meditation, but gathered and celled for puzzled incarceration.
Jesus, mission-suffused from his youth, read a temple-scroll, declared a fulfillment,
and soon was close-bending over a disciple’s fevered mother-in law for healing.

Journeying home, you saw heaven’s deep compassion in a frail world,
crystal pure lakes, lone cliffs, enduring changeless in a world of mortal reverses.
I journeyed home in defeat, without explanation, but convinced, beyond expectation,
of some coded purpose, still breathing, under addled flourishing and perishing.
Jesus returned to Galilee, Spirit-infused, synagogue-teaching, news-making,
question-provoking, anger-inciting, driven out to walk his own way through a crowd.

Hsieh, in planted gardens, flocks of trees at your door, mountainpeaks for window-shades.
Exquisite adoration with kindred spirits, healing, sheltered from the rank vapor of turmoil.
A meeting-interview at a diner brought me into Holmesburg Prison, dungeon-castle,
volunteer-rookie for Bishop Kinning, feckless-driving, turmoil-friendly prison chaplain.
“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” questioned a demon-possessed man, in
synagogue-shelter, “Have you come to destroy us?” Quiet – leave him! came the stern reply.

Does the inner pattern end attachment? Hsieh, you seek wisdom from a sage – nonbeing and
being, woven together. Your home atop Stone-Gate peak, where slant light disappears.
In Holmesburg Prison, chaos, energy, concrete, blue prison-garb, we travel through
checkpoint-gates to the guard’s wheel-hub, down the wheel-spoke, hellish vent-steam arising.
A mat-bound paralytic is lowered to Jesus, absolution-offered,  – which is easier?
Your sins, forgiven, or get up, walk.  Paralytic no more, witnessed in a crowded room.

Your city walls are confused, life holds only vagrant pleasures, twilight ruins close in.
You seek Spirit-Vulture Peak, threaded sutras in garden-groves, Li pattern’s mystery.
The Spirit organized bishop, pastor, volunteers, choir, congregants – my Holmesburg entry,
safe in the Church Behind the Wall. Street-side, skin is an enemy, in the Church, friends.
Stand in front of everyone, Jesus ordered. Which is lawful on the Sabbath?  Good?
Or evil? To save? Or destroy? Stretch out your hand! And that healed hand speaks still.

Hsieh, your wandering energy deserves respect. You see transformations, the lotus and
chestnut lavishly woven together; inner quiet is offered freely in your enchanted home.
I paused in my car one Holmesburg summer evening. I had been in that city-tough prison.
Going in again? – Isn’t that why I’m here? – It’s okay. Trust, its own peace, from Christ.
A widow burying her son – his heart gives a gentle order – don’t cry. Touching the coffin,
death-defiled wood, stilling the bearers. Young man, get up! –  Jesus-returned to mother.

You think the sacred beauty of occurrence appears of itself. You seek to acquire
the bright insight, the composure of mountain peaks. But this composure ends.
Brother Alvin jumped one night onto the folding chairs with sparking high-voltage Spirit,
unleashing his offender-message of life and mercy, preached for a thousand years.
A luxury-beauty brought expensive perfume, bathed Jesus’ reclining feet in tears and kisses,
wiped with her hair, poured her perfume-love, declared forgiven of sin, for she loved much.

Hsieh, the Buddha’s face is distant and remote; the sounds of his lament are always with us.
Struggles fade away, patterned thought sees through, antiquity continues – but you do not?
Standing in the lampstand-lit lot of the House of Correction after a module-visit to women,
we discuss other visitors. Conversation and snow fall gracefully – words, like flakes, sincere.
On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus was called by ten.  Go, show yourselves to the priests, he said.
Cleansed on their way, one turned back to praise. Darkness soon came – and following after,
purification, atonement, resurrection, the promised power, tongues of fire, many languages.
Hsieh, distant and remote does not work for me – unclean, I serve the One who purifies,

For Tu Fu, for Suffering, that Worldwide Language, Redeemed

Yin and Yang may cleave first dusk and early dawn in a single ch’i glance,
yet, with hostages, your emptied boat will rock under sadder, deeper storms.
A youth, I reached up to a God I did not know, like mother and brother
sinking in brain-poison, flying to crash at water’s edge, to ask about suffering.
Job, skin broken and festering, cursed the naked, misery-blasted day he was born,
to ask why life was given to man, to ask if any wickedness were found on his lips.

Tu Fu, your Chinese war poems are sword-words, anguish-bathed, tear-marked.
You assign chevrons to old ghosts, ribbons to new, in a bitter-weeping choir.
Uncertain, I hid from war under a lottery-number. O, good morning, Vietnam,
where in jungles and deltas, teenagers paid a fine imperial price you know.
Lord, heal me, prayed a Psalmist in language once dead, his bones in agony.
Across languages and years, mortal-etched experience translates itself.

How much must our mud and tax-choked people endure? you asked. You saw
beyond mountain peaks, to pampered regal ministers and horsewhipped farmers.
Broad justice beyond my youthful thoughts, but slow-forming questions were not –
searching, a mortal task too. To ask is to hope answers exist, teachers may be found.
Satan-afflicted, Job sought the One who passes by unseen, who acts unperceived,
who provides no answers, accepts no summons, for a heart-hearing in his despised life.

Tu Fu, your educated life charmed, a poet, yet rebel-hounded on elusive refugee-trails.
Hiding in a monastery, mourning a son, malaria-cursed, enemy-days gathering, waiting.
Suffering’s story is no private possession – on Judah Street I dreamt my mother followed
me through a half-walled maze, life’s desperate puzzle. I awoke map-less, and wept.
Job, mocked by accusers, saw his days fly off with no glimpse of joy, pain-ragged.
Lamenting, he saw the rod on his own shoulders. Finally, his vision will improve.

Tu Fu, you ask when the crystalline moonlight will find your mist-scented wife’s
jade-pure arms, two-in-one, drapes-open, light silently tracing where tears have dried.
Brother, father, mother, Cain-outcasts going before, separated. We are tossed headlong
into a multitude of exiles, pallbearers in a torn procession which begs piercing questions.
How long, O Lord? asked the Psalmist. Will you forget me forever? Tu Fu, your tears are
too real to explain with a doctrine. Yet hear – my cry came before him, into his ears.

A grief-sung poet drowning in drums, dust, sand, calamity. Fleeing death-armed rebels,
your family found compassionate refuge with a friend, soothing hot baths and warm food.
My way opened to a Kimberton Church, baptism by a chemist-pastor, a prayer group,
charismatic gifts overlaying wild recollections, a calmer hand on a wind-rocked craft.
David wrote of the One who drew from the deep to spacious pastures, quiet waters,
a shepherd leading to a sheltering tabernacle on a fortress-rock, the lamb-soul’s hiding-place.

Heartsick man, home-returned with grimy feet, to vomit and shit bed-ridden, son crying.
But gleeful, madcap daughters smeared make-up, your bright-eyed wife found some hope.
My heart reaches to yours, Tu Fu, any living heart must. My heart muscle-clamped once
in blood-short protest, triage team scrambled to save, my sawed-open chest replumbed.
Roaring lions will tear their prey. Poured out like water, bones out of joint, crying out,
a man’s heart turned to wax, melting within him – forsaken, laid in the dust of death.

In dreams Li Po visits you, Tu Fu, true poet-friends. Yet night-dragons appear as he drifts in
malarial southlands – lingering in flooding moonlight gauze, whirlpool waters growing deep.
Jim & Nancy, guitar-peace ministers, folk-sang in living-room circles of charisma-renewed
Christians, piety astonished-embarrassed, to ask mystic-hope prayers over retreaded liaisons.
Job, wounded, stubborn – Elihu, a friend not mocking, replied El Shaddai delivers mercy
in suffering, tends to the afflicted in trials, woos his friends from the jaws of distress.

Tu Fu, sing – of grief grieved, sorrowed faces, scattered bones, wailing gibbons, a lost spirit,
prowling vipers, wounded memories. Left a hobo-wraith, in Altar-Whole you found rest.
America is broad, spacious, plentiful, where vipers attend sorrowing burials. Wailing gibbons
and lost spirits hover on needle tracks, grieving somber parents, exotic pharma-potions.
Storm-answered, God cross-examined a bitter soul. O, man, brace yourself! I will question
you. And you will answer me. Here also, a mystery-man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Sick in your thatched hut, Tu Fu, but carefree swallows come and go. Your wife draws a
paper chessboard, kids contrive fishhooks. Sparse man, your requests are modest, profound.
Pictures of daughters with their prom dates, watched my son get extra-base hits, imp-smile
grandchild, where my wife seasons fresh trout – in this miraculous life, the Lord is gracious.
Job’s reply speaks the unspeakable – things of awe not understood, too wonderful to know.
Job’s soul beheld-repented in dust, ashes. Seeing El Shaddai, saw too, a mystery-man.

Tu Fu, suffering makes you wise to astonishment. In a rain-drenched night, years of loss
and ruin, you query – could there ever be a vast palace, joyful, for cold people everywhere?
Fire-driven out of my quarters in Noe Valley; distressed, indebted to friends, found a $3
tiny-print bible. Blessed, the poor in spirit, who mourn, are meek. Blessed, who hunger and
thirst after righteousness, shall be filled. A mystery-man taught so, who also knew cold –
yet his sun rises on the good and on the evil, sends his rain on the just and on the unjust.

Tu Fu, aged and frail, shut-in ill, an arrow-wounded crane, appointed to a lone-goose,
longing-empty journey. Your why? crouches under every recitation of bed-ridden anguish.
Spit upon, slapped and fist-struck, flogged, thorn-crowned, purple-robe mocked, hand and
foot piercing-nailed, bloodwater speared – Tu Fu, why?  spreads there broad-winged as well.
Trailing last, own experience here, Tu Fu, because self-inflicted suffering is not the same –
but I asked the question once, brain-poisoned, because interior demons were a family affair.

Your last poem, Tu Fu, bitter as Job – wind-sick, harmony-mocked, unhinged squawking,
drizzle, malarial fire, drummed-up ghosts, slaughter-crossbows, drifting shorelines of life.
Tu Fu, each morning I praise our holy and righteous God – and I have had my troubles too.
The Savior’s grace has healed my scars, but the faint traces remain, my life written out.
Put your finger here! See my hands! Reach out your hand! Put it in my side! Lightning
of Thomas’ revelation no ignorance of His scars, but the sure identity they conveyed.

The Son of God redemption-came, suffering redeemed for all.
A point, an answer, a balm, for arrow-wounded cranes everywhere,
that cannot be hidden under mere doctrine, as necessary as they are.
The stone is rolled away, Tu Fu, to disclose the Son of Man, resplendent.
The leaves of the Tree are for the healing of the Nations – even yours.
The Bread of Life has so declared.




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