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From the Han-Shan Sequence

ISSUE:  Fall 2004

On the Third Anniversary of Shi-Te’s Death

The Analects declare it is best
To withdraw from one’s generation.
Next, to withdraw to another land.
Next, to leave because of a look.
Next best, to leave because of a word.

All of these advisements had applied
But none directly to Han-Shan’s reason
For departing the capital.
Option was the least of it.

A kiss taken from the high
Cheek of the youngest princeling
Had sent him packing.

He recalls clearly the scent
Of the lemon tree on the wind
Blowing across the imperial garden,
Bringing with it the harsh
Arresting voices of the Emperor’s
Minions and the cold seizure
Of manacles.

As he muses on past events,
The ancient clock in the second
Room of his house in the gray
Subdivision of government
Buildings strikes three times
Too many: time-warp aberration
Han-Shan has never learned
To correct.

Quick subtraction, however,
Sets the day right. At nine
Of the clock, the sun quarters
The fair mountain sky,
And Han-Shan enters his garden.

His blue shirt is immaculate.
Twigs of white embroidery
Enliven the collar like sudden
He is still a fastidious man
And one of studied preference.

For example, the planetary perturbation
Of a peacock feather keeps his place
Where he has stopped reading
In the Analects. It bends the window-
Wind like the signal of triumph.
Shi-te once said, “The Indian bird.”

Noon is Han-Shan’s quitting time.
Before he leaves the garden, he inspects
Again his sweet onion beds and his rows
Of prized early potatoes for any
Omissions he may have made.
All vinery is tied with yellow ribbons,
All king posts are secure.
All is in order.

On the way back to the house, he picks
A basket of lacquered bramble berries.
“These,” he says to his absent
But constant household companion,
“Will make an eloquent pastry
For our anniversary tomorrow.”

Smiling through his tears,
He adds in all fairness, “Books
Are excellent for supposing, proposing,
Exposing, and deposing argument, but love
Is superlative, too, wherever
It may chance to be.”

A Hole in a Cloud

Heretofore in my life, Old Man,
I lived in twenty-three apartments
Of one sort or another,
Never content, moving from street
To street, house to house, room to room.
Somewhere, I was convinced, there
Was a place I could truly call my own.
But my conviction has faded.
I no longer dream and am no more
Than a tramp along the highway.
Here on Exile Mountain I’ve built
A nest in a hole in a cloud,
Being that kind of bird
And no longer a fledgling.


“Even at today’s prices,”
Han-Shan says, “my pension
Is still sufficient to provide
Good paper for my poems,
Especially if I use
The backsides of pages.

Thanks to having been
Courier for rich men,
Now, without benefit
Of rickshaw or horse-cart,
I am still able to get
To the river and bring home

A string of April fishes
And a pocketful of river-
Jumbled stones for the silken
Nests I’ve woven and hung
In the four corners of
This little house.”

Night Out (Han-Shan at Eighty-Two)

In his garden at moonrise,
Han-Shan ponders
The scandal of parroting
Going on in the capital,
Where, he’s told,
The literati have become
Mere copiers, extractors of tidbits,
Especially the poets, who,
In consequence,
Are shamelessly embroiled
In counterfeiting and in crying
Infamy over who said what first.

Han is perplexed at the news
Yet he feels a certain sympathy.
“So many likelihoods
Are possible,” he muses.
“After all, a man’s genes
Take after each other.
I borrowed my own big ears
And sharp nose
From those who have gone before.
It’s a rule of the world.
Even the garden bell rings
Changes on the same old ding-dong.”

The moon hangs clear
Of the tallest pine
On Exile Mountain. “There,”
Han says, “is purest mimicry.”
He nods, reflecting on reflection.
“Cast and copy!”
The owl uphill,
Listener of a thousand nights,
Hears him exclaim.
“Reiteration steadies the wobbling world!”

The Dead

How quickly Han-Shan has forgotten
His address. The street is the right
Street, running along the hillside,
But where among the huddled houses
Of the government suburb
Is the one he calls home?

Snow has begun to fall.
“White houses,” Han-Shan reflects,
“Lose their identity in general

Even the serrated peaks
That compose the Mountain
Are growing nameless now
In the democracy of snow.

“Where in all that generality
Is Littlejohn Knob?” Han-Shan wonders.
He inquires direction of a man
Who waits, shovel at rest,
For the increase of tumbling flakes.

The stranger answers question
With question. “How long have you
Lived here?” he asks.
“Isn’t this a bit too early for snow?”

Angrily, Han-Shan thinks,
“We’re two old ronyons playing
At nonsequiturs in a snowstorm.”
But he answers civilly:
“In a new country, one learns
To temper the wind to the shorn lamb,”
Hardly knowing what his grandmother
Had meant, he is so cold.

Thanking the stranger for what
Information has passed between them,
Han-Shan plods on, upslope, downslope.
Where, in all that whiteness
Is his little white house
With its swept porch and yellow
Summer chairs, object of amusement
To his remarking neighbors.

Where is the ancient tulip tree
In the front yard? Where, behind
The saffron door, are the warm
Book-lined room and the picture
Of Shi-te as a young man? Where
The bronzed Greek youths hurling
Discuses from the fireboard?

Tiring, he eases himself
Groundward by the roadside, resting
His head on his bent knees, and waits.
Some passerby would surely find him there
And guide him upmountain before dark.

Everywhere about him, in silver
And dark flakes, the snow is falling
On the road, on the rocks, on the trees:
All the sceneries of familiar earth,
Making them strange and untenable.

Snow is falling too on the lonely
Hill where Shi-te lies buried.
Han-Shan hears the snow falling faintly
Throughout the universe.

The Will-Maker

Han-Shan likes manuscripts
And writes with many a flourish,
Serif, and uncial, drawn flowers
Between the lines and unicorns
Rampant in the margins.
The sheer beauty of a text enthralls
An old man who studied calligraphy
In the best writing schools
Of his day,

So he rewrites his testament incessantly:
“Here beginneth what beginneth here,”
He begins his weekly recapitulation
Of the precious instrument:
Always smiling as though the false
Palindrome had just occurred to him.

“I direct,” he continues, “all objects
Of worth found in my boxes and jars
To be dispensed among my several
Lovers in the order of their arrival
At my house on the day of my funeral,
Of which they will have been duly apprised.
The last shall receive the best.

There is one, however, who will not
Come until the second day, having
Had to walk far through forbidding country.
Save for him the finest ring
In the ring box.
Forgive him his muddy clothes.

There is, too, in the butter dish
On a shelf in the springhouse
A legacy of old gold. Give him that
Also because he is poor.”

There will be, Han understands,
Changes of mind: erasures of codicils,
Names added and subtracted in what
He calls the art of giving and taking
Away: arithmetics of love.

He may even decide to liquidate
All his assets and spend the proceeds
On a sumptuous meal for his ne’er-do-well
Attorneys who are too honest
To make a living.

Thinking of what he may yet bequeath
And to whom, Han dips his stylus
Into the yellow pot, and writes:
“Here beginneth what
Beginneth here.”

This Morning

Getting out of bed, Han-Shan
Falls flat on his back between the bed
And the bureau for the second time in a week.

He lies breathless, feeling no dismay, only
A sense of expectation confirmed: “I’m
Developing an intimacy with the earth,

The old leveler,” he says, getting his breath
Back. “The world keeps going for my head,
The love of one sphere for another,” he
Supposes. “With heaven kicked out of the way.”

He smiles at the egregious metaphor
And climbs the bedpost to a new erection,
But tempted to slide down again. Stepping
Gingerly, he makes his way to the kitchen,

Wondering how many more falls he will be
Obliged to take before he is forced
To accept the stance and keep to the level.


When he heard that his name
Had been set forth in public
As being that of a great but
Neglected poet of the 20th
Century, old Han-Shan fell to
Laughing and wept until his
Yellow bowl of lentil soup
Adulterated with tears.


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