Tending, clearing

According to the Chinese lunisolar calendar, between now and the late April rains one should tend to the graves of one’s ancestors. This period goes by the name 清明, or qīngmíng, and the weeks are designated “clear and bright.”

In my part of the world, we experience a mix of rainy and clear; but the days are warming and the grass greener. The annual winter weeds pull up easily, and the tough perennial weeds emerge before the grasses. The moist, newly-thawed soil makes levering those weeds less difficult now than later in the year.

I, however, do not live anywhere near my ancestors’ graves.

~

Clearing

Clear the patch that yields
to memory
clutch the hand hoe
and the trowel
disturbing early spring’s
small bees and gnats
beneath the plum’s
blossoming branches

Weeds encroach here
grasses grown too high
a nearby stone
toppled and broken
tells us about
forgetfulness

Insects surround
the quiet morning
active each year as warmth
moves into earth
the newt that curls
under last year’s leaf
finds sustenance

As do we
in our earnest effort
clearing as skies clear
each handful of chickweed
representing thanks
to those whose efforts
and accidents
brought us into
the world

~

getPart-1

photo by David Sloan

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Jisei

I have been re-reading a lovely anthology called Japanese Death Poems, edited by Yoel Hoffman. I purchased this book years ago when I was immersed in the study of haiku, haibun, and the early Chinese poetry forms and approaches that influenced many Japanese poets. Hoffman’s book offers excellent examples of jisei (poems composed near the moment of death) and his informational text places the poems in the context of various cultural, economic, power, and belief structures.

For a person raised in a contemporary western culture, the concept of death as a constant partner in our consciousness seems–while perhaps obvious–rather uncomfortable. We are not likely to approach our deaths with a sense of acceptance, let alone friendly understanding: “This is how it is.” But the death poems, as I read them, suggest that while death is universal, each person’s awareness of it is unique, even among people in the same culture who may hold similar beliefs.

Jisei intrigue curious folk, because death is A Big Thing to Be Curious About. Digital photographer Hank Frentz, a young artist who’s been inspired by Hoffman’s collection of jisei, has posted a series of mysterious and beautiful photos paired with the death poems, a sample of which can be viewed here. Please follow the link, as his photographs seem to me to be aesthetically and “spiritually” close to the poems he chooses, creating a kind of haiga (俳画) effect.

~~

 

I have also been revisiting Earl Miner’s translation of Shiki’s brief verse diary, “The Verse Record of My Peonies.” Written in 1899, when Shiki was suffering agonizing pain from spinal tuberculosis (he died in 1902 at the age of 35), the haiku and the prose of the diary recommend the reader to an understanding of physical pain, uncertainty–will I live, or die?–and humor, friendship, grieving. The diary is as layered as a peony blossom; each time I read it, I find something new to contemplate in its few pages: joy, aesthetics, nature, the human body, the solace of friendship and the isolation of illness, the nearness of death, the challenge of uncertainty, the many ways poetry can supply a place or grounding for a person struggling with ambiguities.

Two flakes fall
and the shape of the peonies
is wholly changed.

[tr. Earl Miner]

 

Composer Libby Larson has used Shiki’s verse diary as a text basis for a 7-minute composition for voice available here.

 

 

Ink art

Last weekend, I went to New York with friends to see the Ink Art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The art, all of which is contemporary (the oldest artist represented was born in 1953), has been installed in the museum’s extensive Asian galleries alongside ceramic, sculptural, religious, and paper works going back centuries.

The rationale behind this juxtaposition, says the museum’s site, is to point up “how China’s ancient pattern of seeking cultural renewal through the reinterpretation of past models remains a viable creative path. Although all of the artists have transformed their sources through new modes of expression, visitors will recognize thematic, aesthetic, or technical attributes in their creations that have meaningful links to China’s artistic past.” That certainly proved true for me; and I cannot decide which was more intriguing, the similarities or the differences.

The young artists in Ink Art employ age-old cultural tropes: the triptych, the scroll, woodblock printing, calligraphy, moody landscapes, ideograms, ink, and repetition. The resonance with Chinese heritage is palpably authentic and is often employed in the service of criticism, mostly criticism aimed at the destruction of cultural icons and of the environment (some of the represented artists are exiles). Mounting the exhibition in the Asian galleries meant that the visitor confronts the historical and the contemporary simultaneously.

In Yang Yongliang’s “View of Tide,” the artist uses digital photography collaging to replicate the mood of an ancient Chinese landscape scroll which, on closer inspection, reveals that the austere and mystical imagery of sea and mountains has been composed of smokestacks, highways, powerlines, and the like. I found this work powerful as commentary and shocking in the best possible way.

Being a word person as well as a visual art appreciator, I was especially drawn to the section of the exhibit called “The Written Word.” The highlight of this section is Xu Bing’s installation “Book from the Sky”. My friends and I–avid readers all–entered this room and felt shivers of recognition and joy at the concept of a room-sized, descending, ascending, wall-to-wall book. (I urge my readers to click on the link for a peek.) The information plaque notes “while the work is inspired by the form and typography of traditional Chinese woodblock publications, faithfully replicating every stylistic detail of traditional Chinese printing, not a single one of its roughly 1,200 characters—each printed with type hand-carved by the artist—is intelligible. Each of these imaginary characters conveys the appearance of legibility but remains defiantly undecipherable.” The paradox and the beauty of the concept are amazing; in addition, I find it oddly thrilling to think of the imagination and the craft and simple hard work Xu Bing put into creating meaningless calligraphic pictograms, cutting them into woodblocks, and repetitively setting up the careful lines in rows on long scrolls.

What emerges when the scrolls are installed on ceiling, walls, and floor manages to be indecipherable but not meaningless. There is in fact much opportunity for meaning in “Book from the Sky,” and for discussion and interpretation and playfulness.

One example: after reading about “Book from the Sky” and taking in the environment for awhile, my friend Mark commented, “Imagine if you were a beginner learning Chinese script, and you encountered this room. You might just spend hours in here trying to figure out whether you could read any of it…I mean, if  you hadn’t read that it was indecipherable. Or even if you had that knowledge, maybe you’d spend a long time here thinking that at least something in all this text meant something you could translate. Wouldn’t that be awfully frustrating?”

Or maybe that’s the point?

Carved type for “Book from the Sky” by Xu Bing

~~

Conceptual metaphor. Art. Thinking. Decipherability; communication. These are large ideas, and crucial ones in the scope of human community. Without art–how can we encounter such metaphors? How would we share them?