Friday, November 26, 2010

The View from Cold Mountain

We lay our own traps,
pay handsomely for the privilege,
borrow, in fact, more than we’ve ever had
just to slip our necks inside the noose.

Yep, we cook our own goose,
fry up golden eggs while we’re at it
and invite our friends to dine
as if it’s a joyous occasion.

We buy objects that no one needs, in bulk,
unpack them into cabinets, cavernous,
and lovingly recycle the plastic bags
by tying them tightly around our necks.

We shop so carefully for our poison,
hire experts to help us estimate
exactly how much to consume each month
so we can die alongside the neighbors,
lawns as perfect as cemetery plots.

We buy our chains. We buy our locks.
We save our pennies in a box,
fretting about where it’s cached
while dreaming of a larger box.

A mortgage is literally a pledge to death
for each and every debt is less
a measure of pleasure in present tense
than memory of a past defense
against that which awaits each of us
regardless of interest or last address.


  1. This was a challenging prompt to complete while traveling for the holiday, as all the books I wanted to consult are at home. Or perhaps that made it easier - because it prevented me from spending hours mulling over what to write and instead allowed my mind to go immediately to a poem I read more than a decade ago that has been bubbling up in my thoughts of late, one of Gary Snyder's translations of the ancient Chinese poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain). I'm sure I could've found the exact text online, but I decided simply to write in response to the recollection that "the kulak builds a corral and pens himself in." My younger self would probably be horrified at the corral I've built.

    I've been visiting my sweetie's family for the first time this week, and so haven't had much time to work on this. This post is really more of a draft than a completed poem.

  2. The Cold Mountain Poems
    Translated by Gary Snyder

    Cold Mountain is a house
    Without beams or walls.
    The six doors left and right are open
    The hall is sky blue.
    The rooms all vacant and vague
    The east wall beats on the west wall
    At the center nothing.

    Borrowers don't bother me
    In the cold I build a little fire
    When I'm hungry I boil up some greens.
    I've got no use for the kulak
    With his big barn and pasture -
    He just sets up a prison for himself.
    Once in he can't get out.
    Think it over -
    You know it might happen to you.

  3. I really like this poem. This is an interesting "take a stand" poem. Whether I agree with it or not, I've certainly felt this way at various points in my life and probably will again. When a burglar swept through our home this week, a little bit of me went "Yippee - take it all, dude" while a lot more of me hardened like a rock. Regardless of how I feel, I think the poem stands on its own as a poem. (Not sure I like the "Yep," though.)

  4. TK, wowee, yum, the last stanza, whoa!

    I've been doing some research with a friend about the shift from oral culture to literacy (e.g. Ong - _Orality and Literacy_) and how online technologies, social media, etc. are perhaps a return to oral culture rhythm and practice. What we're getting to is how the fear of death has driven the attachment-culture outpictured in our desire to cement words and meanings in literacy. David Abram in _Becoming Animal_ (2010), in the chapter "The Speech of Things," offers the insight that alphabetic languages are the worst culprits of disincarnating meaning (meanings and experiences which are somewhat more preserved in languages with hieroglyphic or picto/ideographic scripts - these can act more like windows rather than mirrors). He suggests "all things have the capacity for speech--all beings have the ability to communicate something of themselves to other beings" (p. 172). Abram likewise associates the disembodied voice that reading inside our head in alphabetic scripts that refer instead of to trees, to the way our mouths move (a kind of human hyper-reference mirror) with the advent of disembodied monotheism and sky gods (see pp. 177-181). I know I'm compressing a lot in this little comment box, but it seems connected to me, this fear of death "defense/against that which awaits each of us" and the building of walls, to attempt to assert a solidity where there is only change. And to invite the further query, how does this apply to our poetry, how can we poem in flow/change/effortless dynamism? What does "leave no trace" (a wilderness strategy with which I imagine Han Shan and Snyder might both resonate) mean for our poetry?