“All who joy would win, must share it,-- Happiness was born a twain.”
--Lord Byron

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

"Letters from Dead Friends"

by Tony Barnstone

“Po Chui, dead these many years---ah, he's not dead. Agnew is dead. What we've got to reach in America is some understanding of the great Chinese.”

—James Wright, from an interview with Michael André

"Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances."

—Robert Hass, from “Meditation at Lagunitas”

I have always loved the poetry of poor, alcoholic James Wright, who until cancer of the tongue rendered him silent wrote beautifully of the sadnesses of the devastated coal mining towns of the midwest, populated by the “ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,” the “sons grow[ing] suicidally beautiful,” the dead Indians, “the chemical riffles of the Ohio River,” where as the “nostrils of slow horses / Breathe evenly” “the moon darkens” and he is “lost in the beautiful white ruins / Of America.” His beautiful images are recorded with the precision and subtlety of the best Chinese poetry, which blaze across the centuries without diminishment. For Wright, the Chinese poets seemed "to have saved their souls in the most violent circumstances" (Wright 1983 124), so that for us, in at time when our "imaginations have been threatened with numbness and our moral beings are nearly shattered by the moral ghastliness of public events and private corporations," the Chinese poets retain an "abiding radiance," they are a kind of salvation (Wright 1983 125).

Here is Wright's beautiful poem about the great Tang Dynasty poet Po Chü-I (better known these days as Bai Juyi):

As I Step over a Puddle at the End of Winter I Think of an Ancient Chinese Governor

And how can I, born in evil days
And fresh from failure, ask a kindness of Fate?
—Written A.D. 819

Po Chu-i, balding old politician,
What's the use?
I think of you,
Uneasily entering the gorges of the Yang-Tze,
When you were being towed up the rapids
Toward some political job or other
In the city of Chungshou.
You made it, I guess,
By dark.

But it is 1960, it is almost spring again,
And the tall rocks of Minneapolis
Build me my own black twilight
Of bamboo ropes and waters.
Where is Yuan Chen, the friend you loved?
Where is the sea, that once solved the whole loneliness
Of the Midwest?Where is Minneapolis? I can see nothing
But the great terrible oak tree darkening with winter.
Did you find the city of isolated men beyond mountains?
Or have you been holding the end of a frayed rope
For a thousand years?

Bai Juyi was a scholar-official who shared with his friend Yuan Chen (Yuan Zhen), the dream of being a reformer. It was a common dream among Chinese poets, rooted in Confucian tradition due to the model of the first Chinese poet whose name we know, Qu Yuan (c. 340-278 B.C.), a reformer who suffered slander and exile for his efforts and eventually drowned himself. Bai Juyi also found himself banished from the capital (in 815 a.d.) for his reformist efforts. His lifelong friend Yuan Zhen suffered a similar fate, and the two poets sent beautiful poems of friendship to each other across the great expanse of China, for years meeting each other only in dream:

Seeing Yuan Zhen's Poem on the Wall in Blue Bridge Inn

In spring snow at Blue Bridge you were called back to Changan.
In autumn wind I was exiled to the Qin Mountains.
Whenever I got to a horse station I would dismount
and meander around walls and pillars, hoping to find your poems.
—Bai Juyi

When Told Bai Juyi Was Demoted and Sent to Jiangzhou

A dying lamp's low flame tosses the shadows.
This evening, told you've been demoted to Jiujiang,
I am so startled I sit up in my final sickbed.
Dark wind is blowing rain into cold windows.
—Yuan Zhen

For two thousand years, poetry was the high road to political power and social success in China, and for the old scholar-officials it also spurred this sort of epistolary connection, a whole genre of farewell poems, visitation poems, exile poems, commemorating friendship. For the American poet, who has suffered an intense decline in the cultural importance of his or her art, these poems seem to have had special importance, coming across the centuries like missives from lost companions. In fact, there is a whole subgenre in American poetry of intimate poems of friendship written in homage or response to the spirits of the great, dead, Chinese poets.

When I was a young teen, I had a fantasy about spirits. I thought, if there is a god, or a world spirit, it must be a dumb god, a mute one, a force that doesn't know itself, but manifests itself in the world as a way of articulating itself to itself. Here is a poem I wrote to my best friend from that time, titled “Hungry Ghosts”

Hungry Ghosts

Old friend, you write, Why write? It's all trash,
nothing to say.
Maybe you're right. Why keep writing
with this tool to inscribe time, line by line, measuring
what is lost as it leaves? No one reads this stuff.

If only the words were a body I could inhabit
and you could feel me through this membrane,
like skins touching. I remember one day telling you
I felt I was just starting to wake from the long dumb

sleep of childhood, but was lost in the dark rush
of the senses, and I imagined my spirit
as a blind reaching through flesh and tickertape
consciousness, a hand trying to grasp itself.

I would like to believe in souls reaching through
the flesh for understanding, hungry to be seen
and detecting each other through defective means.
I would like to believe this life is a sleep we'll wake from,

that some conductor drives our spirits through
this tunnel and for a reason. But I find myself talking
in darkness, huddled around the narrow flame
of my own being, the way a child I knew, yes, me,

would walk home from the bus stop chanting nonsense
because when he fell silent the empty dark
closed in and made him know how blind he was,
how ravenous for dinner, lights, and mother.

And he would make the television blaze and shout
just to stop that dead black eye from staring.
And in bed, he'd pull the covers over his head
when his mother said, Lights out, and pray for sleep.

It's a nice fantasy–that the universe is seeking gnosis, making itself into creatures because it seeks to awaken to itself, and finding that knowledge through love and through friendship. (I like the fact that the Quakers call themselves “friends” as they search for the inner light.) Sure, it's science fiction, but it's no nuttier than any other religious belief, and I still have fondness for it, because helps answers for me the question of why poets bother to write at all. We write, or at least I write, “to inscribe time, line by line, measuring / what is lost as it leaves.” We write, as my friend Li-Young Lee says, with our deaths perched upon our shoulders, always aware of our own mortality, and determined to know something before we die. We write because like Andrew Marvell, at our back we “always hear / Time's winged chariot hurrying near; / And yonder all before us lie / Deserts of vast eternity.”

In “To Wei Ba,” The great Chinese poet, Du Fu, visits a friend he rarely sees, and they mourn their dead friends, their advancing age, and share many cups of wine, since “Tomorrow mountains will come between us, / and we'll be lost in the world like mist.” Contemporary poets, even those lucky few who have the plum jobs, win the large prizes, are chased after by presses and the better magazines, are lost in the world like mist, making great art for a diminished and skeptical audience. And so James Wright writes: “Po Chu-i, balding old politician, / What's the use?” What's the use of poetry when we are all in exile, in our “own black twilight,” longing for absent friends, for the lost paradise of Peach Tree Spring, “the city of isolated men beyond mountains,” even for the obliteration of everything by the vanished sea “that once solved the whole loneliness / Of the Midwest.” What's the use of poetry when Bai Juyi and his friend are dead, when Du Fu and his friend are long dead? What the use when James Wright is also dead, and will be frozen in his loneliness in the spring of 1960 for the next thousand years?

Perhaps there is no use, except to make a temporary stay against loneliness, to “roll all our strength and all / Our sweetness up into one ball,” which we call a poem. The poetry I love is like that of Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti (1909 - 1944), a Jew whose poems were seized and banned, and who was shot in the head during a forced march from a Nazi camp. In 1946, when a mass grave was exhumed, his wife found a notebook of his last poems in the pocket of his overcoat, many of them written to her as he walked to his death. In his poem “Picture Postcards,” he writes of the murder of another prisoner, "I fell beside him; his body turned over, / already taut as a string about to snap. / Shot in the back of the neck. That's how you too will end, / I whispered to myself; just lie quietly.” Each time we pick up a book of old poems, we are reading postcards written from the grave. Like Walt Whitman in “To You” the poem speaks from the tomb and says:

Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem, I whisper with my lips close to your ear.
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.

It comes to us like a letter tied to the leg of a migrating crane, carrying word of the keening of the ghosts on the battlefields of the north, of how the flowers silently fell all night and covered the steps in blossoms, of how the moonlight on the floor tonight looked like snow. It whispers softly in our ears, like the voice of a friend, and, as the distance between collapses, we might even smile in our exile.


Tony Barnstone is Faculty Master and Associate Professor English at Whittier College. He is the author of a book of poetry, Impure (University Press of Florida, 1999), a chapbook of poems, Naked Magic (Mainstreet Rag, 2002), and has edited and/or translated several books of Chinese poetry and prose, including Out of the Howling Storm: The New Chinese Poetry (Wesleyan University Press, 1993), Laughing Lost in the Mountains: Selected Poems of Wang Wei (University Press of New England, 1991), and The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996). He has won an Artists Fellowship from the California Arts Council, as well as many national poetry awards. His forthcoming books are The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry (Anchor Books, 2004) and a number of textbooks for Prentice Hall Publishers.

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