Ai Qing: Selected Poems

It’s been raining a lot during our visit to Santa Rosa and we don’t have the same programs to watch on TV that we watch in Tacoma, so I’ve turned to reading and polishing up photographs I’ve recently taken.  Strangely enough, I just finished a book I bought at Copperfield the last time we were here.  I was browsing the store looking for something different and found Ai Qing: Selected Poems.  In retrospect, I probably picked it up because the cover jacket claimed that Ai Qing is “one of the finest modern Chinese poets,” and I could only remember reading classical Chinese poets.

In the Foreword his son Ai Weiwei says, 

As a kind of faith, Ai Qing’s writing brought both joy and sorrow to his life. He sacrificed for his beliefs in order to survive under the harsh political environment. His use of vernacular Chinese and his love for simple truths make his expression a powerful reality; his inner truth makes his poetic thinking flow like a stream of spring water, even in the driest Season. In the most suffocating years, Ai Qing never betrayed his beliefs; it was he who showed me the courage needed when aesthetics and morals are marginalized. Against the aesthetic mediocrity of despotism, poetry is the key to wisdom, and the mortal enemy of banal politics. 

That might have grabbed my attention, too. 

The book is only 102 pages long (another reason I bought it ?) but I tabbed eleven poems that I wanted to re-read.  One of my favorite poems was “Daynhe — My Wet Nurse,” but it is too long to cite here. These two shorter poems do a good job of demonstrating some of the power of his poetry and make it clear why it appeals to me.

“Trees” reminds me of William Carlos Williams’s Imagist poetry, which I’ve always loved. 

TREES 

One tree. Another tree 

Stand distant, alone. 

Wind, air,

Inform their isolation. 

But under cover of mud and dirt 

their roots reach 

into depths unrevealed. 

entwine unseen. 

SPRING 1940

The opening line emphasizes the trees’ isolation from each other.  They would seem less isolated if the poem had begun “two trees” instead of “One tree.  Another tree.” Despite this apparent separation, the earth itself unites these trees, perhaps in the same way that their homeland united the Chinese in their war against the invading Japanese in the year the poem was written. This is a simple but powerful way of arguing that no matter how isolated we appear on the surface we are linked to each other through our roots.  

“Autumn Morning” develops the same themes, with a little more emphasis on the sorrow of poverty-stricken villages. 

AUTUMN MORNING 

Cool, refreshing, this morning, 

The sun’s just risen, this coming, 

The village, sorrowful this morning. 

A little bird, white feathers circling its eyes,

Perches on the black roof tiles 

Of a low, squat hut; 

As if lost in thought, it gazes at 

The many-hued clouds bannering the sky. 

It’s autumn; 

I’ve been in the South a Year; 

This place hasn’t got the tropics’ vitality; 

No coconut palms surge to the skies; 

Already my pent-up heart is sad

 but today, as I’m about to go,

 I feel uneasy 

—China Villages 

Everywhere the same filth, gloom, poverty, 

But not one I’d want to leave.

SEPTEMBER 1939

The ambivalent opening stanza sets the tone for the entire poem.  The first two lines seem almost downright optimistic, “cool and refreshing,” but this feeling is quickly countered when he says the village is “sorrowful.”

The second stanza’s description of the little bird lost in thought almost sounds like a description of the poet himself, lost in thought. 

The third stanza explains why the poet may feel sorrowful when he compares this village in the north with his previous stay in the South for a year.  Yes, there are reasons why my brother spends winters in Arizona rather than Alaska.  Stuck inside in the far North with cold and little sunshine it’s easy to feel depressed and long for sunnier climes.

The power of the poem, though, lies in that last stanza where he enumerates all the reasons why people want to leave (i.e. filth, gloom, poverty) but his heart longs to stay.  This is home, his homeland and it’s never easy to leave home. We belong to the land as much as it belongs to us.

Only Now, by Stuart Kestenbaum

I’ve been reading Daniel Kahnema’s 555-page-long Thinking Fast and Slow for several weeks now, hoping to comment on some of his ideas. I’m determined to eventually finish it because it gives important insight into why we as humans make so many bad decisions.  It’s clear why it earned Kahneman the Nobel Prize in 2002, but, as I struggle to read and understand it, it also became clear why my granddaughter is learning ideas derived from it in her freshman college class. This old brain takes much longer to comprehend complex ideas than it used to, which, unfortunately, does not come as much of a surprise. 

So, I decided I would turn to some short poetry books I have acquired in the last couple of years.  Luckily, Only Now, by Stuart Kestenbaum resonated with me, so I finished its 74 pages relatively quickly.  

Although I couldn’t find a biography online, one article states that Kestenbaum is 70 (a mere youngster, as it were) and several of his poems deal with subjects we all face as we age. For instance, in “Passage” he describes a ninety-three-year-old friend lying in a nursing home bed. In “Scattered” he describes spreading the ashes of someone who has passed on. 

Kestenbaum manages to make even poems that focus on death inspirational, but the poems I liked best are the thoughts of someone who is looking back but still trying to stay in the moment, to savor what little time is left, as it were. Not surprisingly, the title poem conveys the main themes of the volume.

Only Now

Only now 
do you realize 
how quickly 
everything passes 
how we 
are
here’s for 
a blink of God's eye 
how the light passes 
by us and through us 
how the world 
began with a breath 
and a cry 
earth and sky.

I don’t think I would want to teach this to a class of high school students because they probably haven’t lived enough to understand it, but it sounds exactly like the kind of poem I would write at this point in my life if I could still write poetry.  It sounds like the kind of insight you would read in Taoist or Zen literature if it weren’t for the phrase “a blink of God’s eye.”  The photographer in me particularly likes “how the light passes/by us and through us.”  

“Only Now” was an easy choice, but I had a hard time choosing a longer poem to represent his work because I liked so many of them.  Most of those included “prayer” in the title, though they seldom seemed like the kind of prayer you would hear in church. I don’t know much about Judaism, but most of these prayers seem to suggest the sacredness of everyday life rather than a specific religion.

Ultimately, I chose “Prayer for Beginning” because it confronts the uncertainty that all of us, no matter our age, face every day.  

Prayer for Beginning 

You’ll never know how it will end
most days you don’t even know 
how it will begin. Will it be 
a clean slate day, a morning 
when you carry nothing 
from the past into now, 
or will your mind be loaded up 
like a small U-Haul, filled 
with the imagined words 
of your father, last night’s dream
something you shouldn’t 
have said the night before 
and a truck down-shifting 
outside your window, so you put the key 
into the soul’s ignition and start driving 
down the road where the sleeping houses 
reveal themselves slowly in the dawn 
and the birds are calling to the light. 
Another day alive and singing. 

I’ve never been fond of mornings, being more of a night owl than an early bird, but even I love “clean slate” days. Mornings can be tough, more often than not preceded by a bad night, one where it seems I spent more time worrying than I did sleeping or one where loud, or even not-so-loud, noises wake me up and make it hard to get back to sleep. 

No matter what kind of night I’ve had, hearing the birds singing in the morning always lifts my spirits, particularly if I’m heading out for a day of birding.  Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.

Out of Sync

Before I got obsessed with Divinity – Original Sin 2, I was already struggling to keep posting blog entries as noted in a couple of the last entries I posted.  I couldn’t get in synch with Nature last year.  

I’ve birded long enough to know when I should be somewhere to get the best shots, but somehow I couldn’t arrange the rest of my schedule to be there when I needed to be. 

We missed most of the Spring Shorebird Migration because we had another commitment. We went to Bear River in Utah but were there too early, and my favorite birds were nowhere to be found. I got some photos throughout the year that I liked, but they seemed few and far between. 

The final straw came when we visited Santa Rosa in late summer and seemed sure to get some good pictures, but our plans were ruined by smoke from fires in Northern California and Southern Oregon.  The air was so unhealthy we didn’t leave the house for most of the week we were in Santa Rosa, we couldn’t visit Bodega Bay, and we couldn’t drive back up the coast and through the Redwoods like we usually do. In a good year that might not have bothered me too much, but last year it just seemed like the last straw.  

Luckily, a long break, Winter, as it were, leads to Spring, and Spring leads to new life and new opportunities.  It may not be Spring in Tacoma, but, despite the rain, it does seem like Spring here in Santa Rosa and I’m hoping to get back on track.

I did manage to get a few shots in our backyard during our recent freezing spell when water became hard to find and I filled the birdbath with hot water every hour or so during daylight hours.  

We get Juncos in our yard daily so I tend not to photograph them, but I liked this shot I took while waiting for a Varied Thrush to get some water.

Meanwhile, another infrequent visitor showed up, a Spotted Towhee.

Finally, patience was rewarded, and the rarely-seen Varied Thrush appeared, 

and posed long enough to get an even better shot.

I plant flowers to attract Hummingbirds in the summer, but I blow the leaves back into the flower beds in the Fall and wait until Summer to finally rake them up because the Towhees and Varied Thrushes feed among the debris. It’s nice to be rewarded for simply being in tune with Nature.

Is Addiction a Sin?

Yesterday’s reasons for not blogging for months seemed, overall, to be good reasons not to spend so much time blogging.  In many ways, staying in physical and mental shape have become more important to me than sharing what little I know and love with others. After all, I taught two years in the Army and 30 years in high school before blogging for another 22 years.  I’m pretty sure I’ve already said more than most people want to hear from me, and it’s becoming increasingly harder to say anything new. At best all I can hope to do is remind people just how much beauty there is out there that they might have lost track of in all the ugliness that confronts us daily.  

Unfortunately, my main reason for not blogging is not nearly as admirable as those I’ve already explained.  The main reason I haven’t been blogging is that I have been playing Divinity – Original Sin 2 for several hours a day for over three months. 

I could blame my addiction on Leslie’s friend Bill Smith who told me about the game several years ago.  I bought the game immediately after he told me a, but I couldn’t get it to play on my Mac until I bought a new one several months ago. More recently he asked me if I was playing Baldur’s Gate 3, and I told him that I wanted to finish Divinity first.  Now it’s become a question whether I will finish it or it will finish me.  

It’s hard to blame Bill, though since I’ve been playing D&D computer games for years now, starting with my Apple IIe, at least 40 years ago. Tyson and I used to stay up until early in the morning playing these games.  Unfortunately, too few games are published for the Mac ,and I refuse to buy a Windows computer.  The last game I played was Dragon Age 2, which I was amazed to discover was published in 2011.

No wonder I didn’t realize how much those kinds of games have evolved since then.  Perhaps Divinity would have been easier if I had been playing similar games the last ten years, but it didn’t take me long to realize that I was over my head in Divinity 2.  After repeatedly dying, I finished Scene 1 but was unable to get through the transition to Scene 2.  So, I started over, only to get stuck again, this time at the end of Scene 2.  By then I must have  had  240 hours invested in the game and should’ve had sense enough to call it good enough, but, no, that wasn’t going to happen.

I like to think that I’m nearly perfect, but I do have at least two traits that some people might call flaws.  First, I’m persistent, some (like Mom) would call me stubborn. Most of the time I think persistence is a virtue in life, but that may not be true when it comes to playing Divinity – Original Sin 2. 

At some point I’m afraid that stubbornness can become addiction, and I’ve long been aware that I can easily become addicted to some behaviors.  Smoking was my most notable addiction; even when I finally convinced myself that it was harmful to my health I found it nearly impossible to overcome the addiction to nicotine, falling in love with the nicotine gum that helped me give up the actual cigarettes. It was nearly as hard to give up the gum as the cigarettes.  

Aware that I have always had an addiction problem, I’ve avoided alcohol and recreational drugs and only allowed myself to get addicted to positive addictions like walking, reading, and meditation. Sometimes I’m afraid I may even push those too far, but I don’t worry about them because overall they seem to make my life better.

For awhile, at least, Divinity – Original Sin 2 seemed like a positive addiction.  Playing it offered an easy escape from the depressing news that I used to browse regularly while sitting in front of the computer.  The game was hard enough that it pushed me to think harder than I regularly have to, and I like to think that might strengthen my brain.  If not, at least it gives me an excuse for wasting so much of my life.

The more I played the clearer it was that I wasn’t the only one who was having trouble solving the game.  There are hundreds if not thousands of youTube videos on different parts of the game.  In fact, I may have learned more about researching online than anything else. Of course, I felt bad when I had to resort to youTube videos to solve puzzles in the game or learn how to defeat particularly tough opponents, That felt like cheating, but cheating somehow felt better than outright losing.  At least I was in good company, or at least in a lot of company.

Worse yet, I started putting off things that I needed to do around the house so that I could finally finish the game. Worst of all, I began to stress out over the game, sometimes continuing to play it over and over in my mind while trying to go to sleep. I discovered that all those years I’d spent meditating would seem useless when confronted by a stupid game. Soon, al I wanted was to be done with it, but I continued to play right up to when we left on our trip.  I still don’t know if I will try to finish it when we get back home.