Stern’s “Hanging Scroll”

I’m probably going to be tied up with Christmas activities until next week, but I did find time to read another hundred pages in Stern’s This Time while I was at Leavenworth, so I thought I’d post my favorite poem from this section of the book.

I’ll have to admit that I was a little disappointed with many of the poems in this section as they were too “literary” for my taste, with references to classical composers, writers, and, mainly, famous poets.

Even though this poem contains the same key literary reference, it does so in a way that I can identify with, particularly with my recent fondness of Chinese and Japanese literature, not to mention a long attraction to Zen paintings:


I have come back to Princeton three days in a row
to look at the brown sparrow in the apple branch.
That way I can get back in touch with the Chinese
after thirty years of silence and paranoid reproach.
It was painted seven hundred years ago by a Southerner
who was struggling to combine imitation and expression,
but nowhere is there a sense that calligraphy
has won the day, or anything lifeless or abstract.
I carry it around with me on a postcard,
the bird in the center, the giant green leaves
surrounding the bird, the apples almost invisible,
their color and position chosen for obscurity-
somehow the sizes all out of whack, the leaves
too large, the bird too small, too rigid,
too enshrined for such a natural setting,
although this only comes slowly to mind
after many hours of concentration.

On my tree there are six starlings sitting and watching
with their heads in the air and their short tails under the twigs.
They are just faint shapes against a background of fog,
moving in and out of my small windows
as endless versions of the state of darkness.
The tree they are in is practically dead,
making it difficult for me to make plans
for my own seven hundred years
as far as critical position, or permanence.
-If the hanging scroll signifies a state
of balance, a state almost of tension
between a man and nature or a man and his dream,
then my starlings signify the tremendous
delicacy of life and the tenuousness of attachment.
This may sound too literary-too German-

but, for me, everything hangs in the balance
in the movement of those birds,
just as, in my painter,
his life may have been hanging from the invisible apple
or the stiff tail feathers or the minuscule feet.
I don’t mean to say that my survival
depends upon the artistic rendering;
I mean that my one chance for happiness
depends on wind and strange loyalty and a little bark,
which I think about and watch and agonize over
day and night,
like a worried spirit
waiting for love.

Though I’m actually rather fond of scrolls where “calligraphy/ has won the day” I also identify with his appreciation of the bird’s “realism,” even though he later discovers it’s not that realistic.

Like Stern, for me art is most valuable not for itself, but, rather, because it makes me see the real world more clearly. An artist who captures a particular pose of a Heron, for instance, tends to make me more aware of that pose when I actually see it live.

The greatest artists are those who make us see life itself in a new way, make us see our relationship to life itself. To realize “a state/ of balance, a state almost of tension/ between a man and nature or a man and his dream.” Our very happiness may depend on such ephemeral moments.

6 thoughts on “Stern’s “Hanging Scroll””

  1. I like his description of the living birds, which with a careful few words he makes very real. The reference to the darting birds as versions of the state of darkness is intriguing and worth pondering. I like the poem too for its apparent attempt to reach behind the image of the painting into the life of the artist, and I think he wants us to see a bit of his life behind this piece, too. The poem, like the painting, is a kind of flickering snapshot of life that is bursting with private needs and yearnings. The birds in his tree are watching, as he is, alert with their own concerns. The nervousness of the writer, his anxiety, are caught in the image of the birds.
    Very nice.

  2. My father went to China in 1980 and brought back, among other things, embroidered scrolls for me and my sisters. I have looked at mine often since 1980 because it has always been hanging somewhere that I can see daily. My scroll is very simple, with a golden bird flying purposefully through white space toward the ground, from a black branch with white and blue flowers on it. There is something written in Chinese characters, and a measurement of 27 x 40 is noted, which I assume to be the size of the original scroll, and the numbers 1027-311. The bird is an intent and focused spirit, maybe a mother, maybe a father. Thanks for posting that poem.

  3. lovely

    stern has a way of going deep in a seemingly effortless way

    ‘everything hangs in the balance’

    happy holidays loren!

  4. …too ‘literary’ for my taste, with references to classical composers, writers, and, mainly, famous poets.

    Neruda had a great phrase for poets like this (in an interview w/Bly): their work has “the scent of the drawing-room.”

    Stern is O.K., but I personally don’t find that his poems repay the effort to understand them. He needs to be either a little less drawing-roomish or a little more profound, IMO.

    (Instantaneous comment previewing — wow!)

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