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Richard Wilbur

Digging for China

I’ve just finished reading the volumes “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” and “Advice to a Prophet,” the first volumes of Wilbur I ever bought. I still think Wilbur’s “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is his masterpiece, comparable to Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress,” but I’ve already discussed it here and don’t have much to add to what I wrote then. If you haven’t read the poem, it certainly deserves a look.

Although “Digging for China” isn’t nearly as memorable as “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” few poems are, it develops some of the same ideas, but in a minor key, a key that, generally, I tend to prefer. Before reading the poem, or afterwards for that matter, you might enjoy listening to Wilbur read it here.

DIGGING FOR CHINA

“Far enough down is China,” somebody said.
“Dig deep enough and you might see the sky
As clear as at the bottom of a well.
Except it would be real–a different sky.
Then you could burrow down until you came
To China! Oh, it’s nothing like New Jersey.
There’s people, trees, and houses, and all that,
But much, much different. Nothing looks the same.”

I went and got the trowel out of the shed
And sweated like a coolie all that morning,
Digging a hole beside the lilac-bush,
Down on my hands and knees. It was a sort
Of praying, I suspect. I watched my hand
Dig deep and darker, and I tried and tried
To dream a place where nothing was the same.
The trowel never did break through to blue.

Before the dream could weary of itself
My eyes were tired of looking into darkness,
My sunbaked head of hanging down a hole.
I stood up in a place I had forgotten,
Blinking and staggering while the earth went round
And showed me silver barns, the fields dozing
In palls of brightness, patens growing and gone
In the tides of leaves, and the whole sky china blue.
Until I got my balance back again
All that I saw was China, China, China.

I think I heard this same tale when my brother and I dug our fort out in the back forty of our parents’ house when I was five. I might even have believed it since my brother was four years older than I and often managed to con me into doing more than my share of the digging. If he did, I probably just ended up exhausted, not elated like the narrator.

Still, I can easily identify with the concept of working so hard to “get ahead” that all I did was dig myself deeper and deeper into a dark hole. It’s called work, a means of getting to a “better place.” Or of losing sight of just how beautiful the place you are really is.

I don’t think I ever saw work as a form of prayer, but I could certainly see how it could be viewed that way, particularly if the work makes you sweat “like a coolie.” Such work is usually seen as a means of attaining a better life, preferably here, but, if not, at least in heaven.

If we’re lucky, like the narrator we finally step back from our efforts, look around, and realize that we’re already there. Heaven on earth if we can but see it in “silver barns,” “tides of leaves,” and “the whole sky china blue.”