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David Hinton’s Desert Poems

I have read several of David Hinton’s translations of Chinese classics, but I have never read any of his personal poetry until Desert: Poems.  Though I was originally attracted by his knowledge of Chinese literature,  I was also attracted by the title because I spent a year and a half at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert.  It didn’t take long to realize, though, that the desert meant something entirely different to Hinton than it did to me when I was stationed at Fort Irwin. His view is, however, closer to how I have felt about the desert since retiring.  The West’s high deserts are one of the few places left where  you can find solitude and can (almost) escape Civilization. I’ve become fond of parking my “camper” out in the middle of nowhere and spending the day doing nothing but watching wildlife, feeling the shifting light, and soaking in the silence.

For Hinton, the desert seems to take the place of the Mountains favored by Chinese hermit sages. Its solitude provides the ideal place for meditation, a place to contemplate man’s nature and his relationship to nature. This becomes quite clear in early poems like :

Empty mind 
is a mirror 
gazing out, the old 
masters say. It 
seems easy 

enough. But all 
night long, stars shimmer 
light-years 
deep in my gaze. Who 

could be that 

vast? And at dawn 

I’m sure 
it’s not me 

mirroring 
desert, but wide

open desert 
mirroring whatever

it is 
I am.

I’ll admit my understanding of “empty mind” is nebulous at best, but a quick search of the internet revealed this definition which seems relevant here: “The still mind of the sage is the mirror of heaven and earth, the glass of all things. Vacancy, stillness, placidity, tastelessness, quietude, silence, and non-action – this is the level of heaven and earth, and the perfection of the Tao and its characteristics.” – Chuang-tzu (translated by Legge)

Hilton’s  “modernity” seems to slip into the poem with the ironical line “It/ seems easy/ enough” because anyone who has meditated knows that it is anything but “easy” to attain empty mind — as exemplified in the rest of the poem.    Whose mind is empty enough to mirror the stars?  Is Nature a reflection of us, or are we Nature’s reflection?  

Another recurring theme in Desert Poems is the inadequacy of words, an idea that, I must admit, has crossed my mind a lot lately, especially when meditating or trying to write a post. I suspect that I turned to photographs because I could never describe in words the feelings I got from hiking.  

I wish I 
could say this desert 
to you. But I 
cannot say 
in words 

what I am, only 
what I 

am not, what 
occurs beyond me 
and is 

therefore 
knowable. It’s 
beautiful here: wide
-open, empty. Come 
with me. There is 

so much 
less 
to say here.

What do you think?

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