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 
deep in my gaze. Who 

could be that 

vast? And at dawn 

I’m sure 
it’s not me 

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 

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

so much 
to say here.

Does Anyone Still Read Books?

Not too long ago I was able to boast that there was only one book that I had started reading and hadn’t finished. I took pride in being able to persevere no matter how dense, how challenging, how boring— except for Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  

Unfortunately, those days are long past.  Lately I have quit reading more books than I have finished.  Hell, I often find myself quitting a magazine article if it gets too long — though I blame that on my iPhone’s small screen and the infinite scrolling required to read long articles.

It would be nice to believe that quitting books after beginning to read them is the result of improved taste, that over the years I’ve become more “discerning.”  After all, I tell myself, someone who has read as much as I have must have developed better taste than my younger self had. Perhaps that accounts for some of the books that sounded good when I read a review but didn’t seem to live up to the review as I read them.  Still, I find it hard to reconcile that excuse that with the fact that I still waste hours watching excruciatingly bad television shows or spend hours playing Solitaire on my computer while listening to music.

Perhaps my many electronic devices are contributing to the problem. Overall, I suspect I read almost as much as  I used to, though, perhaps, not as much as I did when I was in college or  when I was in the middle of grading term papers.  Now days, though, most of that time is spent reading short news articles or blog entries, not books.  I’ve always prided myself on “being informed” but social media may have turned me into a “news junkie.”  Reading short articles on Facebook almost feels like a “FIX” — though nothing I read seems to “fix” anything; it just hooks me into wanting another hit..  

What I fear most is that not having the will, the determination, to finish every book I start with is simply one more sign of old age.  Since nothing else seems to function quite as well as it used to, why wouldn’t my brain change, too?  I certainly can’t run a 6 minute mile in combat boots anymore, why should I be able to finish a long book that I don’t feel compelling?  If that’s the case, will it become harder and harder to read an entire book?  

Will I be forced to rely on flower photos, scenics, or bird shots as an excuse to post on this site?  

Oh wait, I’ve already been doing that for nearly a year now, haven’t I?  Not too long ago Mike emailed and wondered when I was going to post something on poetry again.  I told him I was having trouble finding a poetry book that I could finish, much less write something about.  

Hidden Lake Trail

We spent last weekend at The Dirtyface Lodge outside Leavenworth with Cory and Margaret.  On Monday Leslie and I took an easy hike to Hidden Lake while the kids floated the Wenatchee River.  

I was surprised at how similar the trail was to the Carter Falls Trail though only half as long.

Hidden Lake

was quite beautiful.

When I chose the hike, I had hoped to get a shot of Dirtyface Mountain from the trail since it was right across Lake Wenatchee, but there were so many trees that there never was a clear shot of the mountain.

In the end, we drove down to a boat launch to get a shot of the mountain in the distance.  

Even though Dirtyface Lodge is at the base of the mountain, I don’t think I had ever seen the mountain until our hike.

A Walk Through the Woods

Often it’s just too sunny to go to the gym to work out.  On those days Leslie and I often walk down the street to Point Defiance Park. It’s far too easy to take these woods for granted, but the other day I took my new camera with me because I was going to stop at the Rose Garden and check out the Dahlias.

Taking my camera made me realize just how beautiful the walk really, particularly when you’re walking through the deer trails, 

which isn’t to say that it’s not equally beautiful on the well-maintained, main trails.  

I’m particularly fond of places that make you feel like you’re walking through a tunnel, totally immersed in forest.

It’s clear that the designers of the Rose Garden must have been equally enchanted by the deep forest since they mimic that at several of the entrances to the garden.

The deep woods provide the perfect contrast to the brilliant colors found throughout the inner garden this time of year.