Tu Fu, “South Wind”

South Wind (h/t Leonard Durso; from “A Book of Luminous Things,” ed. Czeslaw Milosz)
Tu Fu (tr. Kenneth Rexroth)

The days grow long, the mountains
Beautiful. The south wind blows
over blossoming meadows.
Newly arrived swallows dart
Over the streaming marshes.
Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand.


Awake. Did not expect this place to become a melody, worth remembering, worth singing again. The days grow long, the mountains beautiful. Before, the mountains were simply there, aloof or ominous, depending on my mood. I didn’t bother to document my mood. The days moved quickly, punctuated by anger and sorrow. There was barely any time to complain, let alone bear witness.

The south wind changed all that. The south wind blows over blossoming meadows. I would have dismissed growth, “blossoming,” as the mere teeming of half-formed life. Now it seems beautiful. Newly arrived swallows dart over the streaming marshes. Birds come and go cyclically. Why celebrate their arrival, their newness as old as time itself?

I’m loving the arrival of the south wind. I love how it has filled this land with hope. I love how I have time to try to appreciate it. I also know that life takes away the reveries it allows. Ducks in pairs drowse on the warm sand. They’re full of love, in their “honeymoon” phase, drowsed. I’m the same way, alone. I need to keep the reverie somewhere, in hope of a future clarity.

Kay Ryan, “Venice”

Venice (from Smithsonian)
Kay Ryan

There is a category
of person eased
by constraint, soothed
when things cease.
It is the assault
of abundance
from which they seek
release. The gorgeous
intensities of Venice
would work best
for these people
at a distance:
sitting, for example,
in a departing
train car, feeling the
menace settle.


1. Years ago, I was in a class on Machiavelli, hopelessly confused. – Yeah, I know. Some things never change. – A much better student, far ahead of me in knowledge and experience, confessed that the material was too obscure for him also. Machiavelli makes use of places and peoples to stand for other things; his strategy is difficult to grasp. “Isn’t Venice the City of God?” he asked rhetorically.


I had no idea how a commercial republic, an oligarchy dedicated to the love of gain, could be holy. “The entire city is on water.”


I don’t think I’m fit to comment on instances of “Venice” or “Venetians” in Machiavelli’s work, as I never bothered to confirm or deny the speculation. It was, in my mind, a perfect insight. With a bit of code, you could unravel the whole, see what he’s really talking about. Only to do so involves a horrible abstraction from the proper names, from what people thought about and felt.

2. “There is a category of person eased by constraint.” So why should I care? Why should you care? Someone feels better being told what to do, what not to do? They must not love freedom! They must be dodging responsibility!

– Ok. Let’s slow down. – “Category of person” is ambiguous. At different times in our lives, we’re different people. Nowadays it’s very fashionable to say “I’m an introvert” and say it like it is the law of non-contradiction or 2 + 2 = 4. In truth, we’ve got a fragment of everyone else in us, and we act out those fragments over time. Because we are everyone else, maybe the greatest irony of all emerges: we can be divided into distinct categories, there are human “natures.” A whole of sorts enables a respect for difference.

So “there is a category of person eased by constraint.” It’s both all of us and just a few of us. Why is it important that they, that we, are “eased by constraint?” What kind of person are we when we want limits?

3. “There is a category of person eased by constraint, soothed when things cease.” Eased by constraint, soothed when things cease. Ryan has this magical ability to invoke the topical, the current, while staying in her rarefied air. I can’t say for myself I’m “soothed when things cease.” “Eased by constraint” at first made me think of having limits in terms of needing a job, a sense of purpose given by others, a list of things to do. “Soothed when things cease” clarifies the “constraint:” she’s not talking about “constraint” as the world giving you things to do. She’s talking about constraint as a refusal to engage the world on its terms. When has any of us ever been “soothed when things cease?”

“It is the assault of abundance from which they seek release.” Again, when have we ever wanted this? What characterizes monks and hermits and the like is their otherworldliness. In a way, we don’t consider them mere mortals, and they don’t treat themselves as human beings.

4. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance.” I hope you remember that lovely Seamus Heaney poem about the monks visited by an apparition. A ship from the other side, exploring our world – as if the dead were utterly mystified by life – gets stuck on an altar.

If we’re on the outside, looking in, Venice is a miracle. It’s the most heavenly city and the most worldly city. Its business is that it floats. You peer into that murky emerald lagoon and it’s a frightening unknown, littered with the refuse of human life. And yet life rests upon it, thriving. “Gorgeous intensities” indeed, best contemplated at a distance. “Death in life and life in death,” as Yeats says.

5. “The gorgeous intensities of Venice would work best for these people at a distance: sitting, for example, in a departing train car, feeling the menace settle.” Neither a monk nor a hermit, she’s sitting in a train, moving away from what she just saw. It doesn’t haunt most people. They think of gondoliers and overpriced espresso at St. Mark’s and Vivaldi. You go into the interior of St. Mark’s, though, and it is a vision of heaven, Yeats’ “Byzantium.” Right on top of the primordial sludge are walls and ceilings of gleaming gold, all the angels and saints gathered. It’s weird to think of some kind of spirituality as profoundly materialistic, a forcing together of desire and goods, the dying and the dead. It is a gorgeous intensity, though, for what that’s worth.

July 4th, 2016

Welcome to America, home of thinkpieces entitled “Are our best days behind us?” and “Is the republic doomed?” Here, everyone believes they know the identity of Belshazzar. Did Belshazzar soil the magnificent vessels of holy welfare reform? Or did he have the temerity to challenge Russian aggression? Either way, an ancient, sacred doctrine was violated, some kind of hubris was demonstrated, and the writing on the wall, following Daniel, is entirely in monetary terms, as if money is the only thing any of us can understand.

Doomsaying is a curious business. We readily understand it as a plea for moral reform. But we also recognize it as the domain of the blowhard, those who need to be right about everything, bad pundits and forecasters, the embittered, and the paranoid. Curiously enough, these are distinct groups of people. I know plenty who talk too much and need to assert their knowledge all the time. They’re not always blowhards: in a few cases, they’re trying their best to crack down on this tendency, as they genuinely don’t want to fill the room with their ego.

Still, the problem of “everyone’s a prophet” hits too close to home for many of us. I had two relatives that could never stop with the doomsaying. The economy was always going to collapse; no one knows any math, so we’re going to nuke ourselves and go broke simultaneously; there was a break-in ten years ago, so crime is skyrocketing. No one wanted to talk to them, and they utterly failed at making friends. Now that I’ve grown older and met thousands more people, I’ve been introduced to a whole new bunch of cranks. Take the hype of the news and increase the hysteria exponentially: this is our real domestic product.

The answer of the moment to this problem is asserting blather such as “America is already great.” You, dear reader, know the problem lies far deeper than our current situation. No less than Jefferson had to respond to this nut who argued that in the early 19th century – remember, back then there wasn’t any Social Security, no Medicare, no drones, no Federal Reserve, no welfare – the government of the US was too big. So instead of saying “we need more optimism,” I tend to say we Americans lack an appreciation of the value of things public. By that I mean we overvalue the private. Our house is our castle and we can do as we like. Since what we like “works,” why isn’t everyone like us? To value public things would mean being a bit more grateful for generic statements of value which can reach more people. Or emphasizing social and rhetorical skills. For Aristotle, friendliness was something to aim at, as opposed to being a grouch. Having some kind of social grace mattered too, because not having that grace risks boorishness. On a deeper level, we Americans really do lack class. It’s pretty clear we think we’d rather have some kind of emotional honesty.

I don’t know that we even have that, though. Doomsaying has a especial viciousness if done wrongly: it rejects everyone else’s claims as quickly as possible. I remember one relative in particular saying “that’s irrelevant” as soon as anyone gave anything other than “you are completely right” to him. We don’t have emotional honesty, we have emotional dishonesty. I’ve never seen angrier people accuse everyone else of not being happy or grateful. Yet here we are. As for myself, I’m well aware that pushing a reevaluation of the things held to be public or private is like putting a band-aid over where your arm used to be. I’ll be the first to admit my ideas are nowhere near a panacea, just something that might help in select situations.

Doomsaying can be so vicious because it attacks other people’s perspective, experience, knowledge, and questions. It works for bullies and infantile adults because it ties into some sense of received value. In short, it’s an attack on wisdom, but coming from where? One blowhard abusing everyone around him isn’t the real source of doom and gloom. Even with money and some kind of authority, he alone isn’t the source. No, his opinions have a credibility from leaning on something else. We all agree that the most practical thing would be best, and that this would set our minds at ease. We all agree that one crime is one crime too many, but that justice should be proportional, not cause for zealotry. We all hate war, yet we want freedom for all and protection from enemies. Our amateur prophets have their wisdom lent to them by our political order. Without realizing it, they’re articulating the expectations to which various political institutions cater. That the ends of those institutions don’t add up coherently (a mild example: that government gives subsidies to the tobacco farmer while running an anti-smoking campaign, that this is not a mistake in a way) doesn’t really sit well with us.

My wish is for a calmer America, one where we see and appreciate more Americans as life goes on. Years ago, Bush Sr. was widely mocked for wishing a “kindler, gentler” America. Maybe he was a hypocrite, given the Willie Horton ads he used against Dukakis. Maybe the wish has a value greater than any one of us, being the sum of all of us.

Kay Ryan, “Dry Things”

Dry Things (from VQR)
Kay Ryan

The water level
comes up when
you throw in
stones, bricks,
anything that
sinks. It’s a
miracle when
that works,
don’t you think?
Dry things
letting us


Why read poetry? This short poem ends with a “miracle” we should consider, “dry things letting us drink.” I can hear the collective groans now. Some of us hold we know of greater miracles, and don’t want that word trivialized. Still others see a really lame joke: How can what is dry aid what is moist? That lame joke almost seems matter for pre-Socratic philosophers, ones employing opposing elements such as air, earth, fire, water. Thus, for a third group of people, poetry’s intellectual scope is limited to 3000 BC or something equally remote and backward.

This poem puts me in the awkward position of showing that “dry things letting us drink” can rightfully be considered a miracle. Alright then. “The water level comes up when you throw in stones, bricks, anything that sinks.” At the well needing water, this is close to a desperate situation. We want to drink. Hearing a splash, we know some water is down there. In fact, we’re very sure quite a lot is down there.

So should digging commence? There’s already a hole with water, found naturally. Thinking through it, finding the best solution, keeps as much as possible intact. Thought is rearrangement. It’s not easy truly thinking, to be sure. In order for the water level to rise, we have to throw things in such a way that the water is not simply covered up. We need the earth to rise evenly, without cracks that let it all slip away. And this needs to be done quickly, so we can actually drink.

It’s possible all this can happen. “It’s a miracle when that works.” Thought led to an ideal plan, one which could be executed well, and one which was executed well. The oppositions of language governing all this – the heavy sinks, the light rises, water is wet, containers dry – are oppositions of our own mind. They’re useful for grasping parts of the situation and can give us control. But they can be traps unto themselves. It’s only as a whole that they come to define, establish, initiate optimism.