Magic of Monadnock II
It’s hard to know what state the state of poetry is in the rest of the nation, but the state of poetry in New Hampshire this past month reinforces why settling here over four decades ago was a decision that keeps on giving back.
Two years ago, as I ascended or descended the stairways inside the Department of Foreign Languages at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics (SUIBE) I was struck by how each stairwell displayed a prominent quote in English by Henry David Thoreau. Whether those quotes were window dressings or carried weight with the Chinese citizens who also daily ascended and descended those stairs was amply answered when five poets from China accepted Keene State College’s invitation to visit the Monadnock Region and hike to Thoreau’s rock on Mount Monadnock. The earlier blog spot deals with that hike. But the week was more than that hike, for example, exactly where else can one get 46 students, poets, and community members together to create nine-linked verses we call American Rengas. The renga is an Asian form of linked verse taught me by Boston poet Steven Rattimer at a New England Artists Trust conference decades ago. An American renga is an expanded form of that style which permits us to add color and art to replace calligraphy in lines of linked poetry created on the spot by a group of writers. The process has a mathematical progression which allows each participant an opportunity to create equal lines of poetry and art in a joint verse.
by Chen Yihai
Spring awaits itself
Flowers blossom themselves
Water does not have its identity
And the wind’s greatest pleasure is to lose itself
Also during that week the visiting poets got to mingle with a more modern-day American Thoreau-like poet named Henry Walters who resides in his own Walden-like creation on a rocky spine above the campus of the Dublin School. Inside Walters treated his visitors to a Brahms piano piece he played on an upright piano he somehow managed to fit snugly into his cabin. This is something the one-dimensional thinkers of Silicon Valley don’t quite understand—that flat screen depiction of reality is no more real than the cartoons of our youth. It may depict a picture of reality, might even sound like reality, but it is a miniature, flat reality. It doesn’t smell, feel, or taste like reality—even if down the road someone will try to add those features. All the video in the world cannot replace the sense of sitting on Thoreau’s Rock and listening to one another sing poetry or sip tea in Henry Walter’s cabin as he plays Brahms.
Earlier all gathered for an upstairs meal in the Keene building once owned by Thoreau’s mother’s family and a place he stayed during his Monadnock visits. Later we gathered at the Historical Society of Cheshire County to hear poetry in two languages and music by classical guitarist David Gru6under. Families even brought their children. Imagine, in Keene, New Hampshire, families bring children to hear poetry. And the children, as attentive as I, listened to those sounds of Mandarin and understood that definitions are only 30 percent of communication—the body delivering those definitions provides the other 70 percent.
But after Chen Yihai and Zi Chuan returned to China, the poetry doesn’t stop in the Granite State. A few weeks later an e-mail came across my transom that New England College theater students and their director had created a theater piece titled “Allowances” using fifty poems of witness as its script. And there at the small theater in the only Henniker on Earth, I listened to a group of NEC students use music, dance, and song both poetic and literal to put to shame the idea that America is a white-bread frozen meal waiting to be popped into a microwave for a quick bite to eat. No, even the occasional forgotten line could not demonstrate more clearly that this nation is at its best when it’s a bubbling melting pot of stew simmering on the stove.
The Water Chestnut Pond
by Zi Chuan
The wind can not stir a ripple
on the icy surface of the pond.
Like crystal and amber a few
brown leaves have embedded themselves
in the ice. A hole for a water bucket
gapes near the pier’s springboard.
Nearby water chestnuts and arrowheads
hide deep within the frozen rice paddies
where dry plants rustle in the cold wind.
In front of the frozen pond, it’s hard to imagine
how large the area water chestnut leaves spread
with their white flowers clustered
in the summer of 1970, as if water chestnuts
were lifted overnight. But vividly I remember
the water caltrop-picking girl who sat
on the small boat with red dragonflies overhead.
I reached to give her a hand
when suddenly her boat overturned
and she fell into the water.
When she waded ashore her soaked clothes
exposed the lines of her body.
Afterward, she blushed with shame
whenever she saw me.
That winter, she married,
floating away in a boat.
translated by Zhang Ziqing
edited by Rodger Martin
 It refers to the second year when Zi Chuan came to the countryside.
The Magic of Monadnock: Poetry That Bridges Continents
Geology has a way of grabbing writers’ attention, especially when that geology thrusts itself in a lonely fashion, a few thousand feet above a plain where lots of artists hang about as Maoshan does in China or Mount Monadnock does in New Hampshire.
Li Po [or Li Bai (701–762), also known as Li Bo] fell under that spell again and again. Even his titles mention mountains over and over and they occur within the poems themselves such as this one where he mentions the Taoist Maoshan directly:
Weeping over Wang Yan’s1 Death
on the Way in Li Shui2
You, rare treasure of our time, oh, gone too young.
I’ve missed your funeral, and like heavy air,
the sorrow weighs.
Now your grave is covered with autumn grass.
I want to give my sword for you, but don’t know how
to choose, at the edge of this grave,
a suitable branch to hang it.
Though I haven’t died of crying before this place,
I’ll shed tears on the road to Danyang,
back and forth,
the rest of my life.
Translated by Zhang Ziqing,
Edited by Rodger Martin (For All The Tea in Zhōngguó)
Emerson and Thoreau noticed the effect as well and highlighted the long literary trail that attaches itself to Mount Monadnock which, as Interpretative Ranger Brittany O’Neal reminded us in our October Pilgrimage to Thoreau’s Rock, drew over 160,000 climbers in 2016 (and that number only includes those who registered through the state park). That’s today and Thoreau and Emerson were then, but even in Thoreau’s time there was scorn for those who simply climbed to reach the summit when he noted in his journal:
“Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit. It is indispensible to see the top itself and the sierra of its outline from one side…. It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it.”
Therefore, on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, as part of the week-long Magic of Monadnock Colloquium: Poetry Bridging Continents which acted as a cultural exchange between poets from American and poets from China (despite three whom the United States Government denied entry visas—such has become the state of American leadership’s insecurity to any mirror image which does not reflect exactly like itself that it even fears poets ). a group of eight led by Ranger O’Neal climbed Thoreau’s route to his rock not to the peak, determined to pay homage to the magic of this mountain in a place Thoreau himself had done so.
Once at Thoreau’s Rock, Mark Long, Director of the Integrated Studies Program at Keene State College read A. R. Ammons’ poem “For Harold Bloom” which as critic David Lehman noted in his introduction to Ammons’ Selected Poems indicated Ammons saw climbing simply to reach a mountain’s peak the same way Thoreau saw it: When the poet reaches the “summit, … he feels a certain desolation or emptiness”:
Mark Long reads Ammons at Thoreau’s Rock
….for the word tree I have been shown a tree
and for the word rock I have been shown a rock,
for stream, for cloud, for star
this place has provided firm implication and answering
but where here is the image for longing:….
Indeed there was magic and longing at this granite outcropping as the nine of us read and listened to the words of these two American poets and then the words of Chinese pastoral poet Chen Yihai and finally the calligrapher Zichuan who read his calligraphy in the ancient way—that is to say–it must be sung. And Zichuan sang, and the song floated into the sky among the Vs of geese flying south and an autumn ablaze in color.
And so it was all week as poets, and lovers of poetry gathered around The Grand Monadnock for a week of poetry in two languages.
August 31, 2017
There are times when one should wonder if the unexpected is really unexpected rather than an unconscious plot hidden from the conscious mind that surreptitiously directs us to the place we need to be.
Such was the case when I received an invitation from Archivist Rodney Obien of Keene State College to travel to Dennysville, Maine, to view the opening of a Robert Munford exhibition in that village of just over 300 people in Washington County, the size of Rhode Island and Delaware with only 34,000 people in it.
In the 1970s, I had camped at relatively nearby (60-70 miles) Jonesport, Maine, and recalled it as already cut-off from the rest of East Coast United States—a place one went to escape. Jonesport is also the beginning of how to really understand what “DownEast” means.
But to truly comprehend DownEast, one should head north on Maine’s U.S. 1, past the Freeport outlets, past the Boothbay Peninsula where the highway’s northern suggestion gradually undulates eastward, past the summer playground of Arcadia National Park where the remaining holiday tourists peel off, leaving only the determined traveler who still must wind east and pass Machias (pronounced Ma-CHI-es) until he or she reaches Lubec , (pronounced like a trochee: LOU-BEC) a town of about 1,400—the eastern-most spot in the United States. 1,400 people in this county is a metropolis. (While we’re at it, Calais, Maine, is pronounced: like callous.)
Next, take the state highway down a long, narrow, peninsula and you will discover West Quoddy Light State Park.
If you walk to the eastern corner of the cyclone fence protecting you from falling over the reddish stone cliffs, you can situate yourself upon the easternmost corner of the continental United States. Not that there is any mystical vibration at the spot but if one is go down east from most of Maine which is north and east of Portland, one might as well go all the way.
For a seaside town in August, being able to find parking space on the street directly in front of Frank’s Harborside Restaurant also makes one recognize just how far away the rest of the tourists have lost themselves. I sat on the noon-time deck of Frank’s and discarded any ideas a choice other than seafood . While I waited, I ordered a local brew: Presque Isle Honey Ale which arrived in a can and a pilsner glass that I set on the railing of the deck where its honey colo and foamy white head, made perfect contrast to the blue sky and the swirling currents of Cobscook Bay.
Out in the bay, five seals surfaced, snuffed their snouts and brought in fresh breath, and then raised themselves to see if anyone watched. I was and they raised even higher, saying, “Look at Me! Look at me! I am the ME-ning of Life.” I did, they rolled and dived and shortly came up again to see if I was still looking. I was. We repeated. I have no doubt that if I were sitting on the rocks below, they would have swum up, ambled aboard and sniffed, slobbered and snuffled me in delight at my attention.
Despite this late summer lifting of the spirit, the darker side of life is never far way, especially for a fishing village like Lubec, At Lost Fishermen’s Memorial Park, the triangular granite, so much an echo of Maine Mountains or the more distant gray, mountainous North Atlantic seas, has already received 113 names etched into its gray stone.
Across a narrow, two-lane arched bridge lies Campobello Island, the summer home of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt. It is now the site of The Roosevelt Campobello International Park. One must enter Canada via customs and return to the U.S. via customs, and a passport is desired, since I had forgotten my passport, but I was easily allowed to enter and return though U.S. Border agents did present me with a “Noncompliant Citizen” tag upon my return.
Nowhere is the current hypocrisy of “America First” more evident than at this international park by two nations to one of the United States’ greatest leaders. I hear our current President is under great stress. If only Melania might convince him to relax into a chair and wheel over to Campobello and into Tea With Eleanor where maybe the heart-felt stories told by three Canadian docents might somehow find entry into his consciousness and the planet would be better off because of it. Something else about a visit to the park, particularly Roosevelt Cottage, is we forget that Roosevelt did not catch polio until he was 38 and for those first 38 years, was a physically active bundle of energy. The family photogpraphs are a reminder of those first 38 years.
Campobello Island is also home to West Quoddy’s sister: East Quoddy Light. On my drive to visit it, Deer Island framed the channel where finback whales and porpoises played in the waters. On my return, I stopped again at Lost Fishermen’s Memorial Park and noticed the small boat landing leading down into the water of Cobscott Bay and Quoddy Narrows. No agents, no barriers, just a sign posted for the boaters coming onto the landing: Non U.S. Citizens should (walk down Water St. a couple of blocks) check in with U.S. Customs. These neighbors show exactly how a border between two nations ought to exist.
edited Munford for Mumford, 9-2-17
July 8, 2017
A Much-Needed Fourth of July Commentary
During graduate school in the late 1970s, a professor assigned me to read Supreme Court opinions (both pro and con) of the major educational issues the country had faced in its history. What struck me then was that regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with the decisions, the reasoning on both sides convinced me regardless of the outcome, both sides had sound reasons for making their choices.
This speech by Chief Justice John Roberts to his ninth grade son and classmates, assured me that the helm at The Supreme Court is still in good hands. It is 18 minutes in total, but even the first five-minute introduction is worth hearing.
February 18, 2017
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Emma Lazarus
Sat., Feb. 18, 2017 10:02 a.m. EST
Eight people flee U.S. border patrol to seek asylum in Canada Full story at Reuters, Canada. It’s hard to fathom the party of Lincoln has forced the resurrection of the Underground Railway.
And for the holier-than-thou-party-leaders of Franklin Roosevelt especially in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin, they have on one to blame but themselves because:
According to Henry Grabar, Slate staff writer, research by political scientist Jonathon Rodden of Stanford University, “Even in 2016, Democrats Carried Rust Belt Town Centers.
“For Democrats, the problem with these people isn’t that they didn’t vote Democratic; it’s that they didn’t vote at all. In some cases, turnout in downtown precincts was about half what it was a few miles away. Clinton still carried them,” wrote Grabar.
January 14, 2017
If 2017 or The Year of the Rooster in China has an inaugural need it might be this graphic which my co-advisor at The Equinox, Keene State College’s award-winning student media organization, forwarded to the editors. As near as I can tell, it is a web post from a French Catholic institution though I suspect, since the image is in English, it also came to them second-hand. Regardless, it is a fitting image for a time that feels as if we are reliving the last century and Yeats’s “Second Coming” where:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.”
Were I President-Elect Trump, who talks as if he believes he has the power of decree, I would decree the poster be placed as the screen-saver of every mobile device, computer screen, and television set in the nation. Then perhaps any conversation of substance between those with differing ideas might take place with some semblance of reason and respect that one’s personal perspective might not be the whole picture.
Alas then I see my Facebook notices and e-mail forwards and I’m reminded belief has little to do with reason or truth, and snake oil has now been replaced by fake news. Mark Twain’s Duke of Bilgewater has become real again.
Social media, despite its ability to fool us into thinking it contains that most critical and important third dimension—depth─is still only a flat, two dimensional recreation of reality (just like the graphic at the top of the post). For all our back-slapping progress, we have progressed intellectually not much farther than Plato’s cave. Social media is simply the modern substitute for the reflection of the unseen flames outside the cave. Though as I look at those Facebook posts and ads and forwarded e-mails, maybe we are not even as far along as Plato. At least Plato’s shadows were a reflection of an actual flame.
Twitter is the perfect example of the social media dilemma. It has real value for breaking information or life threatening issues like tornadoes, tsunamis, accidents, ice on the roads, any immediate problem, but beyond that? Well, the root of “twitter” is “twit.”
If we are going to govern via Twitter, Congress’s opening 12-hour fiasco and its about face on its first vote to pull the teeth from the House Ethics Committee is only the initial and smallest of the roller coaster rides we have embarked upon. Propaganda always has a kernel of truth in it, just enough to get a believer to hang his or her hat on its peg.
But we also now have fake news. The Chinese get fooled by The Onion; Americans get fooled by the KGB. What is that cliché that so wonderfully bogged President George W. Bush: “Fool me once . . . .”
All this brings to mind another of the lesser quoted lines from Yeats’s “Second Coming:”
“The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart, the center cannot hold;”
Yeats may have been talking about his theory of two-thousand-year cycles of civilization, but the symbolism of a falcon: a predator (and all it implies in our current technology), a hawk, and finally America itself unleashed from its moorings because of noise.
I suppose, if you are still reading this, you have become as discouraged as I have been over the months I’ve tried to write this. Let me offer a kernel of light; as I re-read Yeats’s poem a thought struck me—the hawk’s primary method of orienting itself is sight not sound. I checked with poet Henry Walters, a falconer himself, (see Sept. 14, 2014 post, MPIB 2014 Archive) and he confirmed that sight, not sound is a hawk’s primary contact with his “lure” (An animal part the hawk learns to associate with food, for example, part of a grouse wing). Though Walters also noted if the hawk circled behind a hill, the falconer might use sound to help bring it back but generally the hawk will circle higher and find its lure on its own.
Therefore if we, as a nation, have circled our predatory selves behind a hill and lost sight of our lure, all we need is a thermal to push us a little higher, then despite the noise, we will see our lure and our way home.
Walters also pointed out that once a hawk returns to its lure, it will not leave again until it has been fed. Noise-makers would be wise to take note of that.