Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young

Du Fu: A Life in Poetry

Too hot in the sun
too cool in the shade

I keep going from one side
of the house to the other

breezes ripple
through the young grass

hawks slide sideways
along the ridge

the late afternoon sun sets
the flowering crabapple aglow

long shadows fill
with lilac scent

immersed in a life’s
worth of poetry

I’ve let another spring day
come & go

wind stripped the last petals
from my cherry tree

while twelve centuries seemed
almost to vanish.


Some things have changed
since Du Fu’s day, I think

it’s more common for men to write
love poems to their wives now

or to write in the voices of conscripts
or laundry women

the Three Gorges would be
unrecognizable to him, I’m afraid

mountains & rivers go to ruin these days
while the state survives

I watch the crescent moon sink
toward the horizon

Chang’an remains attainable
only in dreams.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name, by Marjorie Maddox

When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name
These poems are so good, they almost make me want to watch a baseball game. But why read a book of baseball poems if I’m not a fan of the sport? Well, for one thing, Maddox is a Central Pennsylvania poet, and I wanted to get to know her work better. And I’m interested in tightly focused poetry chapbooks, having just published one of my own. People who know little about tools claim to have enjoyed my tool odes, and I was curious to see if I’d find these baseball poems similarly engaging.

I found I did, largely because of the abundant word-music. I was hooked from the second line, “their limbs limber with summer.” And at least half the poems didn’t require more than a casual knowledge of the game, as in “Readying the Field,” which begins,

His tractor tugs dirt in a circle,
combs through clods as solid as baseballs,
then hoes the whole again,
signaling the mound a bull’s eye.
Only then does he tip
his stare to the square
diamond, smooth all earth
between home and first.

Maddox keeps things lively by varying the contents as much as possible, and her family connection to a pivotal event in baseball and civil rights history — her great-uncle was the Dodgers general manager who signed Jackie Robinson — adds an additional layer of interest. She also lives in Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series, so of course there’s a poem about that, too. Other unique takes on the sport include “Baseball at the Historical Village,” “The All-American Girls’ Professional Baseball League,” “The Babe’s Babes,” and “Patron Saints of Baseball,” the opening poem, which assigns Catholic saints to the various positions. Maddox even captures the giddy anticipation of the season in “The Calm Before”:

Between hands, the shifting tip
of sky chatters, rattles, taps its bebop of a ball
into something large. There is nothing
to say that can’t wait for spectators
that may not come. These nights,
practice swings at our world
with a whoosh and misses

The collection ends with the multi-part “Rules of the Game,” which lost me more often than not, though I was curious enough to look up the unfamiliar terms on Wikipedia. I had no idea, for example, that there were so many ways of, and reasons for, sliding into base. And I was captivated by the contrast between “The Pop-Up” and “The Sacrifice Bunt,” the first a “disastrous beauty,” the second a graceless yet gracious maneuver in which

humility makes the hero
squaring off to fail his own trail to base.
He entices the ball with his bat,
kills it with a tap,
shoves the coveted corpse
part way to first.

Of course, the real test of a book of poems on any specialized subject is whether it can draw out universal lessons without straining too hard or hitting the reader over the head. In poem after poem, When the Wood Clacks Out Your Name shows how to do it right, as in the closing stanzas of “The Pitch”:

Snap here for a fastball,
here for a curve,
cut your fingernails square
for a knuckler, that pigeon
flapping awkwardly
out the barn door of a hand.

Never let the eyes tell
the fingers’ deception,
the plans of the palm,
deep-secret mathematics
shooting great lengths
from arm to plate.

Sounds like good advice for poets, too, somehow.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Mission Work, by Aaron Baker

Mission Work cover
The ancestors have returned in their white skins to the New Guinea highlands and strain the rivers for the golden grains of their bones. Or perhaps these are descendents of the white-skinned giant who slept with his daughter and fled the land out of shame. They carry lightning in a stick. Reading this, I am reminded that I once was yang guezi, foreign devil, in the frightened eyes of a boy from a civilization centuries more sophisticated than my own.

I make a list of the words that are not here: primitive Stone Age heathen superstition, and the words that are: knife sorcerer taro mountain spear spirits pig. Worldviews blend and merge in the imagination of the missionaries’ boy, this Aaron who identifies with the smooth-talking Aaron in the Bible, who merely threw gold in the fire, he said, and out came bull. Myths from the desert mingle with myths from the forest. His father goes between two sides in a local conflict and tries to make men love their brothers, while he and the other boys play war with fern stalks for spears. “We kill, are killed, so often in these games.” A rusting cockpit suspended in a treetop, the Rising Sun still visible on its side, bears witness to wider, more brutal wars.

I read: “when the blade slits/ its throat and the pig’s blood is poured// into yours, rise and fill its shuddering flesh/ with your life.” I put the book down to start making supper and promptly slice open my thumb while peeling a potato. It’s a shallow cut, and I don’t feel like pausing to put on a bandage. I let blood drip into the stew — who will notice? But the cut burns when I touch it to the slab of venison.

It’s hard to believe this is the author’s first book. He writes with great delicacy and precision, leaves the obvious lessons implicit, and avoids melodrama and gratuitous exoticism. This vision of a very different culture seems natural, for whose childhood memories don’t become impossibly distant with age? And as children almost all of us believed in magic to some extent, so when, for instance, Aaron’s friend tells him that “evil sorcery brought up the bees” that stung him, that doesn’t seem so unfamiliar, and even the cure — caking him in mud to draw out the sting — is something I can imagine doing myself as a kid, especially when his friend takes it to an extreme and coats Aaron’s entire body with mud.

Meugle crouches,
amazed at the work of his hands

as the mudman dances, impervious to pain—

and I can’t tell if this is white or black magic,
his gestures to summon or ward me away.

On the other hand, this is not an extensively end-noted book, so unless you happen to be well versed in the ethnographic literature on New Guinea highlanders, some of it is bound to go over your head as it did over mine. But for me, this is like taking an intensive language class taught total-immersion style: just a thin thread of comprehension is enough. I reach into my right ear and extract a small round black hard thing.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Spring Melt, by Katherine Bode-Lang

Spring Melt cover
This began as one kind of book and finished as something else. No, wait, that’s not true. I began as one kind of reader, with one set of expectations, and ended as another, with the change occuring around page 15 (out of 29 total pages of poetry). Which perhaps not coincidentally is where I resumed reading in mid-afternoon, after getting up from a long nap.

When I set the book aside this morning, I had been reading about the speaker’s mother being in love with boats and spending her vacation at a shipyard, despite the family having no boat of their own: a very interesting poem, but thoroughly in the realist, autobiographical-lyrical mode. Then in the groggy afternoon I resumed with “Sorting the Socks of the Dead”:

When they died, we wore their socks
on our hands for the winter. Puppets
with holes, our fingers poked out like ears.

This sudden swerve into strangeness was as delightful as it was unexpected. I read the next two poems, “Rainy Season” and “The Second Year,” in more of a Garcia-Marquezian frame of mind, which turned out to be a good fit for their bleak industrial subjects: a pulp mill shutting down briefly for Christmas and a scrap-metal recycling yard. Then the strangeness returned in full force with “She’s Heard It Said if It Weren’t for the Sky We Would All Go Mad.”

Her mother writes: I fear the gray bowl about us,
the wooden spoon you put to it. You have such clear
eyes: you see the halos of the sun, its drifting, flaming spots.
I want you to let the Black-Eye Galaxy go.

I really like being thrown off-balance like this. If I feel I understand every poem in a collection, I don’t enjoy it as much as if there’s still a solid core of mystery in it.

My five-year-old niece Elanor stopped by after supper (“I like your house, Uncle Dave, ’cause it got lots of books!”) and wanted to help with the typing. Sure, why not?

elanor dad mommy fdgdrygbfjgjgdggh xjhjkhdb dkes utawvbuytq piouyvb dfghfhg ujssfjcyhu fgdfyfchcui87fguyc rthhfhfh hgcnsx sffjhkdjoplrr fnvkvjvobbazrff vgtyrfbvf ggftgbryhgrvtyf vvvwf uccyhgcv5t78fc rtfdghmnc cgfvcgv3erfgudjnc cfvdfrfcrfc dbdczqwzzhn bdug guf yhfxFCJNZSUJVFGIKCRFJV dgfikch vvcvvgggggh nfhfdgvzs fihfivguvvg cujdcuu JK IX

I go back to the opening poem, “Diagnosis,” which is about taking a nap with the windows open. Hmm. Now I can’t help wondering if the unusual length and soundness of my nap might not have been due in part to my reading of this poem in the morning. I even slept through a phone call.

Each window is a gaping mouth without a tongue,
our noises rumbling up from deeper down.

That works as a description of the contents, too. Poems are windows, are they not? And this solid, habitable first collection of poems echoes with the borborygmi of thaw and flood.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Eden in the Rearview Mirror, by Susan Elbe

Eden in the Rearview Mirror cover
The unknown child bending the map at my mother’s bedside, this map of skin in my father’s silver boat, before some music and desire limn the body’s mercator: miracles enough. Dog days snow toward January, and I fly to my father in late August on the Kenai Peninsula, 2 a.m.

Thanksgiving, 1954. My mother isn’t dead, sitting with autumn everywhere I look, apparition, sequela, deciding the heart and everything you take with you. Petition in the middle, garden on the outskirts, love — a definition driven by a short history of burning. Out of the splitberry dark, like horses practicing eternity, the gate unlatched, white radish moon.

If I loved him it would be this way, my angel: reeling in a skate on Kachemak Bay, daguerreotype, light made from nothing. Laudamus, soul suite: why I decided to be born. Now and then, Scheherazade and the lost order Lepidoptera ghost hunger for an inner harbor at the Rio Grande gorge, Eden in the rearview mirror.

The foregoing paragraphs consist entirely of the titles in the table of contents to Eden in the Rearview Mirror, rearranged and supplemented by just a few small connector words. Perhaps this is too light-hearted an exercise for a book of such power and quiet beauty, but it does demonstrate at least how rich a table Elbe sets for the feast that follows. If it leaves you hungry for more, I’ll be featuring a conversation with her next Tuesday on the Woodrat podcast.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

King Baby, by Lia Purpura

King Baby cover
Spoof or homage? The poet herself confesses she isn’t sure. And what if her initial guesses about the thing floating in the river (bouy, plastic object, last summer’s melon) had been correct? It wouldn’t matter. The act of recognition is decisive — we relive it everytime we call someone or something by their name. But what if, Purpura wonders, the bedraggled vagrant one invites into one’s home turns out in the morning to be the king, going about in disguise to take the measure of his subjects? This folktale is key to my own understanding of the book. Hospitality always involves a balance between homage and spoof, between worship and make-believe. No matter how outlandish the guest, one has to keep a straight face.

I’ve never read a book where the cover photo was so essential to comprehension, though a few of the features mentioned in this odd cycle of hymns cannot be seen, nor of course can we hear the thing. (We are told it rattles when shook.) King or baby? Ancestor, I’m thinking, but the poet never directly mentions this possibility. She does see it as a role model of sorts: “Oh, let me be odd in my surroundings.”

Her own origins are only probed toward the end of the book: “Often I assemble myself/ back at the beginning,” and a poem later:

Where was I going
before all the trees,
breathing and fallen,
made, with the river,
the day I’m in now
and the tasks it requires…

And then three poems from the end, she asks, “Do I hasten things by saying?/ Am I that terrible child?”

Her son originally spotted the icon they came to call King Baby in the river on the coldest day of the year, and she pulled it out and carried it inside to thaw. So we do have this origin tale, retold often, plus another, more speculative one about a marketplace for tourists. Then too, over the course of the book, a long, cold spring arrives, and I’m thinking: a new year is always represented as a baby in the cartoons. Purpura quotes Nabokov:

The spiral
is a spiritualized circle.
In the spiral form, the circle,
uncoiled, unwound,
has ceased to be vicious.
It has been set free.

She quotes this in a different context, but it applies to the turning of the seasons better than anything, I think. Re-reading the poems today, I’m struck by their spatial and temporal grounding. What might have I found and brought home this winter? What made thing or found object among my collection might even now be waiting for its song, unrecognized mouth ajar?

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Bestiary, or The Parade of Orpheus, by Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire's Bestiary

The poet includes himself in this procession:
weaver of myths, an octopus spraying ink,
heedless of the microscopic wonders
swarming Orpheus, and more akin
to the quicksilver god who first made a lyre
out of that solid citizen the tortoise.


When the poet writes like crayfish,
we advance backwards,
he must’ve meant
the artist, far from a Cubist
and farther still from Fabre and his farm.


The reader follows unmentioned at the rear,
still chuckling at that line about the peacock
whose magnificent display entails baring his ass.
With the addition of this volume it grows
more colorful than ever, my wall of books.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month; click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library. The podcast will return next week.)

Slamming Open the Door, by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

Slamming Open the Door
Another day, another book of poems about the death of a close family member. This time it’s a daughter, murdered by an acquaintance. It’s absolutely devastating to read, the second time as much as the first: impossible to read quickly, but equally impossible to put down after the first poem, I found.

Does the newspaper where you live publish memorial poems? Ours does, often three or four per issue, but it’s a very conservative town and newspaper, and I suspect this custom long ago faded out in more sophisticated parts of the country, where online equivalents such as Facebook memorial pages have probably taken their place. These newspaper memorial poems take the form of either couplets or quatrains, depending on the size of the ad, invariably feature end-rhyme, and confine themselves to the most general and sentimental of expressions. For example: “In our hearts your memory lingers, sweetly tender, fond and true./ There is not a day, dear brother, that we do not think of you.”

I read that and a couple others like it this morning at breakfast, right after finishing Slamming Open the Door, and my immediate reaction was to recoil in disgust: they had nothing in common with Bonanno’s book, I thought, aside from the obvious function of memorializing the dead. The murdered daughter’s black-and-white photo appears on its own page right before the table of contents, just as photos of the dead family members appear in two out of three of the memorial ads in the April 10 issue of The Daily Herald. But beyond that, the newspaper poems — doggerel, really — couldn’t present a starker contrast to Bonanno’s, I thought. They were not only anonymous but generic, while Bonanno turns her unsparing gaze on herself every few pages, describing her very human reactions of rage, desolation, remorse for her own less-than-saintly mothering, gratitude for small gestures, and so on.

In one poem, an ant rears up on its hind legs, and “I do not see it,” she says, immediately after noting “its rosary-bead parts/ startling and black.” Grief insists on blindness to the world the daughter can no longer see, even if the poet’s aesthetic instincts cannot be so easily shoved aside. In another poem, she imagines her heart yanked from her chest in the middle of drinking tea — and now we are very far indeed from the bland hearts where “memory lingers” in the newspaper couplet.

[I]t drops, pumping,
onto the table
and there it is,
there is the matter,
your whole heart,
that brilliant engine,

that tuber,
vulgar, purple,

— but far from dying, after a moment of adjustment to the loss, “invariably,/ you reach down/ to straighten a spoon.”

Taking another look at the newspaper poems in Saturday’s paper now, I am less inclined to be as dismissive as I was this morning. Great poetry they are not, but at least they don’t wallow in false piety. All three emphasize the importance of memory, and in that sense — in their metaphysical simplicity, their disinclination to try and find larger meanings in the loss of a family member — they do resemble the poems in Slamming Open the Door. I suspect that the very decision to publicly confront the death of a loved one in the most artful language one can muster probably compels a basic level of honesty, wrestling with the mystery of how someone so utterly gone can still have such an undiminished presence in our lives.

All of which is not to downplay the fact of the murder here, which puts Bonanno’s poems in a class of their own. They exorcise, or strive to. They flirt with catharsis. At some point, those of us who have been spared this experience have probably all wondered how we would react to the murder of a child. Bonanno tells us “How to Find Out,” “What People Give You,” and “What Not to Say.” She shows us the initial newspaper account, the autopsy report (as she interprets it) and eventually the jury’s verdict. The sparely yet vividly drawn characters — detective, prosecutor, mother of the murderer, a neighbor, a sister, another mother of a murdered child in a support group — are utterly believable, and the author’s commitment to honesty and her willingness to share even some moments of humor make her perhaps the most appealing character in the book.

And then there are the ladybugs, thousands of them everywhere: a phemonenon I’m intimately familiar with to the point of boredom. Nothing new there, surely. Yet somehow Bonanno managed to make me see them as something uncanny, a symbol of that present absence, perhaps, though the surface explanation of their significance is much simpler: “ladybug” was the daughter’s nickname.

After the trial, a blizzard
of ladybugs on the courthouse steps,
more this week
than Berks County has seen in years.
At first we crunch them underfoot
until, horrified, we look down
and know what we do.

Alice James Books seem to specialize in searing poetry about things that matter: Cynthia Cruz’ Ruin, Lia Purpura’s King Baby, Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, Kazim Ali’s The Far Mosque, and now this volume, every bit their equal. Buy them.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, by Brent Goodman

The Brother Swimming Beneath Me cover
The best poems are quizzes built of balsa wood where every guess is an updraft. Rhyme evaporates in the mouth. The water is fresh, not salt (you can always add salt, but you can’t take it away). Lake plants are more poetic than kelp in any case. Death, lice, oysters, belly fuzz: all the great subjects. Reading The Brother Swimming Beneath Me for the second time, I am taking only mental notes, which prove to be unreliable at best. (Why the hell didn’t I buy a new pocket notebook when I was in town yesterday?)

Was it 2006 that Brent began blogging about pulling this manuscript together? Blog and manuscript shared the same title then, and the latter kept getting transfusions from the former, culminating in a series of remarkable prose poems, square as stair steps with no risers (“Spiral Course”). I remember wondering about the brother’s death, the lack of explanation as frustrating as a photo uploaded sideways for an online avatar. Well, it’s all here — and then it isn’t. (The blog isn’t mentioned in the credits, but then again, why should it be?)

There are so many responses to grief, so many rituals. In “Séance,” the dead convene to try and summon up the living. In “

,” the object is to “Reduce your life by half until it coats the back of a spoon.” In “‘Armless Iraqi Boy Bears No Grudges for U.S. Bombing,'” a sacrificial victim is made whole again by a miraculous set of substitutions: “We have replaced/ his eyes with rubble, his ears with crosshairs,/ his mouth a khaki radio”; only the right words go missing. In “[directions to my house],” the narrator’s entire adult life constitutes a kind of spell, leading to the unlocked door of his own house. (But how else would one expect to end up so deep in the woods?)

Dear religion, says the opening line, and the closing line Dear mystery, as if the whole book between them were a letter with two addressees, posted from an afterlife which exists only to issue stamps for philatelists, or from some place near the end of Wisconsin’s frozen fist where mailboxes disappear into snowbanks for weeks at a time. The book’s designers set the letter-spacing so wide that the words look as if they’re ready to dissolve, and I have to whisper them, which is not a bad thing. Sometimes they whisper back. (Does it really make sense to try and write about books this good?)

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)

Still, by Deborah Burnham

Still cover

Still isn’t: something is always stirring just under the surface. My hands grow colder as I read: winter has returned, “like a mirror/ whose silver dries and drifts across the floor,/ leaving a window on the wall that shows just/ the wall itself…” The stone face on the cover — sad, contemplative, turning green — colors my reading of the poems within. I love sycamores, and there are sycamores on almost every other page, clinging “to patches of uncaring earth/ refusing their own beauty,” their “patchwork green and brown// like a room where the bookshelves have been stripped,/ the curtains taken down.”

In the title poem, an ivy plant cut at the root in autumn holds its dried leaves all winter, “stem and branches stuck on the brick/ like the veins of some huge flat/ animal, shaped like an open hand,” and I am left to imagine how it must sound in “the snapping wind” — and what might be happening in the house within. In the next poem, it’s someone else who has lived through a “year of silent anger,” and in the poem after that, it’s the neighbors who have gotten divorced: a delicate indirection that reminds me almost of Japanese court poetry from the Heian period. Even in the last poem, when Burnham writes about baseball and Art Tatum, that sensibility persists. I rub my finger over a tiny curl at the edge of the page left over from the cutting: the quiet eroticism of a handmade book, its alluring stillness.

Like Humes’ Underground Singing, its mate in the Keystone Chapbook Series for collections by Pennsylvania poets, Still manages to satisfy despite its brevity — even at times to astonish. It’s like the lake in “Learning How to Want,” “that cradles bodies who have forgotten how to sleep.” Being short on sleep myself this morning, I am glad to have found it. I emerge refreshed, as if from a bracing dip.

(I’m reading a book a day for National Poetry Month, with a special focus on Seven Kitchens Press, a Pennsylvania-based publisher of limited-edition chapbooks. Click on the book cover to go to its page in Open Library.)