Category Archives: poetry

summer reading

Need atmosphere? Just add local wild-fires, and you've got a great excuse to stay indoors and read.

We’ve had our annual time in the woods and at the beach, and here are a few highlights from my reading:


For months now I am bleak and primitive.

The congregation of crows refutes

the resurrection of anything.


I sleep all day, drink all night.

I believe only in certainty of equations,

the curvature of space, words used merely for incantation.


This cold wind I sway in, this continual lent–

But wait, the first crocus

throws dirt.

–Nancy K. Pearson, Two Minutes of Light



I peer into Japanese characters

as into faraway buildings

cut from the mind’s trees.


In the late afternoon a small bird

shakes a branch, lets drop a white splash.


In the wind, in the rain,

the delicate wire cage glistens,

empty of suet.


Poetry’s not window-cleaning.

It breaks the glass.

–Chase Twichell, The Snow Watcher



That evening I was reading an anthology.

Scarlet clouds grazed outside my window.

The spent day fled to a museum.


And you– who are you?

I don’t know.  I didn’t know

if I was born for gladness?

Sorrow?  Patient waiting?


In dusk’s pure air

I read an anthology.

Ancient poets lived in me, singing.

–Adam Zagajewski, Mysticism for Beginners


Don’t ask us for the word to frame

our shapeless spirit on all sides,

and proclaim it in letters of fire to shine

like a lone crocus in a dusty field.


Ah, the man who walks secure,

a friend to others and himself,

indifferent that high summer prints

his shadow on a peeling wall!


Don’t ask us for the phrase that can open worlds,

just a few gnarled syllables, dry like a branch.

This, today, is all that we can tell you:

what we are not, what we do not want.

— Eugenio Montale, Cuttlefish Bones


Capturing a Plum Blossom

Our first plum blossoms-- photo taken on April 9, 2011

Sung Po-Jen's "tilting bowl" plum blossom

In preparation for the birth of our daughter, we thought it might be fun to plant a tree.  Somehow it took four years for this plan to actually be accomplished, so I planted four trees across our front yard instead of just one.  We have two apple trees, a cherry tree, and a plum tree which have now survived their first winter, and during the first week of April I was happy to see the first blossoms appear on the apple and plum trees.  It reminded me of one of my early introductions to Chinese poetry, Sung Po-Jen’s Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom.  The book is described as what might possibly be the world’s first printed book of art and literature– it was first published in A.D. 1238, and the image above is reproduced from the edition of 1261. The poems are composed of just four lines, but are packed with complex references, implications, and shades of meaning.  Translator Red Pine was kind enough to follow each poem with a commentary through which we can gain some insight into the mind of a 13th century scholar.  I include one of my favorites, below, which relates to the blossoms in my front yard as I so recently saw them:

39    Tilting Bowl

fill it and it empties

more or less are both mistakes

all things have a balance

don’t think this one isn’t right


This “bowl-on-a-swivel” was placed next to the throne to remind the emperor that whatever was full would soon be empty.  Only when the bowl was half-full was it stable.  According to Hsun-tzu, Confucius saw a device like this in the ancestral hall of Duke Huan: “An attendant poured water into a container that hung at an angle.  As the water level approached the midpoint, the container became upright.  But when the attendant went beyond the midpoint, it tipped over, the water poured out, and only after it was empty did it resume its former position.  Seeing this, Confucius sighed, ‘Alas! Whatever becomes full becomes empty!'”

— Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, by Sung Po-Jen,  The Chinese Classic Translated with Commentaries by Red Pine, Introduction by Lo Ch’ing

a reading list

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

photograph by Sylvester Jacobs

After my gallery talks a few people expressed interest in pursuing the topics further, so I am including a list of works that were informative and influential in my own preparation. Black Robe White Mist includes an excellent set of essays, by far the most comprehensive source that I found regarding the life and works of Rengetsu.  Francois Cheng’s Empty and Full has been a source of inspiration and understanding in my own work for several years now, and was worth re-reading.  The other texts vary widely in their density, some being quite accessible and others requiring a slow and careful read with no distractions.  In any case I hope that this list will get you started on your own search.

Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting, by Francois Cheng

Myth and Meaning in Early Taoism, by N. J. Girardot

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu, translated by Stephen Mitchell

Lotus Moon: The Poetry of the Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, translated by John Stevens

Black Robe White Mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist Nun Rengetsu, catalog for the exhibition, National Gallery of Australia

Emptiness: A Study in Religious Meaning, by Frederick J. Streng

Religion and Nothingness, by Keiji Nishitani, translated by Jan Van Bragt

Poetics of Emptiness: Transformations of Asian Thought in American Poetry, by Jonathan Stalling

Metamorphosis of the Private Sphere: Gardens and Objects in Tang-Song Poetry, by Xiaoshan Yang

77 Dances: Japanese Calligraphy by Poets, Monks, and Scholars, 1568-1868, by Stephen Addiss

Working Emptiness: Toward a Third Reading of Emptiness in Buddhism and Postmodern Thought, by Newman Robert Glass

The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, by Ernest Fenollosa and Ezra Pound

The Structure of Emptiness, by Graham Priest, Philosophy East and West, Volume 59, Number 4, October 2009, pp. 467-480 (Article)

Emptiness as a Paradigm for Understanding World Religions, by John P. Keenan, Buddhist-Christian Studies, Volume 16 (1996), pp. 57-64

all good things…

documenting the lonesome pine, photo by Christine Amick Sarra

documenting the lonesome pine, photo by Christine Amick Sarra

a bottle on the old dump site, under the oaks

a bottle on the old dump site, under the oaks

We just returned from our annual trip to the east coast, where for the past seven years or so Christine and I have been juggling several different projects.  While the sites in North and South Carolina maintain a certain degree of magic for us, we both had the feeling that some of the extended documentation and artworks were drawing to a close.    The task ahead is to try to determine what has been accomplished, and what the best forms/forums might be for presenting the work.

One nice piece of my summer reading has been The Stones of Emptiness, a book of poems by Anthony Thwaite.  The selection below was serendipitously juxtaposed with my time on and overlooking the tidal rivers and mudflats of the Carolinas.

At Pagham Harbour

These are salt acres, the sea’s tithes

Drenched twice a day, worked by the crab and gull.

At low tide mud heaves and breathes

But only in waiting for the levelling pull

Each wave makes as it fills the harbour mouth.

Coarse grasses stand

Stiff before even the strongest wind.

No hedges here, or walls, or any path

Except for the birds’ frail tracks,

The scribbled spoors of crabs, and scattered rocks.

No one can tell the way the paths

Ran once, and who has walked them, over there

To Manhood, maybe, where the water bathes

Its buried church.  The sea smothers the air

And we breathe salt and hear only the sea.

I think about

That ninetheenth-century parson who looked out

And saw a wall of water half-fill his sky,

The sea marking its bounds,

Breaking its barriers, inheriting its lands.