Speechless

 To render. Be rendered. Awestruck. Awesome.
A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

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Great Salutations

“Could you believe me – without? I had no portrait, now,

but am small, like the Wren; and my Hair is bold, like the

Chestnut Bur; and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass,

that the guest leaves – Would this do just as well?”

- Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in reply to his request for a portrait

Reader, Writer, where would we be without the letters of Keats, Emily Dickinson, T. E. Lawrence, Raymond Chandler, Elizabeth Bishop?  The answer is, I suppose, about where we are now but a tad bit poorer in heart and spirit.  And if there were an instrument sensitive enough to measure such a thing, the needle gauging the overall frustration level of humanity would rest a shade higher on the scale.    Well, consider how frustrating it is to know so little of Shakespeare? What if to the great Body of Unknowing were added a lack of knowledge of the lives and perceptions of many other great writers and fascinating historical figures, people whom at present we’re able to appreciate more fully through their private correspondence? 

 

The good letter like good literary criticism deepens our understanding of the author’s work and achievements.   Moreover, for years, especially before the advent of the telephone offered a seductive alternative to writing, letters provided following generations with a sense of the day-to-day world of those who’d come before -- history lessons of quite a different sort from the accounts in school books. 

 

And so, we honor the art of the letter once again in the Summer issue of Speechless.


Denis Mair's The Quiet Man

In which our knight goes in search of someone to respond to his poetry, or at least to help out in the kitchen at the next poetry festival, and is mistaken for a stalker by a schizophrenic.

May 2004

Dear Suzanne:

During my house-sit, I learned the civilized habit of sitting down to dinner and having far-ranging conversations. My co-house-sitter Roger Maldonado has led a fascinating life as a human rights activist in Mexico, and a world traveler. Our far-ranging conversation played itself out like a like a journey in its own right. Roger went off to his part-time job each day, and the rest of the time he worked hard on his book of recollections about the Chiapas Rebellion. Together we went over some poems by the Tang poet Han Shan, who Roger is translating into Spanish. We also entertained the modern-day poets Meng Lang and Yan Li during their visit to Olympia.

I wrote a few articles on Chinese philosophy that I'm proud of; I walked along the inlet shore at dawn many times; I enjoyed quiet hours in the company of well-behaved animals. For all this I have my house-sitting host Nancy Allen to thank.

Now I'm done with my five-month house-sit. Strangely enough, I saw very little of the couple who introduced me to the yurt-house's owner. I was introduced by Leonard Schwarz, who is a new faculty member teaching poetry at Evergreen College. He has been working hard to establish himself in his new job, and he produced an excellent series of radio interviews called Cross-Cultural Poetics. I left a gift packet in his faculty mailbox, including Klipschutz' book that was published by (my former residency host) Charles Potts. Also I lent him that nice 86-year-old lumberjack's handmade autobiography in verse. I'm referring to the man who looks like a Blakean angel who read at the Walla Walla Poetry Party. Don Shaw is his name, My health affects my memory.

Leonard was too busy to get back to me regarding the materials I left him, so I had nothing positive to report to Klipshutz, who had heard that I was housesitting in Oly on Leonard's recommendation. Therefore he hoped I would put in a good word with Leonard. He told me he hopes to be invited to give a reading at Evergreen College and that he does some of his best writing while sitting on trains. He is growing moss in his basement apartment in San Francisco, and wants to get out and about. I had to tell him that since I did not have much conversational time with Leonard, it was hard to bring up any names.

I also gave a floppy disc with 20 of my poems to Zhang Er. Those were poems of mine translated into Chinese by Yan Li and other hands. Yan Li came back to Evergreen again in early April, We had tea with the student poetry group at Leonard and Zhang Er's house; we also read in Zhang Er's class. (As a faculty wife she's teaching a class on Chinese Poetry in Translation.) Zhang Er never mentioned my poems rendered into her language. And I had wanted to summon up meaningful comments on her book, but owing to my psycho-physical condition I could not easily enter into her post-modern predicaments of writing about writing.

I'm beginning to accept that ships-passing-in-the-night feeling. It makes me feel the texture of my current life-stage all the more. One hovers between a memory of an encounter and not having had an encounter at all!

Someday if health permits, I will go visit Yan Li in China. My 20+ translated poems will be made into a little booklet. I will travel to a few cities and read before groups that are connected with Yan Li. I will be a featured guest at one of Yan Li's big poetry parties that he holds periodically in a Shanghai gallery. So I will have my time in the sun again. And the strangeness of it will shock me awake for awhile. To meet sensitive artists in an overpopulated country trembling on the edge of who knows what—that's always got to be poignant.

I was often alone at the yurt house, but loneliness is not a bad thing. I made slow progress on a project, but I didn't finish writing my book on the I CHING. I wanted to read Joseph Campbell's books, and the poetry of Su Dongpo, but I didn't plow through as much of that pile as I'd hoped.

There were some bright lights in the Walla Walla period, though during the daytimes I was almost always on my own. I dropped off a book at a framing shop, and that led to a nice correspondence. But I also dropped off my book at a young woman's workplace, and I wrote a poem in reply to something she read. That didn't go so well. Folded in the book was my note asking for kitchen help come Poetry Festival time. I wrote this because I knew she had been involved in the Temple Bookstore's activities before I got to Walla Walla. 

Unfortunately my drop-offs were taken in the wrong way. One day I went to Travis Catsull's website and saw a posting by the young woman in question. (Travis had been the charismatic young impresario of poetry/music happenings at an earlier stage of the Temple bookstore.) Anyway, this woman's posting described her recent agonies struggling with schizophrenia, and to top it off: "an older man I don't know has been treating me like a best friend, and I feel that maybe I'm being stalked." Heavens! What I took to be soulful depth in those young eyes concealed so much inner turmoil. Such are the perils of forging acquaintanceships at poetry readings!

I told this story to a new friend I met in Olympia, a woman who brought her dog to play with the yurt-house dogs. She said I have lent myself to such misunderstandings because I am out there like a piece of flotsam on the tide of life, without an emotional anchor. Boy, isn't that the truth! 

Well, this piece of flotsam will go off to Philadelphia in the fall and teach for one semester, once again filling in as a lecturer. I will teach a course called Chinese Prose and Poetry in Translation, and a language course. I will have to be careful not to be bewitched by the eyes of attentive students!


Denis Mair has worked as a translator in Beijing and studied for years in a temple belonging to Tiandi Jiao, a Daoist-Confucian religious group in Taiwan.  His translations from Chinese include memoirs by the Buddhist monk Shih Chen-hua, an autobiography by the philosopher Feng Youlan and fiction by China’s former Minister of Culture Wang Meng.  He has served as a poet-in-residence at the Temple Bookstore in Walla Walla, Washington.  His book, Man Cut in Wood, was published by Valley Contemporary Poets. Read more by Denis Mair at www.appositive.net/oysterbay.