Composed at Random by Gu Taijing
an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles by Billy Collins
Dharma by Billy Collins
After Love by Derek Walcott
Composed at Random
Human life is an endless struggle—
The post-horse and plow-ox.
On the brows of the Daoist sadness never grows:
Quietly holding a book of immortality, seated by the window,
What else is there to seek?
Prospects disappear, far, far away,
Months and years are hard to detain.
In a hundred years’ time everyone will be a pat of mud,
So arrange a firm and safe place in your own mind
And let the boat float with the stream.
--Gu Taiqing (1799-1876?)
Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty,
I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles
It seems these poets have nothing
up their ample sleeves
they turn over so many cards so early,
telling us before the first line
whether it is wet or dry,
night or day, the season the man is standing in,
even how much he has had to drink.
Maybe it is autumn and he is looking at a sparrow.
Maybe it is snowing on a town with a beautiful name.
“Viewing Peonies at the Temple of Good Fortune
on a Cloudy Afternoon” is one of Su Tung Po’s.
“Dipping Water from the River and Simmering Tea”
is another one, or just
“On a Boat, Awake at Night.”
And Lu Yu takes the simple rice cake with
“In a Boat on a Summer Evening
I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird,
It Was Very Sad and Seemed to be Saying
My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem.”
There is no iron turnstile to push against here
as with headings like “Vortex on a String,”
“The Horn of Neurosis,” or whatever.
No confusingly inscribed welcome mat to puzzle over.
Instead, “I Walk Out on a Summer Morning
to the Sound of Birds and a Waterfall”
is a beaded curtain brushing over my shoulders.
And “Ten Days of Spring Rain Have Kept Me Indoors”
is a servant who shows me into the room
where a poet with a thin beard
is sitting on a mat with a jug of wine
whispering something about clouds and cold wind,
about sickness and the loss of friends.
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner;
cross my legs like his, and listen.
The way the dog trots out the front door
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.
Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?
Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.
If only she did not shove the cat aside
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.
Love after Love
the time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here, Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf.
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.