It’s COLD!!!!

A wacky tempest hit Colorado in the last 24 hours and snow fell in lucky places north of me and in the high country. We did get some of that stuff and some of that other stuff known as “rain.” Not much. Not enough to settle the dust but still. Maybe it’s just meteorological practicing to see if it’s even possible to fall here in the San Luis Valley, and maybe any little effort deserves applause. I covered the baby beans in the garden and thought good thoughts for the peony buds in front.

Sometimes that’s all you can do.

The four beans (so far) outside were easy to name, but the four inside beans? Some bean somewhere will be Li Ho — probably an outside bean since, as a poet, he was an outsider. And Li Bai will return, I’m sure. And why these two?

Each of them wrote a poem that shed light on my life at the time — or maybe life in a greater sense than just this one, solitary, small life. As a writer I think often of my high school AP English teacher and her insistence on Aristotle’s insistence that good drama (tragedy) had “universality.” Mrs. Zinn harped incessantly (to the ears of a 17 year old) on this. Now I think the importance of that idea is (hopefully) impossible to fully understand when you’re 17 years old, unexposed and inexperienced. Sure, intellectually I understood “hubris” and some of the other Greek words (and the concepts behind them), but not like I understand now (ha ha).

This morning, thumbing through my first ever book of Chinese poetry, a book I received as a Christmas present from my best friend in 1979, two years before I went to China or even applied for a job, I see that it’s OK for these beans to have the same names as their progenitors. Nurturing this fifth generation of Scarlet Emperor Beans, I see a new aspect to the idea of “universality.” Here are the two important poems, the first by Li Bai:

Li Bai Trans. Cyril Birch

Li Bai’s poem is accessible and Yeats wrote a similar poem in “The Song of the Happy Shepherd” but Li Ho’s poem, “Don’t Go Out of that Door” is similar in its message, but more desperate, maybe darker, definitely more passionate.

Li Ho trans. A. C. Graham

Li Ho’s poem inspired Pink Floyd’s (Roger Waters’) The Wall. Waters and I read the poem completely differently. The poem is sufficiently cryptic, and we can only read translations, so the whole thing might be a long, long, long way from what Li Ho had it mind. Still, translation doesn’t kill a good poem. As Goethe said in a beautiful small poem that I can’t find right now, a translation is like a flower in a vase. It’s still the same flower as it was in the field. In any case, it seems to me that Waters’ saw the wall as a barrier, cage, jail. I see it as yeah, maybe all that, but it’s also the ONLY thing there is on which to carve questions.

I’m not a fan of Pink Floyd, and I didn’t know about this connection until not long ago I googled Li Ho’s poem (too lazy to go get the book…) and got the above website. I felt kind of resentful. I mean, after all, that poem belonged to ME. 🙂 Any-hoo… I’d probably better go walk a dog or something while the weather is good (meaning cold).

I went back and found the post I wrote about the first generation of these amazing beans. That was four years ago. Here it is. Hongli, the Scarlet Emperor Bean. The first beans were just an experiment. I had no idea what these plants were like or what they would do, how big they would grow, or what they would be. I just had a packet of seeds. Hongli WAS a Chinese emperor, so that was easy, but a second bean came up? I named him Song Jiang, for the hero in Shui Hu Chuan (The Water Margin).

If You Need Inspiration…

From the joints where leaves broke or froze, new vines are emerging ALREADY. I love these beans.


Tu Fu

Rain road through, now the autumn night is clear
The water wears a patina of gold
and carries a bright jade star.
Heavenly River runs clear and pure,
as gently as before.

Sunset buries the mountains in shadow.
A mirror floats in the deep green void,
its light reflecting the cold, wet dusk,
dew glistening,
freezing on the flowers.

Li Bai

On Old River Mountain
A huge boulder swept clean
by the blue winds of Heaven

where they have written
in an alphabet of moss
an ancient song.

Bai Juyi

I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.

Li Ho

The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.
Pool-water deep and clear,
Insects whining,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.

Wilderness fields in October — 
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.

Two Years and It Still Works!

Two years ago about now I was getting a bleary-eyed view of the “theater” in which my hip would be replaced. It was amazing. Star Trekky, beautiful. They were putting tubes into me and onto me and chatting. “What do you think? That’s the operating table.”


It wasn’t a table at all. It was more like a comfy-vice that would hold me in the ideal position for Dr. Ed to work his hip-replacement magic while making it easy for the anesthetist to keep me under. I loved my doctor. In another reality, we would have been friends.

When I woke up, I was in a recovery room and Lois, my friend, was there — I think. In some respects this is fuzzier in my mind than is the actual surgery. I can’t explain that, other than to say I think we know what’s going on even when we’re anesthetized. We just don’t feel the pain. I have a distinct memory of it going well, laughter and a faint memory of the sound of a bone saw. But, I could be confusing this with some episode of House.

The whole thing was pretty great, actually. Afterward was challenging for a while, but here I am today. Sure, I walk with a limp and am somewhat lopsided, but it’s not Dr. Ed’s fault.

When I was wheeled into my room I was met by a tiny version of Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog whom I dubbed “Little Bear” and soon Little Bear had a dragon I named Francis (after the hospital) to keep her company. I do not know what it is about these effigies of animals that delights humans, but they made me feel better.

The nurses in the orthopedic wing were amazing. Apparently they liked me because they sent me a card with notes thanking me for being so easy to help and fun to be around. “I wish every patient were like you.” Seriously? NOT hurting any more should put EVERYONE in a good mood. One of the best things about joint replacement surgery is that immediately after your joint doesn’t hurt any more.

For the past two years — since the surgery — I — who usually wakes up between 8 and 8:30 — on May 7 I wake up at 5:30 ready to go. I suppose it’s some kind of physical commemoration of that day.


I promised my Scarlet Emperor Bean, Li Ho, the opportunity to share one of his poems. I think this is a good moment for that. It’s a different kind of poem than that written by his contemporaries, Li Bai and Tu Fu. This poem struck me really hard when I first read it back in my 20s when I knew I was a writer but I didn’t know what I had to say or would have to say. At that time I just wrote. I “raged at the wall” as I “carved my questions to Heaven.” The final image is still, to me, a profound paradox. Without the wall, there would be nothing on which to carve the questions and yet the wall is a barrier.

Don’t Go Out of that Door

Heaven is dark
Earth is secret,
The nine-headed monster eats our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Incited dogs snarl, sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the smell of the virtuous,
‘Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends his chariot to fetch us,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.

I straddle my horse, but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-yang the waves are huge as mountains

Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the metal wheels,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao parted the ferns and forever closed his eyes,
Yen Hui at twenty-nine was white at the temples;
Not that Yen Hui had thinning blood,
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended heaven.
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would rend and gnaw them,
For this and no other reason made it so.

Plain though it is, I fear that still you doubt me.
Witness the man who raged at the wall as he carved his questions to Heaven!

What’s the Wall, Anyway?

Li Ho, Tang Dynasty

Heaven is dark
Earth is a secret
The nine-headed monster eats out our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Dogs are set on us, snarl and sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the orchid-girdled,
Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends us his chariot,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.

I straddle my horse but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-Yang the waves are huge as mountains,
Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the rings on the bridle,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao slept all his life in the parted fens,
Yen Hui before thirty was flecked at the temples,
Not that Yen Hui had weak blood
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended Heaven:
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would close and rend them,
For this and this cause only made it so.
Plain though it is, I fear that you still doubt me.
Witness the man who raged at the wall as he carved his questions to Heaven.


When I looked for this poem this morning, hoping not to have to type it all out, or find the book (which I think is in the garage), my Google search demonstrated how many people have comments on this poem, how Pink Floyd (ew) used it in a song (is this THE WALL???).  If so, I think they had a lot of nerve…

I read this poem first in the 1970s in a book a friend gave me for Christmas. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend inscribed the book, “Maybe this is a book you haven’t read yet” because once I read everything. I had not been in China (yet) and had no idea that I would ever go.

I had begun my “writer’s life” at that point. I had (so far) only one story that, it appears, I will never finish. I was dedicated. I spent my weekends at my Smith Corona banging out the book. I have banged out that book four times now. It’s half banged out and saved on this laptop. If I finish, that’ll make five times.

It’s a love story.

So this poem. In my 20s, I saw the wall was an obstacle holding him back from Heaven, but at the same time he would have had nothing on which to carve his questions if he had not had a wall, making it a beautiful paradox. This morning I realized that without the wall, he would not have had questions; Heaven would spread in front of him with all its glorious answers.

In my 20s I thought it was magnificent and brave, what he was doing, using the medium at hand to write beautiful poetry. I thought the poetry — the writing — was the be-all and end-all of the whole experience of life.

This morning, with $$$ invested in PR for my book, anticipating more $$$, doubts about the decisions I’ve made, wondering if the whole point of everything is just carving the wall (because Heaven is silent), feeling quite small here in the middle of the world’s largest alpine valley, spurred to revisit Li Ho thanks to the daily prompt’s cryptic little word, “Witness” I find this poem is still a friend.