DENIS MAIR.September 2016


Photo by Jeff Sirkin



We have wandered for years

In the forest of motives

Some explored the pathways

Some lay in wait for others

At last I’m lying back immersed

In what I have come through


Cold has pierced our hearts

We have made nature sympathize with us

We even spell out pity in trampled petals

The next step is keeping each other warm


War has devastated the Shaanxi fields

Now they are overgrown with green

Clouds of trouble run before the wind

Birds get lost in the distance

All that he looks at, he feels in his chest


Half of Du Fu’s friends are ghosts

So what does that make him?

His boat is tethered to a garden full of them

He floats downriver trailing a fogbank


Why does that beauty lean against bamboo?

Isn’t that better than leaning in a doorway!

But it is hard to get support from bamboo

Still she endorses that slender stem

The way Michael Jordan endorses Nikes


Du Fu dreamed of sharing a hermitage with Li Bai

They would take immortal medicine together

Make their tree of poetry grow beyond this world

Du Fu admired the mountain priest

The wild swordsman of his youth

But Li Bai was on the banquet circuit

Still, when they met and talked poetry

Something still vibrated from gut to gut

This was good for inspiration

But Du Fu had great love for this world

That he could only show through his family


A disturbing presence to welcome in one’s dream:

This man whose soul was haggard with care

He had thrown in his lot with the wrong prince

And he died where friends could not bury him

But the two men had knit their souls together

Their words were crucibles for each other

So the friend who outlived the other

Had to sum up their loss and gain


Shengdai—the “sagely reign”

Was a word for that golden age

Used by people who lived in it

But that was before their cosmopolitan era

Was shattered by rebellions

Now that once-proud phrase comes to light

Flung into unlikely corners

Such as the name of a pretty Japanese girl


I’ve heard of ways some people found fame in the capital

A hermitage on Zhongnan Mountain was supposedly their short-cut

What a joke! That mountain is piled with human bones


Wang Wei tells of an old man

Leaning against his cane

He measures hours of waning light

Waiting for a herdboy to come home

But Wang Wei himself is the old man

Waiting for a madman to sing

Needing something to look forward to


Dream of a beautiful girl among the mulberries

But seeing how she was selected for the harem

Took the edge off of Wang Wei’s fantasy


Above the tower of brick

An unseen crystalline tower continues upward

Once the trees are reduced to green velvet

What experiment can a poet try?


A troubadour strides across the landscape of history

He has heard a new summons to worship

Sounded from the bell of a woman’s dress

But he grew up sword-fighting with other horsemen

How can he stop trying to impress them?


I am the cup he poured his wine into

Words he spoke get written in my poems

Low cloud and valley mist make one mist


Path of words to a mountain hut

A window-scene of rainy pines

Where his absence is embedded

Our loneliness goes to pay a visit

Along words designed to omit him


We borrow geese as a figure of distant flight

Then continue leading the life they fly over

We rarely visit the remote shores

Where geese can safely rest their wings

In tired hours we need to imagine them


The old hermits went to a place

Where we revisit their quietness

Among plants that will keep growing

But you trust your seclusion to a media screen

I hope the plug to cyberspace is never pulled

Otherwise, what space will ever remember you?


The poets of our network

Look earthward for their open space

Their panorama is access to other hearts

They ride the currents of human feeling

The way an eagle rides an updraft


Behold this party of cloud-borne immortals

Each looks off into a different distance

Where they have pledged to join each other

In a party of immortals…


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*** ** ***


In the barbershop I often walked past

I used to see fantasy books through the window

Sword-bearing elves and chimerical beasts on the covers

Raymond Feist, David Eddings, The Sword of Shahara

They were tossed onto the barber’s personal shelf

Next to a row of hair-cream bottles

Every month a different grouping of titles

I sometimes saw the barber between haircuts

Reading in one of his customer chairs

I have been in and out of town so often

I can’t pin down when the difference happened

No more change in that grouping of books

Four or five leaning, two of them flat

Picture of colorful castle fading in the sunlight

Always at that same left-behind angle

The barber on slow afternoons, sitting in his chair

No reading matter in his hands

It’s been at least two years now

It must have been sometime after September 11th

Some equally wrenching impact

In the sphere of his personal life

Broke the threads to his fond imaginings

I have no interest in his cloud-capped towers

It’s something I passed on the way to a coffee shop

But I wonder—what made him stop?

And last week, the second week of September

My roving eye registered a new question mark

In the window, next to that old group of books

For the first time, a cover in black and white

A news photo of people all gesturing tensely


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*** ** ***


I look back into your story

Like veins in this pendant of agate

You had the face of a lady biochemist

Who fled the laboratory to become an artist

You had luminous white skin

To myself I called you “That Gothette”

Your father was a famous physicist

He tied together a network of seismic sensors

Predicted a major earthquake in Shandong

Three months before the Tangshan Quake

200,000 people dead in 1976

The government was caught flat-footed

I guess it was something like “Katrina” for them

Maybe it shook China out of her Maoist dream

You got a special education from geophysicist Dad

Heard all his dinner talk about earth sciences

Memorized the classical poems he loved

He even had you recite poems in English

I don’t know why you didn’t finish high school

Your father belonged to a special research unit

With his clout he arranged for home-schooling

Again in college you only lasted three months

You turned into a genuine recluse

You copied seal-style characters from dictionaries

Collected folk songs and old-time lyrics

Wrote sheaves of poems outside of any social scene

Archaic brew whipped in a post-modern blender

With your own punk energy and a touch of sci-fi

You reminded me of Emily Dickinson

Around thirty, still living at home

Until you watched that TV doc about a guard

This was a prison guard who painted portraits

He painted the criminals he guarded every day

Not just a prison guard, but an artist

And some kind of wild man who said

“Officials should hang my pictures in the Statehouse

It’s time they looked human nature in the face!”

Yes an artist, but due to barroom brawls as a student

His art school recommended him for the worst kind of job

“Go to that prison and run the inmate art class” he was told

The prison trained him to be a high-security guard

Anyway he looked like an intelligent inmate

Too bad, the art program never got off the ground

But he had an art program of his own

Every day after work, he’d paint for hours

Immortalized the faces of rapists and thugs

Until his work was spotted by Ai Weiwei

That great renegade was putting together a show

Bu hezuo de fangshi, Official Title: “Uncooperative Approach”

1995 in Shanghai, the informal English title was “Fuck You!”

One of the prison guard’s paintings was shown at that Expo

It showed a convict locked in an isolation cage

As guard he had to check the hot box hourly

Saw the man masturbating again and again

With electric brushstrokes caught the man’s caged wildness

Of course that painting wasn’t shown on TV

But the TV interview brought him national exposure

Which was seen by you, the mysterious recluse

You thought long and hard about it

You wrote a letter to the prison guard

Admired his love of the rawest human material

You two started an epistolary friendship

He took two weeks of vacation time

Went to Beijing and courted you

In time you went south to be his wife

You arrived at the staff residence compound

Brought along a truckload of books

You learned to fit in as a prison guard’s wife

Visited the sick ones, played mahjong sometimes

Kept up your habit of late-night reading

When his father in the old village had a stroke

You stayed for weeks to care for the ailing man

Each year you went to help in the cold season

Several years as a prison guard’s wife

Then he was hired by an art academy

Only burning idealism could live on that salary!

Your husband bragged about you in the salons

Somebody knew that you knew a thing or two

They paid you to write plans for a technology museum!

But I never met anyone as quixotic as you

You used to spin a dream of land rehabilitation

Wanted people to adopt pieces of scarred land

Reward them with shares in good land

Make an eco-region where minorities could come

At dinner I heard developers laugh at your proposal

But the two of you made me welcome in a new city

Right away I could talk with both of you

I went to your husband’s canvas-heaped studio

Those were great hours spent drinking coarse tea

With your frequent guest who is a great poet

And I used to take walks with you, Gothette

You read my absurd unpublished papers

I could see my thoughts mattered to someone

Before I left, I shared a last meal with you

You were even paler than before,

You got lymphitis from staying in that village house

Helping your in-laws during the cold season

In sympathy I touched swollen glands in your neck

That was the only time I ever touched you

But I still keep the agate pendant you gave me

You wanted me to remember your concern

I want to get back to writing

Write down ideas to entertain you

At least I owe you this poem


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*** ** ***


After noticing signs of a habit put aside

I posed a question to myself—a window gazer

The question stayed in my rough-draft notebook

A year or two later, I wrote it as a poem

My daughter who is favored by the muses

And is the best reader a father could ask for

Read my “Question for a Window Gazer”

Then she looked up in surprise and said,

“Dad, I heard a conversation in a coffee shop

I think it had something to do with your poem!”

One day my daughter sat in that independent café

Once mentioned in the New York Times

As one of those “third places” in our city

A space for neighborhood and community

And rival to the sign of the “Green Mermaid®”

Two ladies met and sat at the neighboring table

One removed a cap, let down her long chestnut curls

Looked straight at her friend and spoke for a long time:

“Thank you for meeting me here, this is a sad day

In a few minutes I’ll go to my husband’s shop nearby

Today I will begin my first course of chemotherapy

He wants to be the one to cut my hair

He doesn’t want to see it fall out in patches.”

My daughter did not eavesdrop on purpose

But this story was delivered to her sympathetic ear

It tells me how someone’s dream was interrupted

We hold onto dreams by filaments as fine as hairs

When it comes time for wielding scissor blades

May we never turn them against anyone else

May we take care of our own


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Denis Mair
holds an M.A. in Chinese from Ohio State University and has taught at University of Pennsylvania. He is currently a research fellow at Hanching Academy, Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan. He translated autobiographies by the philosopher Feng Youlan (Hawaii University Press) and the Buddhist monk Shih Chen-hua (SUNY Press). His translation of art criticism by Zhu Zhu was published by Hunan Fine Arts Press (2009). He has translated poetry by Yan Li, Mai Cheng, Meng Lang, Luo Ying, Jidi Majia, Yang Ke, and others. He also translated essays by design critic Tang Keyang and art historian Lü Peng for exhibitions they curated respectively in 2009 and 2011 at the Venice Biennial. (See Lü Peng, From San Servolo to Amalfi, Charta Books, Milan, 2011).


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September 2016.DENIS MAIR

A dozen poets. One a month. Nothing more.