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Two Poems from a Heart-Mind, After Zheng Xie

March 18, 2011 12 comments

by Roberta Burnett

Dusk

This very moment
a fisherman, someone unfamiliar,
trails his fishline, a silver gesture,
under the ledge, the cliff.

He pulls up empty, he poles his antique skiff still
searching the cove in all dark water.
Sheer-silk distances speck the gulls on waves.
Umber reeds spell omens in this weak sun.

Yet he sings in our twilight, his notes boom across water,
his spirit moves into folds, the silent gold flashes
that mark each peaking wave…

Aura of the moon, rising first—and out of such deep black!

* * *

Neighbor

The old Taoist, in traveling clothes,
head wrapped, shoulders a heavy gourd
(looks like a two-headed man when
the sun’s behind him). He wears
palm-fiber sandals for rough paths
and goat-wool socks. He’s a healer,
mending qin and tendering herbs
for curing ills, outing bad spirits.
Under clouds and the red-leaf canopy, he threads
home over rocks. Mountain neighbors say
he’s built his hut on an overlook at the base of Three Gorges.
—Who can follow him that far?
Where to find him when we have need?

*

Note: A qin [prn. cheen, and often spelled “ch’in”] is an ancient, plucked string instrument capable of several octaves and great subtlety of expression. It is highly prized. Those who categorize it in the zither family (played on table or lap) disregard calling it a lute (usually held vertically).


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Zheng Xie (1693–1765) was a bureaucrat, painter, poet, and calligrapher from Kiangsu, in Eastern China. Writing poetry was a required skill for Chinese officials, as intense and pertinent as knowledge of Confucian tenets. While a magistrate’s positions could be ephemeral, subject to the whims of superiors, Zheng’s poetry was second in lasting effects only to his widely admired and respected skills as a calligrapher and painter, through which his poems often were published. His poems are still loved by Chinese, carved as they are into stone in public places. As a man of the arts, the outlook reflected in his poetry seems more Taoist and joyful than the sober Confucianism of a civil servant might otherwise allow, but both perspectives clearly helped shape his poems of witness and delicacy.

Roberta Burnett’s poems have appeared in Soylesi Poetry Quarterly (tr. into Turkish), The November 3rd Club, Lucid Rhythms, Pirene’s Fountain, The Bellevue Literary Review, and Naugatuck River Review. (She guest-edited one volume of NRR.) Her recent book of poems is Trying Not to Look (Flarestack Publishing, UK). She was a solo reader for Tempe, Arizona’s “Poetry in April” series (2006). Her M.F.A. in poetry (2000) is from Vermont College of Fine Arts, with post-graduate work at Arizona State University; B.A. and M.A. (English), Cal State University, Long Beach (CSULB). She taught writing, research, semantics, and literature at colleges and universities for 18 years.