While Mr. Tao slept among the Petals of the Emperor

January 31, 2012

1.

While sitting in the tea house listening to the rain,
Mr. Tao would often simplify his sleep.
He’d pour a glass of wine and study all the words
he’d found inscribed in the wet garden sand.
Surely messages from the Bean-flower Emperor!
Or characters lost—lost in an empty visibility.
Just suppose this world has become a tableau vivant
and nothing is allowed to move ever again.
Or suppose, these poems he finds
are but the first line in a very long conversation
to be had even while he sleeps
among the petals of the Emperor.

2.

When Mr. Tao went to swim in the glass sea,
the ocean’s passions were dark and forbidden to him.
Even your love was hidden by the waves.
It was like the fragile glass had been shattered,
like it was not to be a part of this world anymore.
The ocean seemed to play a single note
inside a symphony of complex sounds.
It’s why he had to swim for shore alone,
my dear, and why he almost drowned.
And why it rained all night last night—
even while Mr. Tao slept
among the petals of the Emperor.

 

This poem was ‘nudged’ in a certain direction by ‘New Pond Song 80’ by Tom D’Evelyn. They are, however, very different types of poems. I recommend his wholeheartedly.

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5 Responses to “While Mr. Tao slept among the Petals of the Emperor”

  1. Thomas Davis Says:

    From my reading, Jim, the last line of the two stanzas meets Bloom’s test. The poem reads well without them. I just read it out loud without them to see, but the repetition helps the reader feel, more than think through, the difference in the very different movements between the two stanzas. The song countered by the thoughts following the beauty of the song.
    I am personally of the opinion that you do eavesdrop on the conversation between the petals of the Emperor. I am convinced of it. I just wish that I could do the same.

  2. extrasimile Says:

    One little nudge it received from ‘Pond Song 80’ was the idea that I could use a figure from the Chinese literary tradition as a character without having to explain his presence. Mr. Tao was thus born from T’ao Ch’ien or Tao Yuanming, the author of Peach Blossom Spring
    http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/ps/chin/taoqian_peachblossom.pdf
    He also called himself ‘The Master of the Five Willows, and there is a surviving story Mr. Five Willows.
    http://beyond-school.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Wei-Tao-Yuan-Ming-Homeward-Bound-Peachblossom-Fountain-Mr-Five-Willows.pdf
    Of course, there is no way one could know that from a reading of the poem, but if you were lead in the direction of at least thinking about Taoism by his name, that would be enough, I think. Both ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ and ‘Mr. Five Willows’ are extraordinary presentations of a Taoist perspective—and Taoism is something we all should know about and profit from…but, you’re right, Thomas, I’m no Taoist sage. Mr. Tao also owes part of his identity to Mr. Deity (which can be quite funny and penetrating—and also tedious—but if you are not familiar with the videos, I do recommend looking at a couple) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qzf8q9QHfhI
    It is a little easy to get ‘wisdom’ from a philosophic tradition that is outside your own tradition. A little undercutting of Mr. Tao was necessary…
    …which brings us to the last line of both sections, ‘among the petals of the Emperor’. As I read the poem it has a kind of ‘added on quality’. It is not really necessary to the poem. Take that line off each section and the poem reads quite well (better actually). We’ve mentioned Harold Bloom’s idea of great poetry having a sense of inevitability. Ending these stanza’s (and they could be thought of as two separate poems) was something of an attack on this ‘inevitability’. Among the petals of the Emperor, indeed…
    …so imagine my surprise when Mr. Thomas Davis suggests eavesdropping on the conversation of these petals.
    Yikes.
    I think I should like to do that.

  3. Thomas Davis Says:

    I too have read, and endorse, Tom D’Evelyn’s poem, “New Pond Song 80.” I have been thinking about While Mr. Tao slept among the Petals of the Emperor,” Jim. It is so beautiful that it almost deserves to be let alone so that it too sleeps among the petals of the Emperor.
    However, you are really not ever that simple. You slip in language and ideas that mess up any hope for placidity and challenge us in ways that are, perhaps, good for us, but can be difficult. You often do this through beautiful images, a fascinating technique, but there you go.
    The conversation between you and John above is fascinating and completely outside my realm of knowledge, by the way.
    The first stanza seems to me to be mostly straightforward, but the supposes are stunning:
    suppose this world has become a tableau vivant
    and nothing is allowed to move ever again.
    Or suppose, these poems he finds
    are but the first line in a very long conversation
    to be had even while he sleeps
    among the petals of the Emperor.
    Inside the peace of the first stanza where Mr. Tao follows a ritual, reading the words of the Bean Flower Emperor in wet sand and drinking a glass of wine, these suppositions imagine a world where Mr. Tao, and all of us by extension, can be at peace.
    But then, in the second stanza, we suddenly find Mr. Tao swimming ” in the glass sea” where
    the ocean’s passions were dark and forbidden to him.
    Even your love was hidden by the waves.
    I am not sure who your refers to, perhaps all of us? But there suddenly seems to a cost to Mr. Tao’s exquisite peace and tranquility. And the description of the cost continues:
    It was like the fragile glass (of normal existence?) had been shattered,
    like it was not to be a part of this world anymore.
    The glass ocean “seemed to play a single note
    inside a symphony of complex sounds.”
    Mr. Tao’s existence inside the glass ocean of tranquility is, after all, a single note inside the complex sounds of the universe. This is
    . .why he had to swim for shore alone,
    my dear, and why he almost drowned.
    And why it rained all night last night—
    even though
    …Mr. Tao slept
    among the petals of the Emperor.
    Peace, tranquility, beauty are all a wonderful dream, but living only inside them, and not inside the complex sounds, love, passion of the universe, might not be as glorious as we might suppose even if we could evesdrop on the conversation of the petals of the Beanstalk Emperor’s flowers.
    Hmmmm. . .

  4. extrasimile Says:

    It’s an interesting point. Presumably the written text in a Chinese poem would be written the same by a speaker of either Mandarin or Cantonese—but each would speak the poem differently, and since the essence of a poem lies in the sound of the words, you would effectively have two different poems. My wife speaks Cantonese and she can not understand someone who is speaking Mandarin. Now you could make the case that someone who speaks American English and someone who speaks British English would pronounce many words differently, but I think they would be able to understand each other. And reading, say, a William Blake poem would not effectively speak two different poems.

    Wake Mr. Tao? No, let’s let him sleep. He’s among the petals of the Emperor.

  5. John Stevens Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this and the picture is forming in my mind of Mr Tao “sitting in the tea house listening to the rain” (lovely line, that!) and looking out dreamily at the wet garden sand. I suppose that rain splats in sand might well look like Mandarin characters – much more so than European letters.
    This reminds me of something I have been greatly puzzled by: whether poems written in Mandarin will always be read out aloud in precisely the same words. It’s not simply a matter of regional accents. I have a Japanese friend who explained to me that Japanese and Chinese texts are written in virtually the same ideograms even though the languages are different, and when he meets with people from China they can all use the same documents and PowerPoint displays although interpreters are needed for the spoken word. I make the guess that a poem in Chinese can diverge between its written and oral forms. Do you know? I wish I did.
    Anyway, back to Mr Tao and those “petals of the Emperor” – that too is a beautiful image and one that might be interpreted either literally (in a garden of flowers) or as a metaphor for those patterns in the sand, or maybe for his thoughts and dreams.
    Wake him up and ask him.


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