No-mind Island

August 15, 2012

I would fain die a dry death.

I am rude to you. You, who do not need
my poetry; you, who think of words as fools,
who pays no attention to my transcriptions—
who would be the sun, I am sure. We must
speak of our time together like old friends,
my friend. Let’s fill the boat with wine.
Come, take your bait and hook—as if we are
again about to swim in the same river.

Be collected; no more amazement.

My friend, let’s fill the bowl with wine.
For here lies Cold Mountain, the poet that some
would say I was. Stick out your tongue.
Taste the breeze. Tell me what you see.
There never was a man named ‘Mountain’.
There never was a mountain named ‘Cold’.
The sparrows still circle overhead.
There never was a rut in this old road.

Keep to your cabins. You do assist the storm.

A searchlight of the soul and soil—
yet today vultures circle far above our heads
and the monks have started to chant
his predictions. It is as if he died
for song and beer, or for hidden treasure.
But suppose he died because he could do nothing else.
There is blood on his cushion.
Suppose he died for its rainbow.

A turn or two I’ll walk to still my beating mind.

A foundation for fools: a lust for consciousness.
What you can think about is thought, that’s all.
Just a quiet wind blowing through the pines:
thought is a rope to pull up after you have climbed
the mountain: thought is all we can bequeath.
Cold Mountain Road gives out where
confusions of ice outlast summer heat
and sun can’t thin mists of blindness.
*

Hey, Mountain, hey.

Han Shan must have been drinking. For he thought
there was a mountain growing in his backyard.
Look! Big rocks were being pushed up through the soil.
When he’d left his home on Cold Mountain,
he’d tried to be the perfect sage and disappear.
But now he was amazed to find Cold Mountain
being brought to him… Not so his neighbor,
Prospero. The spirits still obeyed.


* David Hinton’s translation. Cold Mountain. Classical Chinese  Poetry.  Gary Snyder: ‘Cold Mountain: there’s no through trail/ In summer, ice doesn’t melt/ The rising sun blurs in  swirling fog/

All other quotes are from The Tempest. The Arden Shakespeare.

This entry puts the sections together in the proper order.

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3 Responses to “No-mind Island”

  1. John Stevens Says:

    It’s good to see the whole piece set out as you conceived it, and in rereading the whole I’ve come to appreciate better how the interjections from the Tempest complement and contrast the reflections on the Chinese-inspired verse.
    Part of the trouble for me was that I was ignorant of the poetry of Han Shan, or Cold Mountain, and your poem has prompted me to get stuck in (online – so easy – once again, what a difference the internet has made!).
    I don’t pretend to be able to follow all your thoughts throughout these lines, Jim, but as always the read is well worth the time. I enjoy the consistent tone, and the playful treatment of weighty themes, and that batting back and forth between Han Shan and Prospero.
    I think Anna Mark was very perceptive when she picked out the line about thought being a rope to climb up – and back down again. I feel that those three lines are somehow at the centre of this poem, or at any rate are the essence that I can take away:
    “Just a quiet wind blowing through the pines:
    thought is a rope to pull up after you have climbed
    the mountain: thought is all we can bequeath.”

  2. Thomas Davis Says:

    Jim, I will never get caught up! You are on a roll, and I am having trouble breathing with my nose above the surface of the pond.
    What do I make of this? First, it has the feeling of a masterpiece. The question is, why?
    Han Shan was a wild figure who wrote his poetry on stone, as I remember it. Prospero was a similar figure in Shakespeare, conquering the monster Caliban and mastering magic to regain his rightful place in the universe while intending to get rid of the magic he’d mastered the minute he got what he intended to get. I suspect understanding both Han Shan and Prospero is central to understanding “No Mind Island.”
    The title itself is interesting. When I first read it I took it as a play on John Donne’s “no man is an island.” However, it seems to have the sense of Prospero’s exile on an island in The Tempest and the isolation legend tells us was part of Han Shan’s character and life. One island is physical while the other is more related to isolation borne of choice. This reading makes more sense in the context of the poem.
    The beginning of the poem addresses Han Shan, I’ve decided. The references to wine convince me of this even though in some ways the address could also be to Prospero. The idea that a poet would be rude to
    “You, who do not need
    my poetry; you, who think of words as fools…”
    makes a lot of sense. It also reflects the state of current American, if not English, culture. At the same time the poet recognizes that even if he ought to be rude to his friend without the sense to see the rightness in his poetry, he can still invite his friend to fill the boat with wine and invite him, and the rest of the uncultured ones, to fish in the same river with him.
    Then Han Shan, who at this point seems to be he who addresses us through the poem since he is known as Cold Mountain, basically introduces himself. His tone is ironic and even dismissive. He tells us
    “There never was a rut in this old road”
    which I take to be the road of his life.
    This line, “Keep to your cabins. You do assist the storm.” is a powerful statement, a warning, or prophecy. The idea that we can assist the storm that we cannot control is almost as startling as it may be true.
    The third stanza seems to have a different voice than the first two stanzas. It seems to be talking about the old Chinese poet,
    “A searchlight of the soul and soil…”
    “…yet today vultures circle far above our heads
    and the monks have started to chant
    his predictions. It is as if he died
    for song and beer, or for hidden treasure.
    But suppose he died because he could do nothing else.”
    There is power in these lines, but the you, the contemporary poet, ask us,
    “Suppose he died for its rainbow.”
    I take “its” in this line to refer to Hans Shan’s life. These are all powerful ideas and powerful lines.
    Then the next stanza, where the contemporary poet’s voice writing about Hans Shan grows ever stronger.
    “A turn or two I’ll walk to still my beating mind.

    A foundation for fools: a lust for consciousness.
    What you can think about is thought, that’s all.”
    So our beating mind is a foundation for fools, which refers us back to those who refer to words as fools. But really
    “thought is a rope to pull up after you have climbed
    the mountain: thought is all we can bequeath.”
    It is the essence of who we are even if it may be “a foundation for fools: a lust for consciousness.”
    Then the magnificent ending:
    “Han Shan must have been drinking. For he thought
    there was a mountain growing in his backyard.”
    Cold Mountain, Han Shan, tried to leave Cold Mountain, himself, but Cold Mountain grew where he left to:
    “he’d tried to be the perfect sage and disappear.
    But now he was amazed to find Cold Mountain
    being brought to him… ”
    This is unlike Prospero who, in The Tempest, who, in spite of his promises to himself, “The spirits still obeyed.” Which, translated, means that he too could not escape who he had become anymore than Cold Mountain could. In the end, our mind, as well as a man, is not an island. What an amazing poem!

  3. extrasimile Says:

    I guess it is pretty much impossible to write a poem with the word ‘island’ in it without the old John Donne sermon coming to mind. And ‘No mind is an island…’ would work rather nicely, wouldn’t it? Pity John Donne was about as far away from my thoughts as he could possibly be. A masterpiece? No, Thomas, just another experiment in poetic thinking/ exploration—whatever that might be. It’s funny, I always think of the Yeats line, ‘to keep a drowsy emperor awake’ as sum and substance of what it is I’m trying to do…
    Cold mountain (CM) is the star of this poem: Cold Mountain as a person, as a mountain, as a poet, as a sage, as an identity, as an identity-lacking entity, as a consciousness, and—well, that is enough. You get the idea. Insofar as we distinguish our selves from what is other by an identity (another way we do it is by moving) CM is involved. CM moves and plays fast and loose with his identity. Prospero’s role is to counter CM. He represents another type of sage. An island, after all, is a mountain in water. Whereas CM’s identity is exclusionary, Prospero’s is inclusive. (This is a simplification that does injustice to both sides.) You can decide for yourself who wins. Or if it is appropriate to decide that. Or if it is inappropriate from CM’s perspective…or Prospero’s. Who wins when one side is trying to win and the other side doesn’t accept the challenge might be a good way of thinking about this poem—though I just thought of it now.
    I suppose the ‘thought is a rope to pull up after you have climbed the mountain’ is a central part of the poem. We climb our mountains (create our identities), we can’t necessarily get back down again. The pulling the rope up after us is to create a sense of isolation. It’s lonely at the top—and all that. It’s not so much that you can’t go back down the rope. It’s just that you don’t.
    The third character in the poem is the narrator, the contemporary poet, (me?). He feels a sense of identity with CM, but he’s a modern, suburban, deracinated figure—messing with poor CM out of fear and misunderstanding. He wrote this poem after all. If in the last part of the poem, he chooses to create a mountain in CM’s backyard, well, I guess he’s just going to have to live with that mountain. I don’t see any ropes dangling from it, do you?
    Thomas, what’s amazing here, is your penetration into the workings of (I guess) my mind—at least as it spills out into words. We write very different types of poetry—you, me, and John—and Anna and Tom D’Evelyn, etc. It’s a wonder that we can communicate at all. Islands, mountains…I wonder. What was it again that John Donne said?


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