Choosing to be Simple: Collected Poems of Tao Yuanming

CHOOSING TO BE SIMPLE: COLLECTED POEMS OF TAO YUANMING, trans. Red Pine. Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, WA, 265 pages, $22.00, paper.

Here is another book bought on impulse during one of my foraging expeditions to Edmonds Bookshop. To borrow from the Copper Canyon description:

“This bilingual collection of over 160 verses chronicles Tao Yuanming’s path from civil servant to reclusive poet during the formative Six Dynasties period (220–589). Familiar scenes like farming and contemplating the nature of work and writing are examined with intimate honesty. As Red Pine illuminates Tao Yuanming’s sensitive voice, we find the poet’s solace and sorrow in a China transformed by modernity.”

Modernity! One wonders what the poet would say about today’s world. I have been turning over that question all year, reading a few of Yuanming’s poems each morning, copying scraps into my morning journal, and trying to imagine what to say in a blogpost.

Choosing to Be Simple is, simply put, irresistibly lovely. Tao Yuanming (365? 372?-427), who lived in the eastern part of China near the Yangzi River, left his employment as a civil servant around the age of 40. He chose to live simply, propagating his own food, making his own wine, and writing. The translator, also known as Bill Porter and now living in Port Townsend, embellishes Yuanming’s words with an introduction, generous footnotes, photographs, and maps (I include a photo of a page with the Chinese and Red Pine’s notes below). But the poems star:

IV [from 19: Returning to My Gardens and Fields]

I hadn’t been to the marshland for years
or enjoyed a good hike in the woods
I led my children and their cousins today
through thickets to a deserted village
we wandered around the grave mounds
and the places where people once lived
there were traces of wells and hearths
rotten bamboo and mulberry stumps
I asked a man cutting firewood
what happened to the people
he turned and said
dead or gone there’s nobody left
markets and dynasties don’t last a generation
it wasn’t an empty saying
this life is like a conjuror’s trick
when it finally ends there’s nothing there

A powerful theme throughout is Yuanming’s choice to withdraw from the world. Here, he clarifies that it was not the easier path. One imagines that a salaried position would have better pleased his wife and children, but given his larger-than-life bent toward contemplation, he could not bring himself to remain engaged in the political turmoil of his time. Think of how, in our own times, getting up each morning and turning on the television news is easier than not doing so, but it is not simpler.

Suffice to say, in note after note Red Pine explains what dynasty is being overthrown, who is murdered and replaced, what corruption prevails.

V [from Imitating the Ancients]

East of here is a man
who never has enough clothes
he eats nine meals a month
he wears the same hat ten years
no one works harder
yet he always looks happy
wanting to meet him
I left at dawn and crossed mountains and rivers
the road was hemmed in by pines
his hut was home to clouds
knowing the reason I came
he took out his zither and played

I found this book quietly powerful and I am glad it came into my hands. This morning—with rain dripping outside my cabin and the music of a flute emanating from my little CD player—I read Yuanming’s late poems, elegies for his own life, and I felt as though I had traveled over mountains and across rivers. Worth it, to spend time with Yuanming and Red Pine. I invite you to do the same.

Red Pine spent many years in search of the poets he translates. You can find out more at the book page at Copper Canyon. There will be a Seattle screening of Dancing with the Dead, a documentary about Red Pine, on April 21, at SIFF Cinema Egyptian. Click on the link to learn more.

Monica Sok, A Nail the Evening Hangs On

A NAIL THE EVENING HANGS ON, Monica Sok. Copper Canyon Press, Post Office Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington, 2020, 64 pages, $16 paper,

You know those poems you write into your commonplace book or send to friends when they go through a hard time? The poems in A Nail the Evening Hangs On are not those poems.

“A daughter of survivors” (“Self-Portrait as War Museum Captions”), Monica Sok acts as witness for the Cambodian diaspora. Although she was born in 1990, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and now teaches in California, Sok’s relationship to America feels tenuous, on trial, as she retells, re-imagines, and brings to vivid life the 1970s genocide previous Cambodian generations escaped, and the trauma they brought with them and handed down.

Words such as “unflinching,” “powerful,” and “loss” abound in the reviews. From the cover:

“Embracing collective memory, both real and imagined, these poems traverse time to break familial silence. Through persona, myth, and invention, Sok joins voices and fragments in a transformative work that builds toward wholeness.”

The book is arranged in three sections: the first section is set in Cambodia; the third in the poet’s contemporary life (riddled by memory); the second section is one poem in parts about a visit with a six-year-old to a war museum, Tuol Sleng:

A boy runs through the halls of Tuol Sleng,
his narrow footsteps turn it back into a school.
He checks every classroom for the other kids.
He sits in a chair and waits. When I walk in,
he whispers, ghost.

In short, these poems struck me as both haunted and necessary. By the time I reached the final poem, “Here Is Your Name,” I, too, felt transformed by the poet’s memory, by her powerful witness of war’s legacy.


The fishermen, desperate, poisoned them with a cloudy gasoline
so they dropped like apples to the ground underneath a tree.

Except these were birds out of water, the conservationist said.
Sarus cranes, their long legs still wet, were sold for $200 each

at the border market, where Thais bought them and turned around.
After the war, that was how the local villagers made money.

The cranes, near extinction, migrated to waters near a Khmer Rouge holding,
where no one dared go, not that a mandate said keep out, no sign written

in blood. They rationed their food, knowing the pendulum of war
could swing anytime, and they’d need something to eat before evacuating.

They were sure it wasn’t over. Invisible the egrets and ibises, invisible
the forests of the eastern border to the one they shared with Laos.

This is why the wind blows a drought hard across the land, tonnage of life
destroyed in the invisible, invisible land.

—Monica Sok

So there is beauty in this book, but it breaks your heart.

To find more poems by Monica Sok, visit her webpage:, or The Poetry Foundation.

Richard Hugo, 1923-1982

DUWAMISH HEAD, Richard Hugo. Copperhead, Box 271, Port Townsend, Washington 98368, 1976, 24 pages, out of print.

I have an extraordinarily busy day lined up, and beginning early, so I’m sharing with you a chapbook of poems by Richard Hugo, recently passed along to me by a friend who was letting go of some books. Copperhead no longer exists, and I couldn’t find any mention of it when I searched, but I suspect it was a precursor of Copper Canyon, as this chapbook was produced by Sam Hamill and Tree Swenson.

I can’t imagine that any northwest poet doesn’t know Richard Hugo’s work. Perhaps his collected poems, Making Certain It Goes On (Norton, 1984), is on your shelf, as it is on mine. But, just in case, here’s one poem:

Back of Gino’s Place

Most neglect this road, the concrete torn
and hunched, purple boxcars
roasting in the wind or in the sun,
both direct as brass. Only smoke
from two shacks and a scratchy radio
prevent abandonment from falling
on this lateral bare area like fog.

In the winter what clean nightmare
brought a sketcher here
to risk his hands, the loss of line
in this much light? Not the poverty
alone, but other ways of being,
using basic heat: wood brought in
by the same sea that is blaring
wealthy ships to a freshly painted port.

He was right to come. Light
in this place cannot kill the lines
of the charred boat, the rusted net,
the log-boom beached and slanted
waiting for a tide. Not when a need to die
here, just to be an unobtrusive ghost,
takes from mud and wood the color of the day.

—Richard Hugo

Reading these poems takes me back to my early MFA workshops—this would be 1988 or -89—when we were assigned Hugo’s 31 Letters and 13 Dreams (1971), reading aloud to hear the strongly iambic beats. Many of the titles here (“Duwamish,” “Duwamish No. 2,” “West Marginal Way,” “Duwamish Head”) tip us off to Hugo’s trademark evocation of place. Not just place names, but mudhens, cormorants,  teal, grebes, and salmon.

Hugo’s music is irregular. Sometimes he relies on the iambic 10-syllable line. Then he breaks the pattern and you’re not sure. You can trace the sounds by reading aloud the end words of lines, in the first stanza of “Duwamish,” for instance: river’s / knocks / crud / out-tide / sea / nails /ovens / owns / spines / bribes / coins. Almost all concrete nouns.  The ending of knocks chimes with crud, crud chimes with out-tide. Subtly.

His biography at Poetry Foundation includes this insightful paragraph:

In his poems Hugo reflected as much upon the internal region of the individual as on the external region of the natural world, and he considered these two deeply interconnected. According to Frederick Garber, “the landscape where things happen to Hugo goes as far into his mind as it goes outside of it”; Hugo’s poetry “is about the meeting of these landscapes.” The role of the past as a shaping force on the individual predominates. While “failed towns, isolated people and communities imprisoned in walls of boredom and rage,” as Michael Allen notes, are often the subjects of Hugo’s poems, there is also a pervading sense of optimism, of an uplifting hope, as Hugo puts it, “that humanity will always survive civilization.”

I was amused, looking up the book on-line, to find signed copies for $3 (the original price) , and for $150. My copy is pretty beat-up, and not signed. I think I’ll keep it.

Visit Poetry Foundation, linked above, or to learn more. I found the photograph of Hugo here.

I also found a couple videos of Hugo reading (listen for the cadence), including this short feature (5 min) from PBS. (However, when he’s talking, toward the end, the subtitle says “Ricky,” when he says “Roethke,” which is really annoying.)

Arthur Sze’s Compass Rose

I have fallen into a pattern of getting my poetry book read in the evening, and posting as late as 10 or 11:00. It doesn’t make for a scintillating blogpost.

I have not, however, fallen into any sort of pattern with my apprehension and appeciation of the poems themselves. Every book offers surprises and delights. Every book has taught me something about my own poetry. I tend to tell stories in my poems, I like to tell stories, and just when I’m sure that this book is too different from what I do, from what I can understand or use, I find my mind expanding to include it — even to feeling the resonances with my own work.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that in this last week of National Poetry Month, I’m beginning to drag my feet a bit. But the poems renew me.

So far as narrative versus that other element I keep butting up against this month — of not merely lyric but expressionistic poems — Arthur Sze has one foot in each camp. Stories do unfold here, and characters are clearly introduced. At the same time, images leap out and seize me by the imagination, and don’t let go.

After a New Moon 

Each evening you gaze in the southwest sky
as a crescent extends in argentine light.
When the moon was new, your mind was
desireless, but now both wax to the world.
While your neighbor’s field is cleared,
your corner plot is strewn with dessicated
sunflower stalks. You scrutinize the bare
apricot limbs that have never set fruit,
the wisteria that has never blossomed,
and wince, hearing how, at New Year’s,
teens bashed in a door and clubbed strangers.
Near a pond, someone kicks a dog out
of a pickup. Each second, a river edged
with ice shifts course. Last summer’s
exposed tractor tire is nearly buried
under silt. An owl lifts from a poplar,
while the moon, no, the human mind
moves from brightest bright to darkest dark.

–Arthur Sze, Compass Rose (Copper Canyon Press, 2014)