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I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets

I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets

by Tom Sexton
     
 

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This all-new collection by former Alaska poet laureate smoothly blends his life in Maine, his years in Alaska, and his love of Chinese poetry—which has been a key influence on his work—into a lyrical fantasy that will enchant lovers of verse. These tightly rhythmic, compact eight-line poems demonstrate a rare deftness with—and an even more

Overview

This all-new collection by former Alaska poet laureate smoothly blends his life in Maine, his years in Alaska, and his love of Chinese poetry—which has been a key influence on his work—into a lyrical fantasy that will enchant lovers of verse. These tightly rhythmic, compact eight-line poems demonstrate a rare deftness with—and an even more uncommon ear for—language, revealing poetic form to be neither a puzzle nor an accomplishment in itself, but a compositional tool and a spur to creativity.

Editorial Reviews

Midwest Book Review

"I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets is a strongly recommended read. Not to be missed."—Midwest Book Review

John Haines

“This is a book to be read and returned to. There are fine poems here, all from the hand of someone who for many years has read and listened to the enduring voice of ancient Chinese poets. We have here the result of that attention.”—John Haines, former poet laureate of Alaska
Emily Wall

“In these poems, Tom Sexton weaves ancient Chinese poetry with an Alaska back country he knows intimately. The poems have teeth, and just when we feel them against our necks, we’re given a moment of reprieve, a moment of sweetness. These poems make you catch your breath over and over again.”—Emily Wall, author of Freshly Rooted
Sheila Nickerson

“Tom Sexton’s front door opens into the universe. In the company of ancient Chinese poets he generously invites us to step out with him to see how stars, moon, tides, and time connect with yellow warblers, wild berries, dragonflies, and weather to give us meaning. . . . These poems are as wise and important as they are lovely.”—Sheila Nickerson, former poet laureate of Alaska

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781602231191
Publisher:
University of Alaska Press
Publication date:
02/15/2011
Pages:
59
Sales rank:
1,237,732
Product dimensions:
5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

I THINK AGAIN OF THOSE ANCIENT CHINESE POETS


By TOM SEXTON

UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS

Copyright © 2011 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-119-1


Chapter One

    Hurricane Station House


    We moved in an endless canyon carved in snow
    that winter. When the nights were clear, we understood
    why the Chinese once called the Milky Way Heaven's
    River as it seemed we could hear it flowing overhead,
    but what keeps returning to me again and again is how
    one night near the station house a handful of willow
    ptarmigan, whiter than new snow, rose at our approach,
    how our breath caught, how the universe slowed.


    Aurora Borealis

    When it's cold a foot away from the stove
    and the door is rimmed with ice, it's best
    to stay inside and read the Chinese poets
    and drink another glass or two of wine
    unless you sense, and you will, the aurora's
    green beginning, then go out and look up
    until your head tilts back and your mouth
    forms an O like that of a container being filled.


    Brown Bear

    Yesterday my neighbor saw a brown bear's print
    in deep snow that is finally beginning to melt.
    Before long we will hear planes that carry hunters,
    some dressed all in white, into the high mountains
    where bears spend the long winter in their dens.
    When they come out, the hunters will be waiting.
    Listen, you can hear water flowing beneath snow
    and sense buds swelling on cottonwood and birch.


    On Our Anniversary

    Once again we find ourselves in the woods
    where we've walked in weather fair or foul
    decade after decade. Is this the life we would
    have wished if years ago we'd seen this day:
    two people, old to the eye, looking for berries
    to pick, hoping the other has a little less luck,
    then meeting again, our jeans wet at the knees,
    to kneel again beside our overflowing bucket?


    Yellow Warblers

    At first, the branches of the elderberry
    barely move as if touched by a gentle

    breeze, then all of a sudden warblers
    appear and flow from top to bottom

    like the grains of sand in an hourglass.
    Would I have seen them this way when

    I was young, when time was an endless
    loop? They feed for a moment, disappear.


    The Wolves of Denali

    Let us remember them when we talk of Wilderness
    those wolves caught in snares when they wandered
    out of Denali's sanctuary, the Garden we allow;
    wire from a trapper's snare that didn't hold
    is wound tight around the gray's lacerated neck
    and the black's face is swollen twice its normal size,
    a grotesque mask with one eye missing.
    Let us remember them when we talk of Wilderness.


    Baneberry

    What can be said in praise of the baneberry,
    glowing as red as Mars, as red
    as blood, on its stem? Compared
    to it the brightest ruby seems dull.

    One will stop your heart if swallowed,
    but if you have wings and a heart
    the size of a drop of rain, it will
    nourish you, carry you through the night.


    I Think Again of Those
    Ancient Chinese Poets


    Summer with snow still on the mountains
    and only a few blossoms on the iris again.

    My neighbor wonders why I tend to them year
    after year with scant success; to him it's clear

    I've failed. I think again of those ancient Chinese poets
    who climbed for days to reach an alpine meadow

    on the rumor of an iris as dark as the night,
    old men calling to each other like cranes in flight.


    I Think Again of Those
    Ancient Chinese Poets


    Summer with snow still on the mountains
    and only a few blossoms on the iris again.

    My neighbor wonders why I tend to them year
    after year with scant success; to him it's clear

    I've failed. I think again of those ancient Chinese poets
    who climbed for days to reach an alpine meadow

    on the rumor of an iris as dark as the night,
    old men calling to each other like cranes in flight.


    Winter Night

    Tonight the Milky Way's so dense and bright
    I imagine that I could touch it if only I

    could climb a little higher, reach another
    ridge, then I see a wolf's track in the snow,

    the track of a gray wolf hunting as it must;
    it's as delicate as a blossom newly opened,

    and I'm filled with gratitude and wonder:
    the Milky Way, a wolf's track in new snow.


    Clearing After Snow
    Over Mountains and River


    After a night of restless sleep, Wang Wei
    prepares his brushes and waits for the day

    to begin. Not a sound. Not a breath of wind.
    The mist rising from his pond will thin

    and he will see the heavy snow that fell
    on the peaks and silenced the temple's bell,

    but for now he sits without a thought
    waiting for what will appear and what will not.


    Woodcut of a Crane

    Its outline cut deep into the wood is firm
    and graceful; the deep red of its crown
    is that of maple leaves in slant-light
    on an autumn afternoon. Notice the wings
    cloud-white and spread. Printed on paper
    with the texture of grain, it seems to be
    standing in the middle of a ripening field.
    Listen, you can hear it calling to its mate.


    River Otters

    At day's end, I was making my way down
    from a high ridge that led to the marsh
    and the only spot where the ground
    was firm enough for me to cross without
    sinking into pools of peaty water when
    three river otters rose from grass amber
    as their pelts and hissed at me before
    flowing across the marsh like honey like light.


    Thinking of a Friend's Cold Words

    After my third glass of wine, after a day
    spent brooding over cold words in a letter
    from a friend, I think of that Chinese poet
    who, when he felt the desire to share a poem,
    would build a small wooden boat to carry
    it and a gourd of wine down the stream
    through rapids to where a recluse lived,
    a recluse admired for his long enduring silence.


    Snow

    Even though it's still Fall, a dense wind-driven
    snow has been falling since dawn.
    It rises and falls like the wings of a swan,
    an image from a fairy tale that begins:
    Once upon, but I'm too old for that now,
    so I watch it falling beyond my window.
    When it slows, I go out to see how deep
    it is. It's as light as down, as light as sleep.


    Strawberries

    I measure friends and strangers by the way
    they react when and if I offer one;
    delight is what I hope for, a swaying
    from side to side, a slight curling of the tongue.

    I found them in a long abandoned garden.
    Half-wild, they ripen in the shadow of snow.
    When cut in half, they show a small white star.
    I'll take a few runners with me when I go.


    No Moon Tonight

    The light is turning blue on the snow
    an hour before dusk; a goshawk

    is hunting along the edge of the marsh
    as it does twilight after twilight.

    I light my lamp, listen to its comforting
    hiss. The peeling bark of the paper birch

    outside my ice-rimmed window will
    soon hold the last light. No moon tonight.


    Lilac

    Even though bees move from strawberry plant
    to strawberry plant, the earth has already begun
    its slow turn toward winter. I sit by the window
    in the generous light of the long day's fading
    at the end of my sixty-eighth June.
    A fighter plane from the nearby base shakes
    the house. War in the year I was born. War now.
    Lilac blossoms scent the yard, nod on thin stems.


    Grasses in the Marsh

    On both sides of the long boardwalk
    the marsh grasses are turning russet,

    the tallest sway in the slightest breeze
    like those followers of Saint Francis who

    having given their wealth and noble names
    away rose day after day from a bed of twigs

    and straw in a peasant's stable or under stars,
    heads bowed, swaying like grasses in the marsh.


    Yet Another Poem About the Moon

    Unable to sleep, I stand in the backyard
    listening to the airport where planes from China

    are loaded and unloaded throughout the night.
    I've come outside to pick berries for breakfast.

    Do the cargo handlers ever pause to look
    up at the moon so full and bright overhead

    that it seems to cover the yard with snow?
    The moon Li Po embraced centuries ago.


    Glacier

    A friend whose poems I criticized after
    too much wine loosened my tongue
    writes to tell me he has just come back
    to town after three days on a glacier, one
    he says I cannot see from the window
    of the cabin where he knows I often write.
    Hard words, but I've been there in a poem.
    I was the green-veined ice. I was the night.


    Mountain Spinach

    Movement in greening alder by the trail
    made me think it might be a hungry
    bear not long out of its den, but only
    an elderly woman with a knife in one hand
    appeared. She was picking the new leaves
    of the plant I know as watermelon berry.
    "Mountain spinach my home Japan," she said.
    And then she showed her strong yellow teeth.


    Denali

    Some fifty years ago, I first saw you rising cold
    and forbidding above the other mountains across
    Cook Inlet. You were daunting to my eye
    that knew only the green rise of mountains
    a continent away. Now when I take my morning
    walk, I believe that I can see your summit
    even when the day is dark and cloudy—
    windswept, Communion white, welcoming.


    Thinking of a Friend

    The newspaper reports deepening cold
    to the North, cold enough to make snow
    moan beneath your boots when you go
    to get water from the stream. Is it frozen

    almost to the bottom? Does it rise so
    slowly that new ice is beginning to close
    the hole you're chopping in slow motion?
    Your breath turning white, turning to stone.


    August

    A week of light rain has turned the woods
    to spring again. Only the occasional
    devil's club leaf is beginning to turn
    yellow, a sheet of papyrus for the heavy
    frost that is sure to come; and because it
    must, I walk as slowly as I can, pausing
    again and again. A shrew darts across
    the trail into the alder's soft green fist.


    To Wang Wei

    Last night, I walked beside the inlet
    to wait for the moon that was still behind

    the mountains to appear. It was very cold
    so I was alone with my thoughts of you

    and your immortal poems. When it rose,
    the moon was round and paler than my

    breath. We are small waves breaking
    on the shore and just as soon forgotten.


    An Empty Bowl

    For several days now I've been watching
    a cloud of sulfurous smoke from coal-burning
    plants in far away Hunan Province
    darken over the glacial mountains that curve
    toward Asia like the tail of a mythical dragon.
    Last night, I sat by the window reading Li Po
    until the moon's broken yolk disappeared.
    My hair's white. My heart's an empty bowl.


    Arctic Char

    Under a cut bank not far from where Pass Creek
    flows under a railroad trestle, char will take a wet
    fly if you cast upstream so the current carries it
    to them, but it's better to just kneel and watch
    for the small orange spots on their turning sides.
    Glacier-carved falls end their world to the west.
    A chain of beaver ponds begins it to the east.
    Why spend our lives longing for another world?


    Crossing a Marsh by Train

    Grown heavy with sweet fat
    from a season of eating salmon

    and berries, a brown bear
    ambling across the wide marsh

    pauses to watch our approach,
    its silvery hump

    like a thin crescent of moon.
    And then we are gone.


    Watching Winter Light
    from Chulitna Butte


    Below me, light ebbs from the wide marsh
    toward stand after stand of paper birch,
    salt-white for a moment before they darken.
    I watch as the glacial mountains that rise
    beyond the Chulitna River to the west
    begin to glow. It's as if the light opened
    a door that only it can enter. When I start
    down, the Fairbanks train is curving into itself.


    Morning Landscape, Early Spring

    Thin green leaves are opening
    in the woods above the inlet's

    silted water, brown as the coat
    of the bear, snout down digging

    for something to eat, I saw a few
    days after the last snow melted.

    The creaking-hinge of migrating
    cranes will fill the air before long.


    Coming Down from
    the Mountains into Mist


    Following a path leading down from a ridge
    people climb to look out over the still quiet city
    to the snow covered mountains, I can see mist
    beginning to form where rivulets come together
    to become a stream and then a small pond
    as round and white as the moon when full.
    When I reach the stream, the mist is so dense
    it could be a Chinese scroll unrolling inch by inch.


    No Time for Metaphor

    He smiled and said the ring around the moon
    was its own light reflecting
    from ice crystals in the atmosphere
    or a smoke ring blown by you know who.

    She frowned and said it was the shawl
    the woman in the moon
    wore only on the coldest of nights
    or it was not worth mentioning at all.


    Ephemeral

    Dragonflies catching the morning light,
    making it glow copper and bluish-green,
    making it visible the way stained glass
    made it visible to a child sitting in a pew
    many years ago. I watch them move as one
    over a grassy swale that was a vernal pool
    not long ago. If I come this way tomorrow
    they will be gone. Even if I come at dawn.


    Ermine

    It is no longer weasel:
    not to be trusted, blood thirsty,
    sneak, double crosser,
    herald of death, deceiver.

    Wearing its winter pelt of white,
    it's the season's cursive line
    flowing over pliant snow;
    black-tipped tail as exclamation point.


    Leaving Again

    On the high ridges above stands of birch
    where from time to time you can see a seam
    of coal or one of copper, the tundra will be deep
    red by now. Leaving is no longer a burr
    under my tongue. Before we reach the small
    lake where migrating swans rest for the night,
    I'll turn to ask you once again if you recall
    how when they rose at dawn our hearts took flight?


    Washington County, Maine

    Apple trees heavy with the season's fruit,
    piebald, yellow, planet-red, even black,
    stand abandoned in fields, the unintended
    gift of those who long ago moved on,
    a gift to waxwings and even to the tone-
    deaf crows in their undertaker's suits,
    to the man driving slowly, window down,
    to the worms in their snow-white orbit.


    By Passamaquoddy Bay

    Thin light over Campobello Island
    to the east when I rise to walk
    the long abandoned railroad bed.
    Not a trace is left of the rails.
    I have several letters to answer
    and yesterday's paper to read,
    but the wild apples are waiting
    cold on the tongue, polished by mist.


    Witch Hazel

    Deep in a wood, I watch a witch hazel
    swaying from side to side as if it were
    a dowser moving a rod over the ground,
    but no one fallen under its spell will
    appear to cut a forked branch, or peel
    it slowly to reveal the bright wood,
    no one will test its weight and balance,
    be dark water flowing through stone.


    Starlings

    In allegorical times, they would be the angry
    crowd swirling down a narrow street at dusk
    hissing like a river surging over its banks,
    the beaked figures in a medieval painting
    there to remind us Man is fallen, if not damned;
    but, now they are black birds roosting in a leafless
    New England oak, nursing the memory
    of a cage in a ship's dark hold, the alien light.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from I THINK AGAIN OF THOSE ANCIENT CHINESE POETS by TOM SEXTON Copyright © 2011 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Tom Sexton was appointed Alaska’s Poet Laureate in 1995 and served until 2000. He is the author of eight books of poetry.

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