Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Poem of the Week 10/5/2011: Returning to My Cottage

Returning to My Cottage

A bell in the distance
the sound floats
down the valley

one by one
woodcutters and fisherman
stop work, start home

the mountains move off
into darkness

alone, I turn home
as great clouds beckon
from the horizon

the wind stirs delicate vines
and water chestnut shoots
catkin fluff sails past

in the marsh to the east
new growth
vibrates with color

it's sad
to walk in the house
and shut the door.

Wang Wei, trans. David Young

 Written in the early T'ang Dynasty in China, Wang Wei's poem engages with and transcends the landscape genre in which it begins; ultimately, it leads its readers through its gorgeous metaphor for the difference between being related to the world and being self-enclosed.

Wei first manages to be incredibly specific, conjuring a distinct landscape using few and fewer words. It starts with a single bell's tone. This leads us into a valley where workers are heading home. Perhaps this specificity - the singluarity of the event - make it simpler to conjure distinct images, or a single world, in which these events are unfolding. Wang Wei establishes a sense of place, and love for that place.

We can notice the active subjects and verbs Wei offers. In this world, the sound floats, the mountains move, clouds beckon, wind stirs, growth vibrates... Wei's landscape is a living world, one where immense forces have a specific role, action, and effect. And since many of these forces (mountains, clouds, wind, growth) are somewhat universal in nature, they suggest a deeper set of forces moving through this world, or perhaps what Baudelaire might call correspondences. Our landscapes correspond with this one, they play as if in harmony.

So the meeting of particular and universal sets us up for the rich final stanza. Its events are simple. Our speaker is sad to leave this world for the indoors. Blur your eyes, and it looks like he's sad for leaving vast for the smaller - the larger world for a more closed one, a higher order for lower... And we can ponder what it means to be enclosed -- inside of a house with a shut door... To some extent this evokes a world of dead, still air; blur your eyes again and imagine enclosure within the self, where there are limits to what your breath can mingle with and you might encounter. Being in the house is solitary, closed off...

Rilke calls the more open world a world of possibility, and in Wei's expansive active landscape, it's the possibility and vastness of being related to something higher than oneself, or many things, a whole moving breathing landscape and world. What a sad one to leave when our minds are wrapped in thoughts.

I'm leaving it a bit vague at the end... hoping you'll read the poem several times and follow the trajectory and story Wei offers.

Until later, thanks for reading!