MORNING, SAILING INTO XINYANG As my boat sails into Xingze Lake / I am stunned by the glorious city! / A canal meanders by courtyard doors. / Fires and cooking smoke crowd the water. / in these people I see strange customs / And the dialect here is obscure. / In late autumn, fields are abundant. / Morning light. Noise wakes at the city wells. / Fish merchants float on the waves / Chickens and dogs. Villages on either bank / I’m heading away from white clouds. / what will become of my solitary sail?
Wang Wei (China, 701-762) from A Book of Luminous Things, Ed. Milosz, p. 101.
Part of piety is this draw to the holy, draw of the holy. There is always more to us in our intimate depths and to the universal in its spread, and to forget this “more” is to risk the collapse of philosophy into ideology, politics into will to power or huckstering, religion into a ruse of the ruling powers. A certain otherness of the universal keeps open a necessary difference. And while the temptation is to fix this difference as a dualism, it might better be seen as the space of a more fundamental intimacy between the human soul and the good, in a community of participation that can never be reduced to immanence as such. William Desmond, The Intimate Universal, 32-33.
In his headnote to this poem, Milosz writes, the poet “was forced by the duties of his office to travel, but he longed for a Buddhist detachment, which, in his verse, is always symbolized by white clouds.”
Wang Wei is one of the great discoveries open to the reader of “A Book of Luminous Things.” His poems fulfill the promise of lyric to move you out of the objective/subjective bind of consciousness to a more open between, and yet they are as direct as Walt Whitman. Amidst the brilliantly observed contingencies of the world, they keep the focus not on a dogmatic concept reducible to “Buddhism” but on the intimate universal. Universal, yes, those clouds, but intimate.
Here the lyric narrative is told in the easiest way: what he sees from his moving boat as he enters the city. The opening is “flat” but immediately begins to explore the variety of the scene. He starts with big objects, moves on to people and languages.
It’s like he’s reviewing the contents of the human world. Next he moves deeper into the givens of the moment. Time’s dialectics of this not that take over the narrative, which now focuses on the business of life. The banks are crowded with humanity. Chickens and dogs. We’ve gone from glorious city to chickens and dogs.
It’s all within the realism of the otherness of the world, though perhaps its meditative luminosity is somewhat compromised by the too-muchness of the world. But we know that too-muchness is not too much for the lyric narrative, which, faced by the abyss of nihilism, can finesse the nihilistic moment by reconfiguring it to focus on an image of freedom, transcendence, on horizons beyond the circumstances of the given moment, the dimensions with which Wang opens and closes his poem. The double image of sail/cloud is a brilliant image of human consciousness informed by the Between.
I write this as America, a country Milosz tried to imagine as he compiled this anthology, wakes from the dream of its goodness and freedom. We are confronting the rise of a Fascist dictator in the presidency. The rise and fall of authoritarianism is one of the motifs of Chinese poetry. Chinese “piety,” which was passed down in the great traditions of Confucianism and Daoism, with the necessary disciplines of spiritual exercises embodied in the education of the governing class, is abundantly witnessed in centuries of the great lyric tradition. Wang Wei, well-born, a renowned painter and poet, fulfilled his obligations to society through his work as a bureaucrat. The world was very much with him. But his poems are the fruit of artistic and spiritual discipline. In the language of Desmond’s note, Wang Wei kept things “open.” To borrow a phrase from an English poet who also lived in chaotic times, we can “trust to good verses.” Not, mind you, not trust in the mindless mouthing of chapter and verse, but in “good verses”—- lyrics that ask of the reader to move through the steps of recognizable reality, from the heights to the depths, to the beyond of the fertile void of being.