The Moon Draws Near:
Cold Comfort from Meng Hao-jan
By Andrew Lazo
Emily Dickinson claims, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?”
I had this very experience Emily describes when I had stumbled across the excellent fortune of auditing several years ago Gary Snyder’s last Poetics course at the University of California, Davis. As he traced the development of his own poetics, Snyder paused a while in Tang Dynasty Chinese poetry, and just like that, I was gone. Whether it felt more like falling off a high cliff into cold water or falling in love I’ve never been able to determine. But something of enormous size and depth foundationally shifted inside me for good that day.
Three things characterize what I love about poems from this place and period, including this one by Meng Hao-jan: brevity, nature, and longing. In Tang poetry, these three strands often weave together to carry me to another place, both in this world and deep in my own heart.
I heard a sermon this morning by Frederick Buechner about the wise stewardship of pain, and it struck me that poems such as “Mooring on Chien-te River” models the ideas therein fairly precisely. Perhaps the profoundest demonstration that Meng Hao-jan has captured something crucial yet inscrutable comes from how his translators, each of them towering figures in twentieth-century American poetry, grapple and ultimately fail to unlock all that hides inside the poem’s brief lines. Both Holly Ordway and Rebekah Choat have touched skillfully on the successes of these poets in their impossible tasks, but I find that their failures interest me more.
And I’m not even sure what I mean. But lately a number of people near me have offered me their pains, or have helped to shoulder mine. If Buechner is correct in suggesting that pain can serve as a privilege, then maybe I treasure these poems most because they prize nostalgia, mist, sorrows, haze, and loneliness.
These poems somehow transform such emptiness into brief bits of comfort, even though that comfort comes no nearly than the moon. They softly open up sad stillness and invite me safely inside to sit a while and listen to slow sounds I usually never allow myself to hear. Chang Chiu-ling’s poem “Looking at the moon and thinking of one far away” helps me sit in similar places, especially his phrase “the long thoughtfulness of night.”
We see through a glass darkly. We struggle to maintain ourselves in “cheerful insecurity.” We bind each other up, “we’ve got to carry each other,” we make our pilgrim way through the Valley of Weeping or even the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
But even there, all the more there maybe, we find a table set before us, our enemies notwithstanding. A laden table, an altar in whatever wilderness we find. Water from a stone and even a Stone Table where Love Himself lay down to the chill of moon, and then awoke to glorious day.
I think these poems provide us with a reason to gather ourselves up again and trust that power is still made perfect in weakness, to rely on the thought that love still knows our names, and that however hazy the mists, the moon and the quiet blue river will soon and surely come clear with comfort, however cold.