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ISSN 1081-3500 | Copyright © Mudlark 1997

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Mudlark No. 7 (1997)

Only A Friend Can Know

Poems and Translations
on the Theme of Chi-yin

by Mike O'Connor

for Ling-hui


In Chinese the characters chih and yin in combination mean literally "to know the tone" or "the one who knows the tone or music." By extension, the term denotes "the one who understands or appreciates another's art"; thus, "the one who understands the mind and heart of another--a true friend."

* * *

It is recorded that during the Spring and Autumn Period (722-484 B.C.) a talented musician named Yu Po-ya lived along the Yangtze River in the feudal state of Ch'u near today's Wuhan, the capital of Hupeh Province. One afternoon a woodcutter named Chung Tzu-ch'i passed by Po-ya's house and heard him playing the five-string zither. The music so moved Tzu-ch'i that he became Po-ya's chih-yin on the spot.

Lieh tzu, a Taoist classic attributed to Lieh Yu-ku of the Late Chou Dynasty, relates that while Yu Po-ya was an excellent zither player, Chung Tzu-ch'i was also a good listener. "When Po-ya would play, if his thoughts were on the high mountains, Tzu-ch'i would exclaim, 'Yes! Good! Towering and majestic like Mount T'ai!' If his thoughts were on flowing waters, Tzu-ch'i would exclaim, 'Yes! Good! Vast like the Yangtze or the Yellow River!' Whatever Yu Po-ya had in his mind and heart, Chung Tzu-ch'i was sure to intuit it."

The spring and Autumn Annals of Mr. Lu, a summary of late Chou Dynasty philosophy commissioned in early 200 B.C., adds that when Chung Tzu-ch'i died, Yu Po-ya smashed his zither and broke the strings. He never again played because he believed that there was no one worth playing for.

In the first book of Chinese literary criticism, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons by Liu Hsieh, a chapter titled Chih-yin begins: "To know the tone is hard! The tone is truly hard to know. To meet someone who understands it is [also] very hard. You meet a chih-yin once every thousand years and then for only a moment!"

* * *

This volume is a selection of ancient and modern poems from the Far East and American West that set forth, or touch, on elements of the chih-yin theme.



Dreaming of Li Po
Canyon Creek on Buddha's Birthday
For the Poet of Pablo Creek
Wei City Song
On the Road to Denver in a Coat and Tie
Summer Day at South Pavilion, Recalling Hsin Ta
Old Mountain Wind Blows the Rain Down the Gorge
Sailing to Keystone: Salute Abaft
Words--for XN
Upon Finishing a Poem
Pawtracks on Seven-Star Mountain
On Failing to Meet the Recluse of West Peak

Notes to the Poems


Her husband hasn't yet
won good position;

whatever she does is done
with eyebrows lowered.

Over and over she plays
the unornamented zither,

longing for a soul
who knows her heart.

      --Chia Tao (779-843)


Dreaming of Li Po


Separation by death must finally be choked down,
but separation in life is a long anguish,

Chiang-nan is a pestilential land;
no word from you there in exile.

You have been in my dreams, old friend,
as if knowing how much I miss you.

Caught in a net,
how is it you still have wings?

I fear you are no longer mortal;
the distance to here is enormous.

When your spirit came, the maples were green;
when it went, the passes were black.

The setting moon spills light on the rafters;
for a moment I think it's your face.

The waters are deep, the waves wide;
don't let the river gods take you.


Clouds drifting the whole day;
a traveler traveling who never arrives.

Three nights you have been in my dreams;
as your friend, I knew your mind.

You say your return is always harrowing;
your coming, a hard coming;

Rivers, lakes, so many waves;
in your boat you fear overturning.

Going out the door, you scratch your white head
as if the purpose of your whole life was ruined,

The rich and high positioned fill the Capital,
while you, alone, are careworn and dejected.

Who says the net of heaven is cast wide?
Growing older, you only grow more preyed upon.

One thousand autumns, ten thousand years of fame,
are nothing after death.

      --Tu Fu (712-770)


Canyon Creek on Buddha's Birthday

The creek spits
   beads of water and foam
plunging through the stone-
clogged bend
   pours down rocky terraces
       passes and becomes
               this pool

          above a double
                 shadowy falls

sitting here up from Sequim Prairie
       and the sea's dark pastures below
    I drink again your
sweet icy gift
   of sun-ravished

everywhere your water
    is leaping
around me
  like grasshoppers

 sun blazing gleaming
on your slick black rock

    a bough of young cedar
   swings and flutters
     in the canyon where you stream

and both of us
     close for an instant

        river and friend.


For The Poet of Pablo Creek

Long legs loping through alder woods,
beard a black bush, pack on your
back, twinkle in your eye

like the twinkle of a creek in the sun.

In your cabin by lamplight,
you trace a trail or mountain
range on the maps you cherish

more than any original painting,

You're an old wall-gazer,
mountain-rider, know-the-names-
of-all-the-flowers kid.

The only time I even faintly
tasted the wrath you reserve
for the Forest-Service-Timber
Company Consortium, Trident
and Northern Tier
was brushing trail up the Queets
for two dollars a day,
when the chainsaw gas was leaking

on your new, expensive sleeping bag;

and maybe the time Balaam, our donkey,
ate the last of our cedar shelter
during a rainstorm on the Calawah River,
back when we were still calling

winter wren the jazz bird.

You know the alchemy of song
and the heart required.

Here...I've set you out
a cup of fresh rice tea
and the only map of the 36
waterfalls of Canyon Creek.


Wei City Song

Wei City morning rain
dampens the light dust.

By this inn, green,
newly green willows.

I urge you to drink
another cup of wine;

west of Yang Pass
are no old friends.

      --Wang Wei (701-761)


On the Road to Denver in a Coat and Tie,
I Think of My Old Friend Master Red Pine
and the Example He Inspires

You had to stop giving blood
for a living, it was killing you
in a different way than ordinary work.

"Hey, all I want to do," you always said,
"is just stay up here on Yangming Mountain
and translate Buddhist poems,

"And take hot sulphur baths,
drink spring green tea and
have the three German girls come up on weekends
bearing gifts of Glenfiddich and sandalwood fans."

Admirable as this agenda was,
you finally had to get a job--

    (Even your sideline manuscript,
    purloined from Mimi,
    called: White Girls in Asia,
    languished in your lacquer desk.)

duty-running for a gang of merchants
operating out of Hongkong and Taipei.

You flew so frequently,
Cathay Airlines bestowed on you
its Marco Polo Gold

(What's that goddamn thing, Red?)

with all its perks and privileges:
access to the Marco Polo Lounge,
free drinks and implied flirtation rights
with native-costumed flight attendants.

(Hey, Red, can we see that card?)

On trips, of course, you wore
a coat and tie, which as you said
was disingenuous, but modern Chinese disguise,
and even hooked your younger brother
into flying (sort of shotgun) at your side.

Green rice-paddies near Taoyuan;
Laundry-draped balconies of high-rise Kowloon;
Neat hinoki woodlots near Narita;
The river fog from the Han at Kimpo--

All glimpsed from a tiny window
going into, or falling out of,
the clouds.

(Hello, Mr. Pine, so good to see you again,
your room is 405; my, that's a beautiful
arm of watches, Mr. Pine.)

The duty-runner:

Your bags stuffed with nylons, dresses,
the latest hand-held instruments, toys,
electronic devices, gizmos, gimcracks,
chocolates, cosmetics, vitamins,
shoes, oil-paper parasols and saki.

And yes, the Rolex watches
wearing hairless and smooth the skin
on your left arm.

A technically not illegal end-run
(except, perhaps, for the watches)
around government Customs
to bring cheaper goods
to all the yearning markets of Asia's
teeming tariff-burdened folk;

Our border-opening hero:
("Here little Wang, a toy from Hongkong.")
Our jet-age Robin Hood:
("This tape will self-destruct...")
And a whole bag of tricks
& monkeyshines, off-the-cuffs, up-the-sleeves,
under-the-tables, now-you-see-its, now-you-don'ts,
hair-raising, white-knuckle adventures and escapes
in the Kafkaesque ports of entry,
in the tidal confluence of commerce and thieves.

Just to get back
to a cup of fragrant tea
and the four-line songs
of Cold Mountain--Han Shan--

who wiped his hands of the "red dust"
more than a thousand years ago
for a thatched hut,
some peace of mind,
and the immortal mists
of the Heavenly Terrace Mountains,

and wrote:

        "You're all a band of angels
         in a leaking boat at sea."


Summer Day at South Pavilion, Recalling Hsin Ta

Suddenly the sun goes off
the mountains;
slowly the moon rises
over the pond.

To enjoy the cool of evening,
I loosen my hair,
open wide the veranda windows
and relax in the airy calm.

A breeze carries
the fragrance of lotuses;
one can hear dew
dripping in bamboo.

I start to play
the five-string zither,
but sadly, there is no
chih-yin to listen.

In this mood,
I think of my old friend, Hsin;
but the night only brings
troubled dreams.

    --Meng Hao-jan (689-740)


Old Mountain Wind Blows The Rain Down The Gorge

Cat on lap, he's typing letters to friends
on the other shore of this ocean,
on the east side of this Rim of Fire;
writing while the wind flings
sheets of rain, veils of fog WHOOSH
down Hutien gorge.

Moments ago he stood at the stove
looking out at the flooding farm terraces,
rain rucking the surface of paddies,
wind chasing rain, and again he
thought of her, how she'd like looking out too,
while the wok she worked so well
leaped with flame and vegetables.

He'd be at the table sure,
drinking tea and talking to her
easier than whiskey ever talks.

And she'd be cooking, wondering
when he'd commence to read
from Dickens, Tolstoy, or some
good mystery aloud to her.

Of course, there's other women,
all Asia out his door, and
he could be in a Turkish jail,
or dead by mortar shell in Lebanon.

But they were married.



The first cicada
awakens in the cypress,
the mountain still dark.

Uncrinkling his wings
and instruments of music,
a few raspy notes.

Raised on root juices,
he has true eyes and false ones,
more raspy notes come.

Now ticks and buzzes,
then the first timbal note;
it's a courtship song.

It's Pablo Casals;
it's my alarm; it's five o'clock;
the membranes tremble.

A duet outside,
now a whole cello section,
a congregation.

Song all down the hills,
sun breaking over the peaks;
open the door to pee.

"Good morning, Pablo."
Their hearts are already off,
their abdomens beat.

In the treed medians
of Chungshan North Road, Taipei,
a choir of bells.

Cicada masses
in the shrill-leafed canopies
above toxic streets.

They are the music;
they are the late-spring-summer-
island takeover.

In Chinese called ch'an,
said to be noble hearted.
Why trapped in a cage?

At Yangmingshan Park
a grown man, Ziploc baggie,
cicadas inside.

Not really singing,
only a disturbance squawk,
such a dumb outing.

On the mountain bus
a boy holds one upside down,
he gets a squawk too.

A long time ago
Chinese caught those which sang
in the key of C.

History, it's dusk;
Pablo has played hard all day,
he needs some shuteyes.

His abdomen's sore;
he folds up his music stand
and mica wings.

"Night to you, Pablo."
Noble hearted, also proud,
he does not answer.

            M onk's Hat Mountain,
            Y angmingshan


Sailing To Keystone: Salute Abaft

The ferryboat churns toward Keystone,
a rumbling enterprise of gulls and salt sea-spray;
and there's old brick and wood Port Townsend, Victorian,
Good Willed, receding on the bluffs.

Peering out over the fantail,
Hui and I try, but cannot see
Finn Wilcox striding through the town,
hirsute and handsome as Che Guevara,
dressed like Bo Jangles for a night on the "jungle."

This is the poet who thinks
a grant's a president's name
of the street that runs by his house,
and needs not apply
to live on it.

A man,
who in cold shadowy boxcars
has passed among the American hobo
in camaraderie and seen enacted
the unheralded resurrection
of a Willie, a Crumbie Willie, or a Zoo
from inside their burrows of old cardboard
from the depths of their cheap-wine dreams:

an ascension, a hoisting on air again
of the scarecrow's nailed sticks,
lurching forward on old train-legs,
arriving at the kingdom
of the morning-sunlit door--
O sky! O flashing cinematic trees!--
and tossing out of it
the one rag bundle,
and after it, the one rag self
(to re-animate old clothes and ride again)
as creaking predetermined trains bang
and slow entering policed switchyards
of Idaho or California;

raised in Klamath Falls,
ran away as a teen from home
and stayed mostly ran away,
wandered and got picked up
years later on the road to Mossy Rock
by our long-hair, crew-hungry foreman,
Jess Miller--"Where ya headed, guy?
Need some money?"--and plunked down

on the noble-fir slopes
of the dammed Lewis River, later to go on
to plant--in ash, mineral soil and duff--
nearly a million trees
in the "spiritual weather" of Western Washington;

despite the corkboots and taste
for hard work, is one of the softest touches
you'll ever be lucky to know,
an historical Huck Finn,
known among the sacrificed
as the guardian angel
of the dumpster,
the crew truck and the sod;

who loves his wife;

who (we're still peering out over the ship's wake)
is surely just now
headed out to his
new writing shack at water's edge

below the ruins
of our earliest zendo;
the shack, where,
when he showed it to us
on a slope among sword ferns,
sunlight was crashing in
from sea and sky
through its big frame windows;
and the undulating bay,
translucent as a jellyfish,
smooth as agate, was whispering,
I sensed, a whole bunch of poems his way,

right where he's decided
to sit himself down,
and catch one, maybe two.



there were two of them and a dog
named Twerp they were driving
all the way to Oregon
the wife behind the wheel was fat
he was old drinking friendly
they picked me up
and talked about drugs and hunting
and hitchhiking i thought he looked
rather healthy for an alcoholic
he talked and said don't listen
i'm drunk

                    Center, Washington


Words--for XN

There is no sun in this city
Black night fattens the maggots and worms
One body in rigor mortis
        struggles to right itself
As if intending to prop up the sky here
The lucky people are mice
        the unlucky, stones
Between the lucky and the unlucky
Between the stones and the mice
Only you can understand
        what it means.


                 Tienanmen Square, Beijing
                 Spring 1989


Upon Finishing a Poem

It took three years
to get two lines right;

I test them aloud,
and tears blur my eyes.

If for you, friend, the poem
fails to ring true,

I'll go back and take solace
in the ancient, autumn hills.

    --Chia Tao (779-843)


Pawtracks On Seven-Star Mountain

      --For Tim McNulty (Ma Ming-shih)

Bamboo walk/snake stick
red daypack
poems of Ma Ming-shih,
to read aloud
in clouds
atop the mountain.

But the trail
runs out in mang ts'ao grass,
the mist turns rain,
and I take shelter
under ancient pine.

Here I open pack
and all your songs
(of loves, of rivers
and the snowy peaks)
darken at the top,
curl from the rain.

But a little deeper down, past the water jug
and socks--the cheese and crackers,
ah, still dry.

                   Confucius' Birthday


On Failing To Meet The Recluse Of West Peak

On the mountain top:
one thatched hut,

thirty li
from nowhere.

Knock on the door:
no servant to answer.

Look in:
only a table for tea.

The firewood cart
is covered;

have you gone fishing
in the autumn stream?

I looked among the pools,
but missed you;

wanting to pay my respects,
they must go unexpressed.

Grass shines
in the fresh rain;

pines murmur
at evening windows.

Here, at this moment,
a harmony deep and unrivaled;

the self completely cleansed,
the heart, the ear.

Although there is no
guest and host precisely,

I'm able to intuit
your pure thought.

Purpose fulfilled,
I head back down the mountain;

what need now
to wait for you?

    --Ch'iu Wei (694-ca. 789)



Lingering at the bathhouse door,
I watch the woman bundle off children
into light-rain, small-lane Kyoto.

Skirt in hand, she glances
my way across the evening lane,
then up the walk after the party
of colored rain boots and umbrellas.

Wet-headed but warm, I'm waiting
for Hui to come out from the public bath,
but can't help thinking of America,
the disquiet strangers there inspire.

Cherry trees are just beginning to break
blossom, here, off Kitaoji-dori, north of town.

Now the woman is crossing the lane,
coming directly toward me. She wants
to give me her open umbrella,
insists that I take it

without knowing where I'm going
or who I am.

I thank her and bow,
and point to my broadbrimmed hat.

Am I sure, she implores, am I sure?

There's hardly a raindrop
in the rain-sweetened air.

She smiles and bows,
returns to the sliding doors of her house.

Kyoto, the old capital,
bursts into blossom in my heart.

                   April 6, 1995


Notes To The Poems

1. "Farewell" * Chia Tao was a famous Buddhist poet of the Middle T'ang Dynasty.

2. "Dreaming of Li Po" * Chiang-nan is the area south of the Yangtze River, especially southern Kiangsu. * The "net" in which Li Po was caught is jail. He was arrested and later exiled to Yehlang, a waste region of Chiang-nan near Kweichou, for alleged association with a person seeking to set up an independent administration at Nanking. * In ancient times, human sacrifices were made to the river gods, the flood dragon, or the dragon-king * "Heaven's net" is a reference to Chapter 73 of the Tao te ching: "The net of heaven is cast wide / but despite its wide meshes, nothing is lost." * Li Po (701-762) and Tu Fu are held by Chinese to have been two of the three greatest poets of China. Wang Wei is the other.

3. "Canyon Creek on Buddha's Birthday" * "Canyon Creek" is a tributary of the Dungeness-Graywolf River on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. The watercourse drains north through Sequim Prairie and empties into the Strait of Juan de Fuca at Jamestown, a Klallam Indian settlement. * "Buddha's Birthday" is marked on April 8 by the Buddha Bathing Festival. During the festival, images of the Buddha are paraded, decorated, and sprinkled with holy water.

4. "For the Poet of Pablo Creek" * "Trident" refers to the offensive weapons system of the Navy's Trident Submarine Base at Bangor, Washington, and its fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. * "Northern Tier" was a firm seeking to build an oil port in Port Angeles, Washington, and an oil pipeline under Puget Sound to Minnesota. It took seven years of activism by local people to defeat this fantastic plan. * The Queets and Calawha Rivers flow through the rain forest of Olympic National Park.

5. "Wei City Song" * "Wei City" is located on the Wei River roughly 500 kilometers east of Xi'an (Ch'ang-an) and some 1,000 kilometers from Yang Pass. * Another title for this poem is "Seeing Off Yuan Erh to Anhsi." Anhsi was near Turfan, which was threatened by invaders from the north. * "Yang Pass," or Yangkuan, was the last pass separating friendly territory from the less secure region around Anhsi. It is not a mountain pass, but a "gate" in the desert at the end of the Great Wall.

6. "On My Way to Denver in a Coat and Tie, I Think of Master Red Pine and the Example He Inspired" * This poem was occasioned by a drive to Denver to take temporary work as a journalist. * "Red Pine" is the pen name of Bill Porter. * The poem is fanciful hagiography, and Red Pine himself told me that he had no recollection of the "sandalwood fans." * "Mimi," an American dancer in Taiwan and a neighbor of Red Pine at Bamboo Lake, is the originator of "White Girls in Asia." * Han Shan was a hermit and poet of the T'ang Dynasty who lived in the Heavenly Terrace (T'ien T'ai) Mountains of today's Fukien Province. [See The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain, Red Pine translator, Copper Canyon Press, 1983] * "Red dust" is a Buddhist term for the world of the senses.

7. "Summer Day at South Pavilion, Thinking of Hsin Ta" * Meng Hao-jan, was a major poet of the High T'ang during the famous reign of Emperor Hsuan-tsung (712-756). * "Hsin Ta's" name (Hsin the Elder) appears four times in Meng's poems, but he is unidentified historically.

8. "Sailing to Keystone: Salute Abaft" * Finn Wilcox's best-known work is Here Among the Sacrificed, with photos by Steve Johnson, Empty Bowl Books, Port Townsend, 1984.

9. "Words--for XN" * This is one of many documentary or "action" poems written by activists and supporters of China's Pro-Democracy Movement during the 1989 mass demonstrations in Tienanmen Square. A number of the poems were faxed to Hongkong and then to Taipei where they were translated by poets of the international community.

10. "Pawtracks on Seven-Star Mountain" * Pawtracks was Tim McNulty's first book of poetry (Copper Canyon Press, Port Townsend, 1978). * "Seven-Star Mountain," or Chihsingshan, is named after the seven principal stars of the Big Dipper. * "Mang ts'ao": Miscanthus sinensis is a tall common grass in Taiwan with long serrated leaves and plumes also known as razor grass and mare's tail.

11. "On Failing to Meet the Recluse of West Peak" * Ch'iu Wei, a T'ang Dynasty poet and good friend of the poet Wang Wei, is still paid homage for his filial devotion to his stepmother. He had a long official career and died at age 96. Sadly, only fifteen of his poems survive. * A "li" is about one-third of a mile.

12. "Sakura"  * "Sakura (no hana)" is Japanese for "cherry (blossoms)."


Some of the poems in Only a Friend Can Know appeared in two books of mine: The Rainshadow, Empty Bowl Books, Port Townsend, 1983; and The Basin: Life in a Chinese Province, Empty Bowl Books, Port Townsend, 1988.

Some uncollected poems or translations, have appeared in Longhouse and The Chicago Review. Pleasure Boat Studio published a broadside of Sakura.  * I gratefully acknowledge and thank each editor and publisher.

Mike O'Connor

Mike O'Connor is a native of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State. After many years farming in the Dungeness River Valley and logging and treeplanting in the Olympic Mountains, he traveled to Taiwan to begin more than a decade of Chinese studies and work as a journalist. He recently returned to the U.S. and resides with his wife, Ling-hui, in Port Townsend.

O'Connor's books of original poems and translations include The Basin: Life in a Chinese Province and The Rainshadow, both from Empty Bowl (Port Townsend, Washington); When I Find You Again, It Will Be in Mountains and Colors of Daybreak and Dusk,  selected poems of Chia Tao (779-843), both from Tangram (Berkeley, California). The Tienanmen Square Poems, O'Connor's translations of original Chinese poems from the 1989 Pro-Democracy Movement, have been published in The Chicago Review, Bombay Gin, International Quarterly, and The China Times, et cetera. His translation of the novel Setting Out by Taiwan writer Tung Nien will be published by Pleasure Boat Studio later this year.

Queries and comments are welcome and can be sent to:

Mike O'Connor
535 Reed Street
Port Townsend, WA 98368


William Slaughter, Editor
Department of Language & Literature
University of North Florida
Jacksonville, Florida 32224-2645

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