Review by Fred Chappell in Now & Then, 17 (1),
Spring 2000, pp. 50-51
"No one ever confused the brutal and corrupt Italian noble
who proudly points out his last duchess painted on the wall with
Robert browning who wrote the poem about him. It is hard
to think that anyone identified Tennyson with the speaker of his
"Ulysses." But the case is not always so
Don't we suspect a
close relationship between the poet T.S. Eliot and his J. Alfred
Prufrock? Isn't it more than possible that John Berryman
is both Henry and Mr. Bones? Who is Ted Hughes' Crow
besides Ted Hughes?
A poet may choose to
create a persona that lies so contiguous to the contours of his
or her own personality that poet and persona might almost be
identified with each other. Almost, but not quite—for if
there were not some important differences, the poet would not go
to the trouble of erecting a separate persona. The
"I" would serve well enough.
After all, much is
lost when the first person speaker is no longer the poet's
avowed "I": We forego some of the edge of personal
conviction, the ring of the words of the authentic witness.
We lose the force of the direct gaze and must be satisfied with
the sidelong look. Declaration may subside to murmur.
Yet much can be gained
by employing a persona that slides into—and again out of—the
poet's own personality. It is interesting to see what
advantages Jeff Daniel Marion has found in attributing the
verses in his handsome new volume to "the Chinese
His gains are
considerable, I think, and may be illustrated by glancing at a
brace of paired poems, "Late Autumn the Chinese Poet
Invites His Old Friend the Brier Out to the River to Sit a
Spell" and "In the Month of a Waxing Moon the
Chinese Poet Says Farewell to the Brier."
Reflecting the relationship of Marion and the recently deceased
poet, Jim Wayne Miller, these poems have not only the extra
interest of literary history but the fascinating situation of
one persona addressing another persona.
Surely the most
renowned persona in Appalachian poetry, "Brier"
is, of course, Miller's creation. Miller was not
Brier—or not entirely. He was a learned man, a professor
of German literature, widely traveled but not an exile to the
industrial waste heaps of Detroit or Flint or Pontiac, where
Briar lives. Brier shared a great many sentiments with his
creator—especially in the matter of broad politics—but his
passionate vernacular speech is all Brier's own, not an idiom
that belonged to Miller in print or in person. Brier was a
spokesperson for a strong and consistent point of view.
The Chinese Poet
is a different sort of entity; he embodies not a point of view
but a certain mood of acceptance, of willing acquiescence, of
quietude and solitary thoughtfulness. He exemplifies many
of the qualities we associate with traditional Chinese poetry,
with the work of Han Shan, for instance, who is present in this
book as a tutelary master.
It requires more than
one reading of "Late Autumn" to see the Chinese
Poet is not speaking to a present friend but to an absent one
and that the invitation is not to go fly-fishing together but to
recall a day out of the past when such an expedition took place.
The bluebells were blooming then, and now the Chinese Poet
thinks of the blue October sky as "a bell of blue
clarity" whose peals draw the friends together, no matter
what distance obtains between them. Wherever they are,
however they are engaged, whatever they may be thinking at any
time, there is a clloquy going on between them.
In the Chinese Poet's
mind, their dialogue takes the form of a river; they talk
"waist deep" in it and throw out their suggestions
like lures to take the "golden-backed bass" or to
glimpse the "sheen of rose-hued rainbow."
The companion poem, "Month
of a Waxing Moon," recalls the river figure as the poet
keeps up his end of the conversation:
For days I've watched the river,
my words over the water,
expecting you to wade ashore,
heavy with the day's catch.
But the expectation
cannot be literally fulfilled; the poem bears a dedication line,
"In memory of Jim Wayne Miller." The day of
bluebells is remembered again, but with keen wistfulness:
Now in the waning days of August
see the first yellow-bronzed leaves
the dogwood turn in the wind
fall, swept away on forever's river.
Time passes; things
dwindle and disappear; but the river—the exchange of the
poets' minds—goes on forever. Just as their communion
obliterated distance in the other poem, here it overcomes the
separation of death.
The idea of the river
as the communion of poetry is an organizing metaphor throughout
the book. It occurs in the first poem: " here is the
river I love, wave upon/wave of words lapping on the rocks/where
I sit." It recurs in one of the later poems, "The
Chinese Poet Sits on His Favorite Rock Above the River and
Welcomes the Herons Back After a Long Winter," in which
we identify the returning herons as the resurgence of poetic
inspiration after an unproductive spell:
Spirits of air, of water, of beloved place,
lift my hand like a wing
my spirit rises
There are other
symbols throughout Chinese Poet that serve these unifying
thematic functions, and most of them are traditional in Chinese
verse: the letter that remains to be written, the glass of wine,
dinner with friends, the beard that signifies wisdom and the
tolerant humor of age, the act of writing. They are all
brilliantly adapted into the Appalachian setting and cast
suggestive lights and shadows on our own tradition.
The symbolic image
that dominates the fourth and final section of poems is
wonderfully apt for both the Appalachian and the Chinese
attitudes of the book. Marion chooses the mountain as a
symbol for retreat, for meditation, for the journey to the world
beyond, for retirement, for farewell.
In these poems, the
themes that occupied the earlier sections—friendship,
literature, love of nature, experience—are bade a peacable
good-bye. Those moods of yearning, of gentle regret, of
insistent wistfulness give way to what I can only call a calm
but poignant benediction.
I had read in journals
over the years different poems from this collection but could
not form the faintest conception of what its effect would be as
a whole. The Chinese Poet Awakens is a
subtle book but no less forceful because of that. One puts
it down with a sigh of regret and takes it up again with a smile
O friends, do not look for me on your journey.
am neither in the words
between the words, but in the mist
over the mountain."