The Chinese Poet Awakens

Poems by Jeff Daniel Marion


Illustrations by Elizabeth Ellison

"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. . . . 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 of acceptance."
--Fred Chappell in Now & Then, 17 (1), Spring 2000, pp. 50-51.



Photo by Steven Marion

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The Chinese Poet Awakens looks at the life in East Tennessee through eyes of Eastern wisdom. Grounded in the regional, these poems have rooted deep, all the way to China. They wake us to a homeplace that is much bigger than we thought.
                 ---George Ella Lyon

He speaks with a glitter in his eye of friendship and community, legacy and loyalty. In these poems there are implicit salutes to Han Shan and St. Francis, and the long flowing beard of Walt Whitman; but the humor and humility, the romance and the elegy, the delight in flowers and place and seasons, are all Marion's own. The poems leave us with a sense of the fresh and the timeless.
                  ---Robert Morgan


From the book ---

The Chinese Poet Visits the Hermit's Cave 
with the Hope of Finding His Old Friend

  I have come the long way around,
  down by the river road
  where the herons stirred and rose
  at my approach

  They seemed to melt
  into this morning's mist.

  Now I climb your stone steps
  and find at my feet patches
  of bloodroot, their white petals
  brief as March snow.

  O how foolish I am!
  You are gone, too, river hermit.

  It was not your flute I heard
  across the ridge, only my friend
  the wind whistling his solitary note.

   

  
The Chinese Poet Awakens
by Jeff Daniel Marion, Wind Publications 1999, 56 pages, $12.50 softcover, $35.00 limited edition hardcover. (illustrations by Elizabeth Ellison)

Wind Publications
600 Overbrook Dr
Nicholasville, KY 40356

 
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 plain.

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 Poet."

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,
     cast my words over the water, 
     halfway expecting you to wade ashore,
     stringer 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
     I see the first yellow-bronzed leaves
     of the dogwood turn in the wind
     and 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,
     of generations passing,
     I lift my hand like a wing
     and my spirit rises
     to join you!

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 of acceptance:

     O friends, do not look for me on your journey.
     I am neither in the words
     nor between the words, but in the mist
     rising over the mountain."