July – and, strolling around the usual online archives recently, I came across a vaguely familiar image. A Modigliani, of course, but his subject…hours, days…I didn’t think to Google image search. Then, suddenly, it came to me: Blaise Cendrars! La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France! I must’ve read it when I was 18 or 19, a time I might been able to quote whole swathes of this long masterwork – how could I have forgotten? And then: who else had likewise all but vanished from memory? Let’s see,,,Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine, Canetti’s Crowds and Power, and a little later Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, Queneau’s Zazie Dans le Metro, Bataille, Corso, Laura Jensen, Guillevic, Yevtushenko, wacky Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind! And, sure, over the years some have fared better than others. But don’t we all have such reliquaries? And isn’t an acrid joy we feel, returning to them, to read here or there a few lines as one might glimpse a bit of finger or rib encased in its golden armament?
Let’s turn to Joseph Campana’s thoughts on Tuệ Sỹ’s “By a Cold Fire”, from Dreaming the Mountain, translated by Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins.
Who knows you have white hair
And love the dying candle
By a cold fire in the late-night forest
You sit and wait for the watch to change
Are short poems potent and popular because of the way we do (or do not) pay attention? Or are they short because their fleeting nature resonates with the brevity of human life? Lyrics connote so many things—brevity, intensity, the unsaid. Short poems abound, across centuries and continents, and yet many argue whether or not the category is useful at all, particularly beyond western traditions.
“By a Cold Fire” comes from Dreaming the Mountain, the first North American publication of the Vietnamese Buddhist poet and philosopher Tuệ Sỹ, translated by Nguyen Ba Chung and Martha Collins in Milkweed’s Seedbank series. I have no knowledge of Vietnamese, which is why I was grateful for the brief introduction, which usefully situates the poems in their language, in a Buddhist framework, and in light of their exquisite constellations of sometimes-mysterious imagism.
I’m drawn in by the opening which suggests intimacy. Who knows you have white hair? Apparently the poet does. And even if the poet is speaking of himself, even if the poem is a mirror of the poet, there’s still the sweet immediacy and familiarity of the opening. But you are more than just an aging figure in the mirror of the poem. You “love the dying candle.” And if the white hair is a sign of years accumulating and life dispersing, then so too would be a love for the ephemeral and extinguishable.
Two lines in, there’s already an established situation of mortality, and it happens in a particular place: “by a cold fire in the late-night forest.” Suddenly, the you in the poem is not only located in the forest but positioned by a cold fire and occupied with a task. The final line lets us know you “sit and wait for the watch to change.” So you are a solider perhaps or a sentry, guardian of the passing night, watcher of the passing of life. Is this how we all are? Are we all sentries at the service of some other’s safety? Do we merely watch: is that what life is? Are we meant to protect the fire (here gone cold) or the candle (swiftly burning out)?
I can’t quite say. But still I return to the opening “who knows.” The simplest answer to the question is that someone knows. Someone watches the watcher of the night. The specter of time passing and fires guttering in the night might provoke despondency, but the poem reminds us. Someone is watching us, someone knows us, with our white hair in the cold night. The watch “will change” and we will rest. And, perhaps, someone will watch us as we drift off to sleep.
Bio (from Guernica)
Born in 1943, Tuệ Sỹ joined a Buddhist order at age ten and is recognized as one of the most important Buddhist scholars in Vietnam. A scholar of both Eastern and Western philosophy, he has published numerous works on Buddhism, including General Outline of Zen. Imprisoned from 1978 to 1981 and again from 1984 to 1998 for political reasons, he has lived in Ho Chi Minh City since his release.
Ah – note that we continue our occasional series on musical releases this issue. Read Frank Heath’s text for the short film he made, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, that uses Cory Smythe’s “Combustion 2” from his album also titled Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. And, of course, watch the video and listen to the track.
Also of note: we continue our new column, Station to Station. After last month’s debut with Robert Pinsky and Heather Greene, July finds Christopher Buckley pairing with Catherine Abbey Hodges.
Our cover art this month is indeed Amedeo Modigliani’s Portrait of Blaise Cendrars, 1917. For more on the artist and his subject, a good start might be made here and here, respectively.
Finally, as usual, a few recently published/forthcoming books from Plume contributors: