Poetry / December 2013 (Issue 22)

Two Poems

by Stuart Greenhouse

Poet Strolling by a Marshy Bank
Liang Kai, ink on silk, ~1300 A.D.
Maybe you should look at the world
the note says you are contemplating,
Liang Kai, and not at the painting’s

palm-smudged edge. Would you
retouch it with that brush
you carry like a dowse? Would you please

turn around? I have questions, I have this idea
that maybe I can understand
what has imagined itself into me

by imagining back what could be there
but isn’t; so here I am, the watcher
who’s always been here, just a little closer

now, the other side of the ink and sidled up
against the silk you painted this huge
ambiguous mountainside on, then strolled past.

It’s very cozy, and while I know that
water at the base of a mountain collects great
qi, this smells like summer’s abundance

cooked down to low islands of ferns and mud.
Where is the flood, is that what you’re thinking,
old brushstroke? Are you thinking

you should’ve painted yourself
a Spring flood? If you are
thinking, are you thinking I

shouldn’t be here with you? I am. I’m also thinking
you’ve been thinking or not about your flood
for 700 years now, because the scientists

who carbon-dated this artifact say so
right here, under this note
where we started. The scientists were confused

just now, when I called your world an artifact and authentic, because
to a scientist, artifact means ‘error inherent
in the means of perception.’ You would understand that

in a language I don’t speak, the casual sling of your spine says
you’ve spent more hours than I’ve lived sitting
and breathing, sitting and breathing, letting

the thoughts that rise come and go, letting
the thoughts that rise come and go. I’m not
leaving yet, I’m no thought, are you thinking

I’m a thought who will come and go, some artifact
of your deep unconscious to be sat through? The scientists
are getting nervous, I’m distorting

their carbon dating, but the Met copywriters
have screwed up already anyway by saying that
in this painting ‘a solitary figure meditates

on the illusory world before him.’ Twice wrong
in their translation of you to us, they betray
some errancy inherent in their means of perception;

I mean, even a seven-clouded mind like mine can see that
the world is real and the world is not before you;
you have turned your back to us, to us who are real, you,

you who are just a painting of a man
contemplating touching up what use has smudged
of his world

or contemplating leaving through that distortion, as if any portal,
even one natural as artifice,
could ever really be opened from your side

between your world and mine.

In Place of Mind
Figure Playing Instrument, pottery, Eastern Han, A.D. 25-220
Three chrysanthemums in a dignified lurch
around his louche hat's band, his spine
easy, upright

as a morning-fresh stem, but his hands
light on his zither are why
I don't think

he sees himself at all. They're still as
the sort of easy smile you can't
help but return

when you see it, like music makes you
move, when it really is music.
Strange how

he doesn't notice, he's been making
that shape millennia
now, not moving

an inch. And so steady with inner
light! Me, I keep changing,
like a cast

shadow, and each time I think I've got
a handle on the shape I might be
making, I don't—I mean,

it's already becoming something else. Him,
he's stable. Only he can't see
it, being

clay. I'm clay too, only he doesn't have
the breath of life moving him like a
river shallow

shadows sunlight out of stones. I mean, how
is his the most good-natured smile
I've seen in years? How is it

this set-piece song he's in the middle of
makes me feel there's a wedding
I've neglected

being drunk for? It's so quiet:
there must be another note
he's waiting for, to follow

the one he's stuck on. I know
what that's like, happy statue.
It can take years.
Website © Cha: An Asian Literary Journal 2007-2018
ISSN 1999-5032
All poems, stories and other contributions copyright to their respective authors unless otherwise noted.