Poetry of Keith Holyoak

Moonlit Night (translated from Du Fu)

       Tonight the moon
is also full in Fuzhou, 
      where my wife can only
wait and watch alone.

      I’m sad to think
of my little sons and daughters,
      too young to know
why I’m far away in Changan.

      Her cloud of hair
must be damp from the scented mist,
      her jade-white arms
chilled as the light pours down.

      When will we both
lean at the open window,
      drying our tears
in the glow of an autumn moon?


Burnt Offering

In a stream a solitary woman
          washes clothes;
on a hill a monk sounds his lute
          among the pines;
     a peach blossom falls.

Li Bai takes ink and paints a poem
          in clear characters,
folds it to float as a paper boat
          with lighted candles,
     watches as it burns.

In a month the ocean claims its gift
          of paper ashes;
the stream flows down to the sea another
          thousand years.
     A peach tree blossoms.


Farewell Song for My Father

     You were the mainland,
back when I rode your shoulders
     across hayfields
and through the apple orchards.

     After you formed
an archipelago
     my boat set sail,
hugging those porous borders.

     Your final island,
even as I passed it,
     marked the way home
with murmured songs of shore birds;

     But now the lighthouse
fades like a dying star—
     there’s no return
to your familiar harbors.


How I admire their simple greetings,
     the way each fits the other
as surely as a cardigan
     passed down to son from father,

Streams from their ancestral well
     flowing through their tongues,
lapping at each other’s ears
     and bubbling up in laughter;

How I admire their careless grace
     and stance of pure belonging,
the tapestries they weave, eyes closed,
     spun out of word and gesture—

But I am just an ungainly bird
     staring mute from a bough,
stopping a day and a night before
     I mount the sky to wander.

Summer Solstice

     Dusk draws its brush
patiently down Long Harbour
     as though it stroked
a scroll of wet rice paper.

     From west to east
red shades to indigo;
     from sky to sea
blue light and half-light linger.

     A heron’s wings
send ripples through the air;
     evergreen shadows
impale the wrinkled water.

     Though life be long
this day lasts even longer;
     yet one pale star
blinks down, and now another.


The Night Ferry

     A starless night
enfolds the open harbor;
     the wind plays
its song with fir and cedar.

     Out in the fog
a whistle sounds three times;
     beyond the dock
a slow murmur draws nearer.

     Suddenly lights
give shape to a shimmering ship
     and snowflakes dissolve
into ripples of endless water.

     The night ferry comes;
it stops to take me aboard
     where I can sleep
and journey a little farther.


Lhasa, Las Vegas

The lake behind Beijing Central erupts
     in a dancing-waters show
as cool as the one on the Strip outside
     the Hotel Bellagio.

That television tower lit up
     on Yaowang Mountain tonight
could be the radiant Eiffel setting
     the Vegas sky aglow.

Prostrate pilgrims crawl to their Mecca,
     monks chant in their saffron robes,
a scene surreal as the Cirque de Soleil
     viewed from the very front row.

The roof of Potala Palace floats up
     and brushes the painted moon—
an image seen or dreamt as a child,
     forgotten long ago.


Climbing Above Rongbuk Monastery

     A golden spire
draped with prayer-flag rainbows
     and Qomolangma
burnished by summer snows

     Point the way upward
beyond the human world—
     the air gets thinner,
the end of the earth draws close.

     Nothing but ice,
and rock, and wind, and sky—
     life colors have vanished,
even the green of moss.

     Gasping for breath
I crawl on hands and knees—
     between bare stones
a purple blossom grows.


Lament of the Translator Sun Dayu

Child of the river goddess, shaman’s son,
     my blood is the blood of Qu Yuan,
     that seer who drank magnolia dew
and ate the petals of chrysanthemum.
     Truth distilled into Word is pure,
     it slips the bonds of time and tongue,
passed down from oracle to oracle;
     so I have watched the river run
          and gazed on ages past
          and ages yet to come.

          My mouth was filled with dirt
          but I could smell what burnt—
     piles of bamboo scrolls ablaze.
          We fought as if berserk
          inside our fresh-dug grave;
     and though the soldiers did their work
          and buried all our rage
          the ghosts of scholars lurk
     wherever nightmares forge a cage—
          there may the tyrant choke
          on ashes of each page
torn out of every incandescent book!

In Alexandria flames from the harbor
gorged on the library and all its treasure;
Baghdad was razed, and from its House of Wisdom
ink and blood streamed down to the Tigris River;
heaped on a pyre the Mayan codices
wafted away like ghosts condemned to wander.

Hear Goebbels speak: “German men and women!
Your fire has cleansed the spirit of our nation!
The age of Jewish arrogance has ended—
burn the foul garbage, purge the land of vermin!
Like some new sun that blazes through black midnight
you bathe us all in glorious symbolism!
Oh Century! Oh Science! Joy it is
to be alive—our phoenix has arisen!”

     A small man crazed by lust for glory
     tries to shrink the human story,
     consigning to the fires of war
     all the best that came before.

In the morning I rose and flew to America;
in the evening I stood atop the peaks of China.
So many voices vie to speak through me!
     Weird sisters chant their prophecy,
     Juliet cries for Romeo,
     a mad king rants at perfidy—
night after night they seize my throat until
I mold new words for them, and set them free.

Drawn by six dragons my boat skims the water,
     flying upriver faster and faster
beyond the vast gorges, over the waterfalls.
     I reach a pool where ripples shimmer,
               riddled with twilight;
     here dwells the goddess, river’s daughter.
          Softly I sing to her,
                gently I shower
     my love with cloves of cinnamon,
     orchids, angelica in flower.
At last she shows her face beneath the water,
     her body floating higher, lower.
     Fingers outstretched, I lean far over
               then dive to join her
          under the splashing water.
               I let her fold her
     bare arms and legs around my neck,
               and while I hold her,
          lost in her thick black tresses,
          I sense the flow of power—
          I must, I must remember!
     I am the question, you the answer,
     you are the music, I the dancer;
     I am the dagger, you the danger,
     you are the moon and I the mirror—
               under the water
          gripped by this endless shudder.

     “Crush the Four Olds! Raise up the new!
Only the thoughts of Chairman Mao are true!
          Rid us of foreign filth!
Tear up the scrolls, burn the rotted bamboo!
Where did you hide your books, you white-haired fool?
     Death to Translator Sun Dayu!”

Farewell! The goddess that I loved has gone;
beside the river’s edge I wait alone.
The eagle does not flock with other birds,
and all that I shall leave you with are words.

Keith Holyoak was raised on a dairy farm in British Columbia, Canada. He has published a volume of translations from classical Chinese poetry, Facing the Moon: Poems of Li Bai and Du Fu (Oyster River Press, 2007), and Foreigner: New English Poems in Chinese Old Style (2012), both from Dos Madres Press. Keith Holyoak publications (some of them).

Holyoak's poetry and translations are both excellent, easy to recommend; at this time this editor recommends the recent collection "Oracle Bones" (and especially "Sparrows" - an elegy for John McCain) published by Goldfish Press Seattle. From the book's cover: "Keith Holyoak, poet and psychologist, has translated classical Chinese poetry. A recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, Keith is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles." 

Keith Holyoak reading poems of Du Fu.m4a
Joneve McCormick,
Oct 25, 2014, 11:35 AM