I am always grateful for poetry—for its volatility and vulnerability, the range of emotion a single book, or even a single poem, can contain. But I am especially grateful just now to Dennis Maloney for writing Listening to Tao Yuan Ming, a collection which reminds me at once why I am a student of poetry and a teacher of it, and which shows me, with gentle grace, how I can be better at both.
We live in such a noisy world. So many poems are loud, insistent. They command our attention like a fireworks display. They make us marvel, How did the poet do that? I am a fan of many such poems. But other poems speak softly without calling much explicit attention to themselves. They whisper, they confide, and as a consequence, they incline us to lean our heads a little closer to the page, to turn down the volume of the outside world for a while. Such poems remind us of the value of listening and of its natural concomitant, contemplation.
Maloney’s book exceeds even this invitation. After all, he does not title his collection Listen to Tao Yuan Ming—an imperative!—like a master of ceremonies tapping the microphone and flashing the lights. He does not make noise in order to get us to listen. Rather, Maloney quietly and conscientiously demonstrates how one poem may listen to another. Even as they are speaking, his poems are listening. They reach back centuries and across continents to the life and philosophy of Tao Yuan Ming (365-427), the “first major Chinese poet to create a personal voice out of his own experience.” All those times I have encouraged my students to emulate another writer, or more broadly, to “write in the spirit of” a poet they admire, I have anticipated a book like this one, which combines historical biography, spiritual dialogue, homage, and elegy in order to keep another poet alive—perhaps, in fact, to revive another poet’s presence, and our need for it, in this blaring era.
In his prose introduction, Maloney presents, not a rationale for his work exactly—nothing quite so academic as that—but a poet’s map of his own process. I’m struck by the way Maloney situates himself within a tradition rather than standing apart from it, holding the past at bay. The contemporary poet faces mounting pressure to be sui generis, one of a kind, but what does this implicit mandate preclude? Certainly it overlooks the value of harmonizing with other poets’ voices, a practice Maloney reminds us was common in Chinese poetry. In fact, “Song Dynasty poet Su Tung-po (Su Shi) wrote harmonizing poems for all of Tao’s poems.” Now Maloney joins this contemplative and cross-historical chorus. Since Tao was fond of solitude and drinking wine, Maloney spends time in solitude drinking wine as well. He immerses himself not only in Tao’s poems but recreates certain conditions of his creativity. Hence, the book begins with “Twenty Poems after Drinking Wine,” the lyrical, free-verse equivalent of a crown of sonnets.
These first poems are warm and soft and relaxed, written under the influence of Tao who was often under the influence of wine. Maloney professes also to sip as he writes. Themes emerge—notably, the refusal of binaries to yield givens: “Success and failure have no fixed abode,” “Once you give form to right or wrong,/ everything else becomes praise or blame,” “Drunk and sober laugh at each other/ but don’t understand a word the other says.” Such juxtapositions are a source of these poems’ gentle music, but also of their progressive wisdom. In the fifteenth poem of the sequence, the speaker touches back to the first lines of the first poem: “If we don’t let go of failure and success,/our inner nature turns toward regret.” And then by the twentieth poem, another touch-back, another spiraling through: “Still I regret some of the silly things I’ve said/ and hope you forgive this drunken fool.”
This speaker wants not to take himself too seriously, though what is more important to the contemplation of a life than the subjects he brings to bear here—success, failure, regret? “The world’s paths are vast and many,” he reminds us, “so decisions are difficult at every crossroad.” We realize this speaker is singing in solidarity with us now, his fellow travelers, for whom questions flow like wine and even good answers are always temporary, subject to shift again in time.
The second section of the book initiates a correspondence with Tao Yuan Ming. Some of the poems are epistolary, addressed directly to the Chinese poet as this speaker’s mentor and muse. For instance:
Tao Yuan Ming,
your house survived
fifteen hundred years
of wind, rain, drought,
fire and floods.
Tao, your true nature
often eludes me,
but taken by the quiet,
I walk out and linger
in this lovely morning.
Tao, your fondness
for wine is well known,
but it was another
poet who said one
should be drunk always!
Others introduce Tao to this contemporary speaker’s world, as in “The Gift of the Unknown”:
Here, where the ragged coast
falls into the Pacific Ocean,
the concerns are more elemental.
Our neighbors rose
in the middle of the night
to the crackle
rushing toward their door,
the acrid taste
of smoke and ash
in their mouths.
They escaped with
the clothes on their backs.
And one of my favorite poems from this section waltzes the subjunctive in a way I will soon invite my own students to do. We’ll consider “If Tao Yuan Ming Came to Visit,” and then I’ll ask them to invite a poet-predecessor (or perhaps an artist of any kind) into their poem, to make good use of the time travel that literature permits. Maloney’s speaker writes to Tao:
But if you come to visit,
we’ll hike a trail in the redwoods,
watch the sunset over the ocean.
In the evening I’ll build a fire
in the stove to take the chill off,
and crack open a bottle
of your special wine
to drain before you ride
that crane back home again..
The last section of the book, “Listening to Tao Yuan Ming,” is preceded by a delightful invocation, which also serves as the final stanza of a poem called “Be Drunk.” I’ve printed these lines on a notecard and tacked them above my desk to remind me of the need for listening—its essential role in any artist’s life—and also of the dangers of not listening, for all of us:
Just sit down
and be quiet. Why?
Because you are drunk,
and this is the edge of the roof.
It is as if Maloney has been writing his way toward these poems the whole time. They channel a certain kind of imagery and energy from Tao’s work, a reverence for the line break and the white space beyond it. These poems and their revelations are elegant as pearls, small entities also wrought from the dark and quiet place inside a shell.
This speaker tells us:
Here I return to listen
to the stones and the wind.
With each gust
a thousand conversations begin.
Only the whine of a speedboat
on a river breaks this calm.
This is also the section where Maloney pays tribute to many poets and artists in addition to Tao Yuan Ming, showing the broad influence of schools, styles, forms, and generations on his own literary and spiritual practice. There are dedications to Toinette Lippe, Pete Seeger, Galway Kinnell, Edith Shiffert, Tomas Transtromer, Robert Bly, Allan Kornblum, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Erin Gafill, among others. Many of the poems dedicated to visual artists offer ekphrastic responses to the artist’s work. In this way, the poems reflect the close attention and humility of their speaker, which in turn reveal something about this poet’s generosity of spirit, the inclusiveness of his artistic vision.
This reviewer surprises herself by uncorking a bottle of wine, sipping it slowly as she re-reads. She hardly ever drinks wine, but she too wants to pull up a chair to this quiet table, to listen to “The hum of bees around a flowering bush,” to watch as “Someone sweeps up the dead petals/ strewn on the ground” and then to notice how “a minute later/ the wind redecorates the path.” She wants to feel what this speaker feels, to be enfolded in the sensuous attentiveness of this book, these patient perusals of landscapes both external and internal. And when, near the end, this speaker confides, “I feel as at home/ as I am ever likely/ to on this earth,/until I am inside it,” it takes no effort at all to believe him.