THE ART OF SOLITUDE
Only through poetry can human solitude be heard
in the history of humanity
Here, at Kromrivier, one winter later,
each day offers what it can: a sky
at times diversified by a single cloud,
some pebbles in a jeep-track rinsed
and minted in their bed by yesterday’s sharp rain.
Again, you’ll find the things which mountains
give: the shadow, later, that is scumbled
in its blackness, thickened in the sunset
by the boulders toppled in the scree-fall
along this valley’s southern wall.
Or you’ll know some old affinities:
the happiness of walking back, late in the day,
through the shadow of the Sugarloaf,
hurrying to outpace the next cold front
blowing up behind you in the watershed –
and then, at length, to reach a saddle
where you can see, one valley further off,
a mountain road that, empty through
the afternoon, dirt faded by the end of day,
is the vehicle only of itself as it unspools
lightly cast by its pale surface
through high, further saddles,
curves relaxing as they lengthen,
lift and fall away to gain those fields,
the citrus orchards along the river flats.
But, more, you’ll know an older kinship,
hearing Sappho, her stricken lyricism grown calm
in her invocation of the evening star,
that it might bring back the sheep, the goat,
the child back to its mother.
And the memory, too, of Horace,
weary of Rome, his longing, immemorial
in itself, for a small villa in the country,
with a piece of woodland and a spring
that would not fail, even in summer.
It was here, in fact, that I first met them,
the Chinese poets, Wang Wei among them,
and others like Tu Fu with his Tartar flute.
In this place there was once more
place for those like Hsieh Ling-yün
who, in his mountain poems,
climbing beyond the wind-cave,
wandering amidst the cloud-roots,
one night, somewhere in the years
beyond the fall of the Chin Dynasty,
stood, a man alone with his shadow,
forgetful, beneath the Star River
that even now, this very night, pours
its great watershed of stars, the Milky Way,
into the mountains west of Kromriview.
They were exiles all – Hsieh
twice over before his execution
in 433. They too were women,
men, never cured of themselves,
or of their place in time.
But they, too, saw morning
formed by last night's frost,
born of that great stillness
in which the frost is formed –
the invocation that is daybreak.
In their mountain world they heard
the world – such was their faith, their abnegation –
declare itself over and over
only in its quiet declaratives,
and always – as today – in the present tense:
there is a frost. Some shadows
stain a gravelled road. A daylight
moon stands over the Ceres Karoo,
the mountains bleached by shale
and by the low rainfall there.
At river fords in autumn, under the rain,
on mountain passes passing
far from any city, they climbed,
climbing beyond the rise and fall
of dynasties, their own ‘wheel of dreams’.
At river fords at evening,
on wanderings without homecoming,
in that exile that knows no destination
but itself, they knew their loss –
the solitude that attends all loss.
But from footpaths, years, the heart
stricken at nightfall,
they learnt only the moment,
the purity of the moment,
of that which cannot last:
the dawns that, without metaphor,
purify their own advent, the new moon,
its brief and lucent porcelain
which they would decant
into that cleansed place that is a poem.
Again, their shades are with me when,
by day, the blue of these mountains
dries out in the wind, a sky erodes
and fades in heat coming off high
valleys choked with gravel, shale.
Again, in the moon that later
sands the pale sand-track
with the still paler, leached silver,
the frosted sand of its moonlight,
and a man is late, returning through it;
when these mountains bring
only a cold that night
compacts into the roadside stone,
and silence now lies curved, its impress
like a giant ammonite within the dark –
they come back to me – Sappho,
those like Hsieh. A voice comes back
in the fragments of one woman, one
banished Chinese. Poetry comes back
with what it was, will be –
the voice that travelling, carrying
still across the centuries,
sounds within its sound of loss
that ancient note: home of our solitudes,
art of our oldest solidarity.
Poet's Note: The epigraph appears in the selection from Charles Simic's notebooks published in The Poet's Notebook (1995). Fine versions of the poems of Hsieh Ling-yün can be found in the collection The Mountain Poems of Hsieh Ling-yün (2001), edited and translated by David Hinton and published by New Directions Books.