Wednesday, September 12, 2012

He Who Stretches His Line

He Who Stretches His Line

In 1551, aged eighty-one,
the painter Wen Zhengmin
sketched eight views in ink
of the “Garden of the Inept Administrator,”
each one including a poem
of immaculate resignation
executed in flashing brushstrokes:

...You must know that he who stretches hs line,
Is not one who desires to catch fish.

Another Ming painter
of a little later, Xu Wei,
depicted grapes and melons and
in a style of inksplash freshness,
suffered severe mental breakdown,
killed his second wife, and
after getting out of jail,
lived out his seventy-two years
in poverty, sickness, and solitude.

Neither man achieved his first ambition.
Wen failed the local
civil service exam ten times,
Xu got past the county
test and then failed at the provincial
level eight times in a row.

From the haze around these far-off
Chinese gentlemen
I seem to step out clearly:
hardly an inept administrator, or
not often, but one whose early
promise was exploded by psychosis
—it is a time to speak only plainly—
the decades since
a picking up and dropping again
of the pieces I could salvage
in a swamp between water and dry land.

I am not quite at my wit’s end.
But now neither time nor health is on my side.
Now I will need the good fortune
of long life
to even hope to sketch my vision,
to reach the white stone
and jadelike pool
where I may lower my dry line.

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