This review originally appeared in the Juneau Empire.
I Think again of those ancient Chinese Poets: poems by Tom Sexton. 59 pages. University of Alaska Press, 2011. $14.95
Once again, former Alaska Writer Laureate Tom Sexton has produced a work that is simple yet eloquent, one that will lead you from your chair to a long, masterful tradition of hermit poets and their masters.
Boasting praise from Alaska’s finest poets, including Alaska’s godfather of verse, John Haines, “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” is a gateway that transcends space and time to bring closer the poetic traditions of East and West. Sexton’s focus on natural observations — moon cycles, seasons, bird migrations and the brief yet wondrous life cycle of perennial plants — bring the seemingly disparate worlds of 8th century China and 21st century Alaska closer. In “Yet Another Poem about the Moon,” the narrator ponders whether cargo handlers unloading planes from China ponder the same moon and snow-like light admired centuries ago by Li Po.
Reading these poems, the reader can’t help but be captivated by the ever-present balance of form, which in its reliability and adherence to the ancient principle of yin and yang creates an environment that is equal parts meditation and poetry. True to the regulated meter of Tang-era verse, Sexton uses either four couplets highlighted by strong contrasting elements in the middle couplets, or a quatrain structure to frame his observations. In “Baneberry” the toxicity of the plant becomes the contrasting element: “One will stop your heart if swallowed, / but if you have wings and a heart / the size of a drop of rain, it will / nourish you, carry you through the night.”
The magic of the form is that it benefits the sound and pacing of the poem without intrusion; it is at times even invisible. This reader was 18 poems into the collection before making the connection to the regulated verse.
The 59 poems, crafted by Sexton’s careful precision and punctuation, become “a Chinese scroll unrolling inch by inch,” revealing a world that is vivid and intimate, then gone. Moments are moments and then they are not — or we are gone.
Essential to appreciating the poems collected here is an understanding of the principle of impermanence. This idea is stated simply in “To Wang Wei”: “We are small waves breaking / on the shore and just as soon forgotten”. I found myself reading and re-reading several poems (“Late Afternoon”, “Robert Frost in Winter”, “Winterberry Holly”) that use staggered line breaks and commas to create temporal tension, my eye leaping in anticipation. The unique shifts in perspective afforded by age make for contemplative moments, as in “Yellow Warblers.” The movement of a flock of warblers descending upon a elderberry is described as a “flow from top to bottom / like the grains of sand in an hourglass. / Would I have seen them this way when / I was young, when time was an / endless loop?”
That said, the pacing and detail that make this work so appealing and effective in the eyes of poetry enthusiasts may come off as esoteric, or as a romantic attempt at capturing contemporary life using the essence of an ancient form. Overall the verse is incredibly approachable, and does not require any background understanding of the ancient Chinese poetry traditions to enjoy the often-overlooked moments of daily magic celebrated within. “I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets” is likely to become a well-worn favorite, and serves as a great introduction to the work of ancient Chinese poets Li Po, Wang Wei, Po Chu-i and others.
For further reading, Sexton fans should try poets Lee Young Lee and David Budbill, and the translations of Red Pine, Kenneth Rexroth and David Hinton.
• Jonas Lamb is a poet and librarian living in Juneau and wandering down the ever allusive and at times invisible zen-path.