One fine mountain poetWritten by George Ellison
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Allow me to introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Han Shan. He is among the finest mountain poets of any era in any language.
He may have lived during the T’ang Dynasty (circa 600-900 AD). “Han Shan” means “Cold Mountain”: the place and the poet were the same. He had a friend named Shih-te, and their laughter was sometimes heard late at night when they were drinking wine and telling stories.
Mostly, however, Han Shan preferred living alone on Cold Mountain, where he enjoyed walking and sitting and thinking about things. When some fleeting memory made him really happy he would throw back his head and laugh so loud Cold Mountain trembled. Han Shan also enjoyed writing poems. He wrote them on rocks and trees and walls. He wrote them about those things we also ponder whenever we’re walking and sitting and thinking about things.
Adopted as a totem figure by numerous poets (Gary Snyder being the most prominent) during the latter half of the 20th century, he has become the quintessential grumpy-and-reclusive happy-go-lucky wine-drinking nature-loving hand-clapping Zen-sharp mountain poet. (Charles Frazier, author of the novel Cold Mountain, also knew all about Han Shan.) He was an irascible old coot and, as you will see, one hell of a poet.
I made Han Shan’s acquaintance in the early 1970s and — during several year’s worth of long winter nights on Lands Creek — entertained myself by rendering perhaps 75 of his poems into eight-line entities attuned to my personal wavelength. (Unable to speak or read even one word of Chinese, I used various English translations collectively as prompts, especially those by Burton Watson.) In the process Han Shan became a friend. My wife Elizabeth’s drawing of a robe-clad Han Shan is tacked on my workroom wall.
About 1975 I distributed perhaps 15 hand-bound copies (typewritten sheets with cardboard covers) of a selection of my renderings titled Guffawing in the Wilderness: 13 Poems by Han Shan. In the spring of 1977 the poet and printer John Judson — a recipient of one of the hand-bound copies — surprised me by publishing 250 handset copies at his Juniper Press in LaCrosse, Wis., with Elizabeth’s drawing as a frontispiece.
I thought I had either lost or given away all of my copies of the little 4-by-8-inch book years ago. But I recently chanced upon a copy hidden away in a box. At about the same time, Elizabeth purchased another one for me via the Internet for $40! Suddenly, I am the proud owner of two copies of my own book. In reality, of course, it’s Han Shan’s book. That said … listen to him speaking to you from Cold Mountain more than 1,000 years ago:
Are you looking for home?
Cold Mountain is the way.
Come close beside me.
Hear the pines whine?
See the old man there
lost in the old words?
That’s me. Been sitting here
forgetting the way back out.
Among clouds and streams
wandering the trails by day
sleeping this cliffside at night
here lives an idle man.
Swiftly the years run by
with nothing to lean on
and my mind empties …
still as fall waters.
Hiding at Cold Mountain
one lives with the land
day to day without bother.
This was meant to be
and the days flow.
A lifetime is a flint spark.
Heaven and earth shift …
I rest with the silent stones.
Cold Mountain transmogrifies.
Climbers here are always scared.
Moonshine glistens on dark water.
The windblown grasses hiss.
Snow clumps flower naked branches
and sweeping clouds foliate.
Rain and the mountain glimmers.
Don’t come in winter.
and the cloudway’s gone … untraceable.
The loveliest peaks are precipices
and the broadest coves sunless.
Still … you desire the cloudway?
Inward from sky to sky.
Is flesh real?
Who am I?
I lean time away against this cliff.
The grass grows between my toes.
The dust settles in my hair.
The worldly think me dead
and offer sacraments to my body.
The way to Cold Mountain?
There’s no sure trail.
The ice won’t melt
and the morning sun blurs in a haze.
How did I get here?
Well … your heart’s not mine
or you’d be here with me …
From this peak
vision is endless.
No one knows I sit here.
Moon in the cold spring.
That’s not the moon.
The moon is above.
I sing for you …
but in my song there is nothing.
walking these high trails alone
it was always cold mountain