Two poems of bells and hills: Aaron Fisher and John Rollin Ridge

This morning, when reading The Way of Tea by Aaron Fisher (mainly prose, interspersed with some poetry), I was struck by this particular poem he included:

As the leaves of this tree are,
I too am made of the water, the sky, sun, and stars;
I share this essence with all the Ten-Thousand Things.
And in so doing, empty myself and my cup.
As tea, I am now free to transcend the moment,
Finding Heaven in a leaf.
I ride the cinnabar mists
Beyond the temple stairs
And blue peaks
To soar beneath the unveiled moon,
Glancing downward but once,
When the temple bells chimed.

I interpret this poem as the speaker feeling enlightened while drinking tea in a temple. The bond he feels between himself and the tea lifts him beyond the earthly trappings of the temple as he feels himself rising on a cloud of incense toward the mountains. He glances downward when he hears the temple bells chime, but he’s already beneath the unveiled moon: he experiences revelation apart from the temple itself, through direct communion with nature. So, I felt that Fisher’s work reflects something similar to American transcendentalism, which I realize is Asian-inspired in part, as is Fisher’s perspective. Something that felt more transcendentalist about this poem for me, more American than Asian, was the emphasis on the individual experience, while the speaker finds his position in the non-hierarchical collection of earthly bodies.

In the context of the book itself, this choice makes a lot of sense, since this piece functions to complement Fisher’s explanation of how tea works as a means to understand the Tao for a contemporary Western audience.

One of the first poems I puzzled over by Cherokee poet John Rollin Ridge came to my mind when I read Fisher’s lines. The speaker’s vantage point on the hill, listening to these ringing bells from a remote location, reminded me of how Fisher’s speaker was also removed from the source of the bells in his poem:


THE Sabbath bells are ringing
With clear and cheerful notes,
And from the steeple springing,
Far off the music floats.

To yonder mountains reaches,
The ever rising strain,
And Echo’s dying speeches
Repeat it o’er again.

The summer woodlands filling,
The solemn cadence rolls,
And through the leaves is thrilling
Like soft, pulsating souls.

The air with rippling motion,
Aeolian answers gives,
And like a trembling ocean,
Its outspread bosom heaves.

The far horizon sweeping,
Each tone majestic swells,
And all the world is leaping
Beneath the sounding bells.

‘Tis solemn, yet ’tis cheerful,
A clear and pleasant voice,
That bids the sad and tearful
Be hopeful and rejoice.
Let sabbath morns unclouded
Still hear these tones of peace,
For earth with woe is shrouded
When sabbath bells, shall cease.

Reading Fisher’s verses brought me back to this poem, which of course expresses a very different idea, in a completely different context. The speaker is listening to bells from a Christian church on Sunday morning, and the sound of these clanging bells is permeating everything around him: the leaves, even the wind. Here, the speaker portrays the sound as omnipresent, while in Fisher’s poem, the speaker glances briefly toward the sound, already spiritually connected through other means. It is as though in this instance the bells are the spiritual source: these man-made objects synonymous with God, who can be present on earth but is clearly distinct from it.

Ridge implies in the last lines that human-instituted religion is necessary for peace to reign. The speaker of the poem is not in the church, however, but outside, listening to the effect of the bells on the hills and seemingly finding a consolation in religious institutions. His perspective may not necessarily be opposed to Fisher’s, which represents finding peace through independent means, since Ridge’s speaker himself is not worshipping in the church, nor indicating a desire to do so.

I find in this poem a certain gratitude for the early Western churches that had sprung up, further “civilizing” the West, and perhaps providing a tempering influence against a more lawless past where he experienced violence or crime in his surroundings, especially if I place it in a Californian context. The poem is particularly interesting to me because it goes to such lengths to describe and draw out the permeating sound of the bells, and in the last lines, leaves the reader to imagine a land without their spiritual influence, briefly hinting at former darkness. So he is implying that religious institutions are necessary for humanity in general, though he, interestingly, is standing outside of that institution.



American, Asian, and Southeast Asian literature link list

I organized a link list to be featured on my main page, compiling all of my browser bookmarks for online resources of the American, Asian, and Southeast Asian translated literature I have found within the past few months.

American, Asian, Southeast Asian literature available online

Links for reading and research in world literature.

American Literature

Gerald Vizenor: Site constructed with the assistance and active collaboration of the poet, Gerald Vizenor. Includes biography links, bibliography, and works online.

The Poems of John Rollin Ridge: A reproduction of the 1868 publication plus fugitive poems and notes, edited by James W. Parins and Jeff Ward.

Layli Long Soldier: Biography and poem “Whereas” on the Poetry Foundation website.

Jane Johnston Schoolcraft: Site designed to accompany The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky: The Writings of Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, edited by Robert Dale Parker.

Suji Kwock Kim: a contemporary Korean-American poet.

Occidental Writers in Asia

Joan Grigsby (1891-1937) Part Two: an occidental poet in Korea revealed through Brother Anthony’s extensive web resources.

Becoming Wu De: A Conversation with the founder of Global Tea Hut: interview relating the background of author Aaron Fisher, who lives in Taiwan and has written several books on tea and spirituality.

World Literature

Postcolonial Theory and Literature – Second Wave: Postcolonial – African, Africa, Studies, and Women: Summary of postcolonial studies by country/region.

Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts: Edited and/or translated by D.L. Ashliman. Exhaustive compendium of fairy tales from around the world organized by common themes.

Korean Literature

Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture, Volume 1, 2007: Available online at Project Muse.

The home page of Brother Anthony of Taize: Enormous collection of ancient and modern English-translated Korean literature, much translated by Brother Anthony.

The Cloud Dream of the Nine: a novel by Kim Man-jung: Written in or after 1689, about the times of the Tangs of China around 840 A.D., translated by James S. Gale, 1922.

Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies: Collection of Korean fairy tales translated from the Korean of Im Bang and Yi Ryuk by James S. Gale, 1913.

Korean Poetry in Translation: Resources from Harvard University.

Lesson Plan: Sijo in the Classroom: Teaching Korean sijo poetry in a comparative literature classroom.

Korean Literature: Overview of Korean Literature.

Korean Studies: Links to Korean literature online.

The Sejong Cultural Society writing page: Korean short stories and sijo poetry; encourages young American writers to explore Korean culture.

LTI Korea: Literature Translation Institute of Korea; has e-zines available for download, as well as resources about currently published Korean books and translation grants.

Vietnamese Literature

Homepage of Nguyen Phan Que Mai: Author of The Secret of Hoa Zen, contemporary Vietnamese poetry.

A Tale of Three Translations in Vietnamese Poetry: Examining three different translations of a poem by Hồ Xuân Hương, feminist Vietnamese poet (1772–1822).

Burmese Literature

Burmese Literature: Poems, legends and short stories from the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Win Pe Mya Zin: contemporary Burmese writer’s Facebook page; will need a Facebook account to read his poetry.

Sadaik: blog about literature of Myanmar and its translation by author Lucas Stewart.

Modern Burmese Literature: article in The Atlantic by U On Pe relating information about Burmese literature from ancient times up to the present.

Burma (Myanmar): from Poetry International Rotterdam. Contemporary Burmese poets, poetry and articles about Burmese literature.

Japanese Literature

Gendai Haiku: site about contemporary Japanese haiku poets and poetry.