back toJacket2

February 2004  |  Jacket 25  Contents  |  Homepage  |  Catalog  |  Search  |

Sheila E. Murphy Reviews

Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei by Pain Not Bread

Brick Books. 2000. 431 Boler Road, Box 20081. London, Ontario, N6K 4G6 Canada. $14.00
On the Internet at
This piece is 1,200 words or about four printed pages long.

Beginning at the end of the book, an eloquently written Afterword affords the reader a venture through various tissues of context for Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei. First, its author (the name Pain Not Bread) represents a collaboration formed in 1990 by Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, and Andy Patton. All the individual poems in this gathering derive from other sources, most importantly, the Tang Dynasty poets, including Wang Wei, Du Fu, Li Bai, and others, followed by a broad confluence of primary and secondary sources, those poets and scholars who have helped disseminate the works of the Tang Dynasty poets. Pain Not Bread thus contextualizes itself as a participant in  the centuries’ long relay that involves the discovery and development of texts emergent in the larger human consciousness.

Introduction to the Introduction of Wang Wei is an apt title that perfectly establishes the collaborative act of responding on which the book is based. The writing is focused and highly fluent in partaking of history and the contemporary world. Approaching each thread of text, one senses that for the authors, preparedness is itself a discipline that facilitates the power to keep experience and language fresh. One can leaf through and select any page and be rewarded with text that feels new while resonating with tradition. One enters a place where the poet draws from, draws upon, refers, remakes, begins anew, and  prepares for a welcome and ironic displacement of the new work itself: as introduction to the introduction, but in reality a postlude.

The individual poems honor and draw from distances in space and time, with acknowledgement of their origins, inspiration, and uniqueness as entities themselves. The authors note that their work embraces the inherent allusiveness of classical Chinese poetry, but that the poems are ‘free variations’ on a range of components that brought about the poems, the commentaries, and the references to other authors that spark linkages of different types.

‘Books should begin and end in pleasure,’ says the poem ‘Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu).’ The poem goes on to probe the almost insurmountable openness offered by any poem, including this passage, infused with palpable winking: ‘The range of meanings/ is not important, so long as we can get together/ every week or so, make these protests against our own characters/ and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,/ find out what it is that might be in our minds.’

In ‘Cloud Music (An Introduction to Du Fu),’ the authors lead readers to the experience of coexistent ephemera and anchor points associated with the Tang Dynasty poets. The fusion of tone with content yields an unusual blend of casualness and awe:

At the age of forty-one:
sets out on the dark bridge
from one personality to another —
in this very body to wake and live.

A rose has no counterpart;
good deeds, changelessness . . .
somehow these poems, copied on the back of your head
(meaning death) survive.

By now the moral shadows are gone.
The open secret is friendship.
Now I hear cloud music,
stirring even the beautiful clouds.

Despite a lengthy tradition of collaboration, notably in Asian poetry, the practice remains somewhat of a novelty among primary English-speaking writers. Current collaborative poems therefore appear to be treated differently from their textual counterparts by individual authors. Introduction to the Introduction is such strong work that it would likely be regarded as prizeworthy in either category of poetry.

The pleasurable shift from conceptual to natural reference, from formal to informal style, from playful reporting of quotidian activity to invocations of larger significance is deftly accomplished. Reading this book, one gains a sense of taking part in a tradition while absorbing new possibilities.

‘White Peony (from the Late Tang)’ closes with

Like the moon she waits for fifteen hundred years,
like water where the rain dwells. She lies down.
Rhyme and iambics are brought to their knees.
Kind language, meaning all that it can mean.

Breadth of scope and concept notwithstanding, there is a consistency of spirit that runs through this volume, incorporating supple twists and turns and sharing of kin contemporary elements.
In the clean, conversational lines of ‘Rereading Li Bai (from the Late Tang)’ one finds a fusion of narration and reflection, blending nature and conceptual thought:

And so, at the end of discourse, I shut my gate,
and see the road run north from here.

Not the road to Shu, which is hard,
harder than climbing the blue sky  —

but leading elsewhere.
Like those certain flowers that bloom at dusk,
Those wild birds that forget,
at last, to go home.

In stark contrast, a longer line, a thicker texture, employing a less reverent attitude, is typified in ‘Drunken Battles (An Introduction to Du Fu)’:

No painting can tell you what age is going to arrive —
not even if riches are already drifting in around your ears
like geese returning noisily each spring.
The present is like petty cash for those perpetually honored by time,
But for the stableboys, it’s always melancholy. . .

Not only does this writing escape from taking itself too seriously, it shares a large space of attention with the reader, and invites further perception in a heuristic manner. In ‘The Rise and Fall of Human Breath (An Introduction to Wang Wei),’ are the words:

. . . the city carries such a cargo of pathos and longing
that daily life there vaccinates us against revelation.

And further, the piece ‘Literary Criticism (An Introduction to Wang Wei)’ begins with the passage:

For ten years, while the narrator lay in bed,
a plague of scholars swarmed up from the 19th Century
and out across the 20th, emerging finally into the light and tenure,
blinking their eyes and calling down
scorn upon the near and newly dead.

The same poem ends:

And what if the author of the text is dead?
If the real ruler is the audience?
At dusk Wang Wei sets out again to walk beside the Wang River.
The shrill sound of critics rises from the hedges,
but after awhile fades into the background and is heard no more.
I am here to announce the death of the critic,
the resurrection of the book Wang Wei.
Slowly at first, I turn the pages.
I lie on a warm rock in the sun all day.
I stop at the thorn gate seized by grief.
I ask for his wooden door to be green wood again.

The authors of this collection position their book critically, defining its context amid the various concentric circles of historical perspective. The very complexity included in this creation might be construed as a weakness, potentially driving away readers resistant to what might be considered ‘layers of remove.’ Having taken this risk, Pain Not Bread has in fact raised the bar on achievement both for collaborative and individual pronunciation of uncharted places.

Introduction to the Introduction of Wang Wei is replete with humor and wisdom and pleasure. It ventures gracefully into a well-prepared place, unique among current collaborative efforts, that transcends the fact of uniqueness by the quality of thought, structure, and heart.

Jacket 25 — February 2004  Contents page
Select other issues of the magazine from the | Jacket catalog | read about Jacket |
Other links: | top | homepage | bookstores | literary links | internet design |
Copyright Notice: Please respect the fact that this material is copyright. It is made available here without charge for personal use only. It may not be stored, displayed, published, reproduced, or used for any other purpose

This material is copyright © Sheila E. Murphy and Jacket magazine 2004
The URL address of this page is