Forty-eight years ago this month, I was just returned from Vietnam, shoulders heavy with war and on my way from a home in the Pennsylvania Amish country to a new posting at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. I drove late into the night until the cold and fatigue caught me as I crossed the Connecticut/Massachusetts border on I-84 and found a rest area on the Mass Pike likely near Sturbridge. I pulled in, and as all good soldiers know how to do, went right to sleep in my car.
At dawn I opened my eyes and spread before me was the entire Central Massachusetts landscape: the Connecticut River valley on the left, Quabbin Reservoir to the center, a distant Boston far to the right. Presiding over it all was a tree-lined, snow-capped mountain with a granite peak—Monadnock: He Who Stands Alone.
I did not know then of Monadnock and Emerson, Monadnock and Thoreau, Monadnock and Older, or Monadnock and Kinnell. It was the vision I recognized and experienced at that moment. Upon this great rock I would anchor the rest of my life. Only much later did it become clear how it has anchored so many others of this culture and those before that, the ones who gave the rock its name.
The mountain is a mystic, magically transforming its few thousand feet of altitude into a height recognized around the planet. Even the dictionary finds its attempt at clarity undermined by its connotations: “monadnock – In geology, a single remnant of a former highland.” Monadnock, the last man standing.
The mountain befuddles most photographers and painters—revealing its power to mesmerize only to those who can see beyond their craft.
I recall a mid-winter in early 1990s when Chinese poet and translator Zhang Ziqing visited to see for himself this place of Thoreau and Emerson. Snow piled to the eaves of houses as we drove out to good vantage beyond Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and stopped.
Zhang pulled out an Instamatic camera to take a photograph and because I had tried and failed many times to use an Instamatic to photograph the mountain, I knew it would miss the magic. It was like photographing a ghost in a mirror. I said, “No, no, the picture won’t come out.”
Something got lost in the translation because he put away his Instamatic, but when he returned to Nanjing University, he wrote an essay about how Monadnock is so sacred that one is not permitted to photograph it, and so, out of a cultural misunderstanding, was born the Monadnock Pastoral Poets and their sacred mountain.
As the decades have passed and I have witnessed its effect again and again on others, it has occurred to me that Zhang was right. The mysticism of He Who Stands Alone had taken possession, and I did not know it. According to the 2014 Fairpoint phonebook, Monadnock has possessed at least 117 other businesses as well: Monadnock schools, Monadnock banks, Monadnock dairies, Monadnock dentists, Monadnock septic tank cleaners, Monadnock Music and Monadnock Writers’ Group, Monadnock Family Services, and Monadnock Fence. The list—like the mountain—goes on and on.
We are as spiritually under the influence of this gray whale of a rock today as were Henry David Thoreau, painter William Preston Phelps, and Mark Twain, who wrote in his autobiography about its magic during his summers in Dublin, New Hampshire. How does a mountain just a hair over three thousand feet high do it? It’s a mystery.
One can drive south to New Salem, Massachusetts, and look north to see Monadnock stun the Quabbin Reservoir with its image. One can drive just as far north to Pitcher Mountain and look south and there is Monadnock again lording over the horizon. Go west to Vermont and drive east from Brattleboro on Route 9 or Putney from Route 12 toward Keene and one comes around a hilltop curve expecting to see more of the traditional Appalachian ridges. Instead one gets this thing that looks like another hill except it just keeps on growing, morphing into a tree line and the gray granite visage of a mountain that should be out West. Go east to the coast and drive west. At each rise from Portsmouth or Boston, there is the dark profile of Monadnock on the horizon—its image almost Biblical–speaking in the tongue of the mind: “Come ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
First published in New England Memories, June, 2018
The Magic of Monadnock: Poetry That Bridges Continents
Geology has a way of grabbing writers’ attention, especially when that geology thrusts itself in a lonely fashion, a few thousand feet above a plain where lots of artists hang about as Maoshan does in China or Mount Monadnock does in New Hampshire.
Li Po [or Li Bai (701–762), also known as Li Bo] fell under that spell again and again. Even his titles mention mountains over and over and they occur within the poems themselves such as this one where he mentions the Taoist Maoshan directly:
Weeping over Wang Yan’s Death on the Way in Li Shui
You, rare treasure of our time, oh, gone too young.
I’ve missed your funeral, and like heavy air,
the sorrow weighs.
Now your grave is covered with autumn grass.
I want to give my sword for you, but don’t know how
to choose, at the edge of this grave,
a suitable branch to hang it.
Though I haven’t died of crying before this place,
I’ll shed tears on the road to Danyang,
back and forth,
the rest of my life.
Translated by Zhang Ziqing,
Edited by Rodger Martin (For All The Tea in Zhōngguó)
Emerson and Thoreau noticed the effect as well and highlighted the long literary trail that attaches itself to Mount Monadnock which, as Interpretative Ranger Brittany O’Neal reminded us in our October Pilgrimage to Thoreau’s Rock, drew over 160,000 climbers in 2016 (and that number only includes those who registered through the state park). That’s today and Thoreau and Emerson were then, but even in Thoreau’s time there was scorn for those who simply climbed to reach the summit when he noted in his journal:
“Those who climb to the peak of Monadnock have seen but little of the mountain. I came not to look off from it, but to look at it. The view of the pinnacle itself from the plateau below surpasses any view which you get from the summit. It is indispensible to see the top itself and the sierra of its outline from one side…. It is remarkable what haste the visitors make to get to the top of the mountain and then look away from it.”
Therefore, on Wednesday, October 11, 2017, as part of the week-long Magic of Monadnock Colloquium: Poetry Bridging Continents which acted as a cultural exchange between poets from American and poets from China (despite three whom the United States Government denied entry visas—such has become the state of American leadership’s insecurity to any mirror image which does not reflect exactly like itself that it even fears poets ). a group of eight led by Ranger O’Neal climbed Thoreau’s route to his rock not to the peak, determined to pay homage to the magic of this mountain in a place Thoreau himself had done so.
Once at Thoreau’s Rock, Mark Long, Director of the Integrated Studies Program at Keene State College read A. R. Ammons’ poem “For Harold Bloom” which as critic David Lehman noted in his introduction to Ammons’ Selected Poems indicated Ammons saw climbing simply to reach a mountain’s peak the same way Thoreau saw it: When the poet reaches the “summit, … he feels a certain desolation or emptiness”:
….for the word tree I have been shown a tree and for the word rock I have been shown a rock, for stream, for cloud, for star this place has provided firm implication and answering but where here is the image for longing:….
Indeed there was magic and longing at this granite outcropping as the nine of us read and listened to the words of these two American poets and then the words of Chinese pastoral poet Chen Yihai and finally the calligrapher Zichuan who read his calligraphy in the ancient way—that is to say–it must be sung. And Zichuan sang, and the song floated into the sky among the Vs of geese flying south and an autumn ablaze in color.
And so it was all week as poets, and lovers of poetry gathered around The Grand Monadnock for a week of poetry in two languages.
Magic of Monadnock II
It’s hard to know what state the state of poetry is in the rest of the nation, but the state of poetry in New Hampshire this past month reinforces why settling here over four decades ago was a decision that keeps on giving back.
Two years ago, as I ascended or descended the stairways inside the Department of Foreign Languages at Shanghai University of International Business and Economics (SUIBE) I was struck by how each stairwell displayed a prominent quote in English by Henry David Thoreau. Whether those quotes were window dressings or carried weight with the Chinese citizens who also daily ascended and descended those stairs was amply answered when five poets from China accepted Keene State College’s invitation to visit the Monadnock Region and hike to Thoreau’s rock on Mount Monadnock. The earlier blog spot deals with that hike. But the week was more than that hike, for example, exactly where else can one get 46 students, poets, and community members together to create nine-linked verses we call American Rengas. The renga is an Asian form of linked verse taught me by Boston poet Steven Rattimer at a New England Artists Trust conference decades ago. An American renga is an expanded form of that style which permits us to add color and art to replace calligraphy in lines of linked poetry created on the spot by a group of writers. The process has a mathematical progression which allows each participant an opportunity to create equal lines of poetry and art in a joint verse.
Poet Chen Yihai prepares a renga line. Photo by Zi Chuan
Poet Henry Walters begins as renga line while others await their opportunity. Photo by C. Yihai
by Chen Yihai
Spring awaits itself
Flowers blossom themselves
Water does not have its identity
And the wind’s greatest pleasure is to lose itself
Six of nine renga on display in The Mason Library, Keene State College. Photo by C. Yihai
Also during that week the visiting poets got to mingle with a more modern-day American Thoreau-like poet named Henry Walters who resides in his own Walden-like creation on a rocky spine above the campus of the Dublin School. Inside Walters treated his visitors to a Brahms piano piece he played on an upright piano he somehow managed to fit snugly into his cabin. This is something the one-dimensional thinkers of Silicon Valley don’t quite understand—that flat screen depiction of reality is no more real than the cartoons of our youth. It may depict a picture of reality, might even sound like reality, but it is a miniature, flat reality. It doesn’t smell, feel, or taste like reality—even if down the road someone will try to add those features. All the video in the world cannot replace the sense of sitting on Thoreau’s Rock and listening to one another sing poetry or sip tea in Henry Walter’s cabin as he plays Brahms.
Henry Walters'[ cabin in the woods of Dublin School, Dublin, N.H.. Photo: C. Yihai
Inside the cabin, (l-r) Hodgen, Chen, Zi, Martin, Walters, Photo: R. Obien
Outside the cabin. Photo: R Obien
Earlier all gathered for an upstairs meal in the Keene building once owned by Thoreau’s mother’s family and a place he stayed during his Monadnock visits. Later we gathered at the Historical Society of Cheshire County to hear poetry in two languages and music by classical guitarist David Gru6under. Families even brought their children. Imagine, in Keene, New Hampshire, families bring children to hear poetry. And the children, as attentive as I, listened to those sounds of Mandarin and understood that definitions are only 30 percent of communication—the body delivering those definitions provides the other 70 percent.
Prof. Nanjiang Hyde and poet Susan Roney-O’Brien read dual language poetry of Mi Zheng-ying and Roney-O’Brien. (Alumni Recital Hall, Keene State College) Photo: Chen Yihai
Poet Bill Doreski receives a calligraphy gift form poet Zi Chuan, Mason Library, 10-10-17.
Photo C. Yihai
But after Chen Yihai and Zi Chuan returned to China, the poetry doesn’t stop in the Granite State. A few weeks later an e-mail came across my transom that New England College theater students and their director had created a theater piece titled “Allowances” using fifty poems of witness as its script. And there at the small theater in the only Henniker on Earth, I listened to a group of NEC students use music, dance, and song both poetic and literal to put to shame the idea that America is a white-bread frozen meal waiting to be popped into a microwave for a quick bite to eat. No, even the occasional forgotten line could not demonstrate more clearly that this nation is at its best when it’s a bubbling melting pot of stew simmering on the stove.
The Water Chestnut Pond
by Zi Chuan
The wind can not stir a ripple
on the icy surface of the pond.
Like crystal and amber a few
brown leaves have embedded themselves
in the ice. A hole for a water bucket
gapes near the pier’s springboard.
Nearby water chestnuts and arrowheads
hide deep within the frozen rice paddies
where dry plants rustle in the cold wind.
In front of the frozen pond, it’s hard to imagine
how large the area water chestnut leaves spread
with their white flowers clustered
in the summer of 1970, as if water chestnuts
were lifted overnight. But vividly I remember
the water caltrop-picking girl who sat
on the small boat with red dragonflies overhead.
I reached to give her a hand
when suddenly her boat overturned
and she fell into the water.
When she waded ashore her soaked clothes
exposed the lines of her body.
Afterward, she blushed with shame
whenever she saw me.
That winter, she married,
floating away in a boat.
translated by Zhang Ziqing
edited by Rodger Martin
 It refers to the second year when Zi Chuan came to the countryside.
If one travels west from Shanghai on a bullet train to Nanjing along the inland plain (and yes, the bullet train comfortably reached speeds of 187 mph thus embarrassing our own Acela), into Jiangsu Province just south of the Yangtze River there is a string of stark hills visually striking enough to be described as low mountains. According to poet Zhang Min-gui, this was once an ancient seabed and though the sea has gone, its namesake river, the Yangtze, compares favorably to the Mississippi. It is one large, deep ponderously moving landscape of water and so near sea level that low hills make for a prominent landscape.
At the top of one of these peaks not yet worn down by the river is Floating Mountain Tea Farm. It stands on the ridge of an extinct caldera hundreds of millions of years old. To get there one must, accompanied by poetry friends, drive from Nanjing, wind up a narrow concrete road, occasionally pull over to permit a puttering, one-lung farmer’s cart to sputter by, and then near the top, park and walk up a narrow lane between rows of ranked tea bushes until one reaches the weathered top of the ridge.
Fragments of fist-sized and smaller pieces of pumice litter the earth. Despite a volcanic eruption as old as the Appalachians, maybe older, the evidence still remains fresh. The air is as clear here as it would be in The Blue Ridge, or Pennsylvania in June, so taking in the ring of hills composing this old crater provides a good sense of how massive the eruption had been. A large Mount Saint Helens comes to mind. I suspect there were not many surviving witnesses, and today only the pumice and the imagination remain, along with long rows of green tea.
Poet Zhang Min-gui showed how workers picked the tea leaves off the tops of the bushes, then, back at the farm sheds, the farmers demonstrated how they cut, heated, and packed the tea for shipment. They then brought some freshly picked green tea into their sparse office for sampling. A rule picked up at the tea houses in Shanghai indicated one fills the tea pot with a full pot of boiling water and discards that first pot of water to wash away any harshness, then keep refilling the small pots with hot water and begin sipping the ever-more-mellow tea.
Tea has always been close to my heart, since my mother and grandfather (Brits) taught me as a child that tea was good, coffee bad, but normally it was black tea processed the English way—like this:
A child once dreamed his life complete
when he could sit like his grandfather,
in velvet robe, sipping cosied tea,
and gaze at mist spun in from the sea.
This early March that child’s daughter sleeps
And he sits hushed by velvet within
the smooth-grained polish of a captain’s chair.
At dusts of snow, through greenhouse glass he stares
and between the rising twists of steam sips his tea.
He listens to this gentle house where dream matures to prayer:
“Where from here Grandad? Then I was too young
to question beneath your calm. Then, there,
enough to sense peace outlasted your children’s
consumed lungs and cancered breasts.
Then, you understood the orphan,
my brother’s ‘Dance on your grave’ scream.
He knew only the triangle–earth, anger, and pain.
Later, in your garden centered by scent,
your dirt, under your thatch, I learned what survival meant.
And now age sifts itself to a nuzzle of fur.
It seeps like leaves of tea that swell and steep
through clear, hot, liquid life infusing a soul with color.
I am your cup, bone-china thin but no rust,
no scald, no tremor will rim my thrust.”
“Then rise,” he said. “Measure your finest leaf
Into silver spoon and translucent porcelain cup.
It’s time. Prepare great-granddaughter her tea.”
The Monadnock Reader, 1990
But these later travels have allowed ne to broaden my tastes. Again and again here, my daughter and I spent wonderful hours sipping all kinds of tea combinations in tea houses about Yu Garden, or the water village of Zhujiajio where we purchased artist-made porcelain tea sets. Each time reinforcing my belief that nothing improves reflection so much as a steaming cuppa tea. (For the Yanks, that’s Brit slang for cup of tea.)
Which reminds me, my cuppa needs a refill, and we need to return to Jurong, China.
Later that evening, after sipping green tea in the farm offices, the farmhands cooked and served a typical banquet right there in the sheds. This is a working farm where a few hours before rattling machines were cutting up tea and dryers drying tea so when fine porcelain and glassware appeared I wondered where it had been kept. I suppose when a culture has a five-thousand-year history, it learns that one shouldn’t always keep fine china three meals a day locked behind a gated community wall—though I suspect China has just as many billionaires as the U.S. who somehow convince themselves that gold-plated cutlery can replace community.
Banquets in China are in the round, sometimes 14-18 people at a table with a giant Lazy Susan in the center where all dishes are placed and one simply spins the Lazy Susan picking off whatever edible one chooses as it slowly twirls by. The variety of dishes is astonishing and it is best, if the Western visitor likes how something tastes, eat. Don’t ask. Banquets are also the occasion for much toasting via rice wine, the China equivalent of scotch or bourbon, or vodka here. The only question one must ask if engaged in serious toasting is how much of the next day is worth losing.
That evening, after the eating and toasting concluded, we walked out into the night air and discovered enough clarity that a full moon, Jupiter and Venus all could appear through the haze in a perfect end to the evening. In the photo that opens this entry you will see the calligraphy etched into the rock which states “Floating Mountain Tea Farm.” But even more so, this excerpt from a poem by Zhang Min-gui gets closer to what All The Tea in China is really about.
Excerpt from: Tea Tasting by Zhang Min-gui
A pot of good tea
tells you through water
its greenness, its fragrance.
It brings spring to your heart.
A pot of good tea
makes tea lovers gush
over its taste: astringent,
mellow or sweet, and makes them
speak the ups and downs
of uncontrollable fate… ——2011
Translated by Zhang Ziqing, edited by Rodger Martin
Some days things converge just right to make them special. Saturday, September 14, 2014, Poetry in the Park in Nashua was such a day. The cool, raw November-like weather kept the crowd down but poetry well-spoken can transcend that weather and for that thin read line listening on the lawn, it did. But that should be expected of good poetry. (And yes, thin read line is a pun in a couple of ways. What else are poets to do?) But it was and is the last poet of the day that demands focus. Henry Walters is just 30, and his first book, Field Guide A Tempo, will come out in a few weeks from Hobblebush Books Granite State Poetry Series. (A plug rather than a pun.) I wanted to hear this poet live, in front of a breathing audience. Walters is a birder—no more than that–a falconer, a musician, a classics graduate of Harvard–and lives in a Thoreau-like cabin in the woods above the Dublin School in Dublin, N.H., likely with a fine view of Monadnock itself. In some poems, he uses that precise nomenclature of the birder not to describe birds, but to observe humans, leaving the reader or listener with the distinct—and rather eerie– impression of being transported inside the head of a raptor and experiencing yourself observed by the calculating eye of a an entity at the top of his or her particular food chain. An entity not hungry but aware that down the line he might become hungry. Many poets would stop there, justly satisfied with the craft, but not Walters. He then layers all his poetry with musical structure. And why not? After all poetry and music are, if not identical twins, at least fraternal twins. When the Irish ask a poet to “Give us a song.” They expect words that sing. Walters’ words sing. Most of those few poets who had not stopped earlier, would have stopped smugly here secure in their mastery of the American idiom, but not Walters. He dares to accomplish an almost un-American thing. He puts his classical training to work and wraps it all with the aura of the classics—lifting it beyond the confinement of the Northern New Word and encapsulating five thousand years of Western culture. As poet Rosanna Warren says, he is “… unafraid of ecstasy, this poet has stolen Hermes’ tortois-lyre and on it he plays tunes at once ancient and violently new. Every line ignites.” If a poet can go much farther, I’m not sure where or how. Perhaps the Eastern Culture which I’m not saying Walters might not tackle next. Had this been the end of the day, I would have been satisfied. But it wasn’t. Finally, came the moment I had waited for, the voice itself. Does he speak his poetry with the same conviction with which he writes it? If you think I’ve been hyperbolic before, patience. Seven poets had read, many with song lilting off their words. For an hour or so a large hawk had been circling the half shell above the lawns. Poets spoke, poets sang, the hawk rode the thermals. But as Hobblebush publisher Sid Hall introduced the final reader, Henry Walters, the hawk descended and perched on the edge of the half shell roof–a healthy, large, young redtail. It perched quietly and eyed all of us on the lawns until Walters took the stage and then it slowly flapped away. For the life of me, it was if Virgil in the guise of a hawk had come down to consecrate this moment, to let us know there are many stars in the poetry galaxy, but this one is a comet. Does he make his words sing? You be the judge. Listen to the three poems which won Walters the online journal Better #5 2014 poetry contest. Hyperbole? Maybe. Perhaps it was one of Walters’ hawks recognizing him from the past, but no one will convince me it wasn’t Virgil reincarnated introducing Henry Walters’ first book of poetry to the world. If you love poetry, remember this day. ps: And there is other song in the Granite State as well: For N.H.’s finest classical music, the NH Symphony plays Sunday Oct. 5, at Peterborough Town House