A Read of the Rocks on Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: The Legend of Han Shan and Shih Te, the Original Dharma Bums

By Sean Michael Wilson

Graphic Poetry Collection

Illustrated by Akiko Shimojima

Shambhala Publications Inc.

144 pages


Whenever poetry reinvigorates itself as a broader cultural touchstone, the renewal often starts with those grassroots that nourish the base of the ivory tower, along with a populist head wind that keeps the shoots bent close to the ground. Take the Beats of several decades past, or the more recent underground crew of spoken word artists and performance poets. While the quality of work from these disruptors has varied, their desire to reshape tradition in their own image infuses raw passion and genuine wit back into the larger literary world.

In Cold Mountain: The Legend of Han Shan and Shih Te, the Original Dharma Bums, Sean Michael Wilson liberates the poems of the well-mythologized hobo-bard Han Shan from academic study back to the essential aspects of existence they reflect. Wilson mixes Han Shan’s legend and work with the pop aesthetic of Japanese manga graphic novels in a manner that respects the poetic tradition while morphing it into something a twenty-first century audience can recognize. Wilson, in fact, reintroduces us to the legend in the way that Beat poet Gary Snyder did with the Cold Mountain translations in his own Rip Rap collection. (In the process, he also aligned Han Shan with the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac’s self-styled “Dharma Bums”.)

In his forward here, J.P. Seaton (whose translations are used by Wilson) notes that “Han Shan and Shih Te have come to America again…The two unlikely looking Bodhisattvas RE-ENTER a place they’ve been before. These reincarnations, set to live in a world of computers and global climate change, have a lighter and sharper feel than the several Han Shans who have come to visit us since Snyder’s Beats.”  These new versions, Seaton argues, are “better suited to a folk tradition that now includes a generation that has been raised on manga and anime.” And this literature/manga mash-up certainly pulls Han Shan and his work into modern pop culture.

Parts 1 and 2 of the book mix scenes from the history/myth of the daily lives of Han Shan and his fellow monk/poet/sidekick Shih Te (whether in meditative contemplation on the mountainside or holy-goofing at the temple) with their poems; works that were allegedly found on and copied from the rocks and trees of Cold Mountain itself. The effect is a bit of a literary cabaret, capturing the sense of raw wonder that the unadorned life allows, and reflecting the spontaneity of the artistic spirit.

Part 3 focuses on specific works, presenting a series of Han Shan’s poems narrated by stark, still imagery that re-focuses the reader’s mind on the objective rather than the subjective. The effect is serious, sobering and reflective, allowing the reader to stare at the ripples of the pond, rather than plunging him or her into its depths.

Scholars note that Han Shan’s original work was relatively colloquial and informal for its time and context (though maybe not as free as the verse of the Beats), and various translations have echoed aspects of that, in a variety of interptetations. Where Seaton’s translations are loose and chatty, those of the aforementioned Gary Snyder are more condensed, focused and imagistic. But, regardless of how one foot is placed in front of the other, both sets keep the profound meditations, and the little bit of joking.

And the manga angle here may not actually capture the Death Note fans. But it still serves as a useful tool to draw in the curious, and it allows an easy access point to something as potentially daunting but still highly-rewarding as centuries-old zen poetry.

Read the rocks.


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