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A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: How I Work with My Notes, Creation Myths, and the Story of the Lovers, Niulang and Zhinu

sectitle-exseries37 01 Black Swan and Koi, Panda Refuge, ChengduBlack Swan, Panda Refuge, Chengdu, China

Prelude: Third Evening in Hong Kong

On my second-to-last night in Hong Kong, I was having dinner with a couple from our group and they said they’d seen me writing a lot on this trip and wondered what I was writing. So I paged through my notebook to refresh my memory. There was a story about getting lost coming home after dark on the ferry from the mainland last night. Then there were notes I made while re-reading Milton’s “Paradise Lost” before bed, then there was a long section about my visit to the Natural History Museum on the main island this afternoon.

What kind of notes, they wanted to know?

Well, in “Paradise Lost,” Lucifer is arguing his case against God as the sole power in the universe. He claims that God needs a balancing counter-force or he will become a tyrant. Most of the book is written as his monologue, and Milton gives Lucifer all the best lines. He’s charming and charismatic and convincing, and funny too. And I got so caught up with Milton’s rhythms and language that I began to have thoughts that were obviously influenced by what I was reading. And when that happens—whether I’m in a museum or a theater or when I’m reading or listening to music—I take out my notebook and write as much as I can. I always carry a notebook with me, but this experience of being overcome only happens when I’m traveling alone nowadays. I can’t slow down or get quiet enough or focus enough on what I’m experiencing to hear those voices when I’m with someone else. Whenever I travel or visit a museum with someone else it becomes a social event instead. From my Milton notes I may get a longish poem or maybe a monologue. I won’t know until I get home and type it all up. I usually end up throwing away about a third of my notes. Most of the rest will be changed beyond recognition, and I usually add about 30 to 40 percent in transcription and editing.

What kind of notes did you make in the museum?

They have the pre-historic section set up in such a way that I got a real sense of the long slow rhythms of nature, time that’s measured in ages. And sometimes these rhythms are slow and constant forces, like waves depositing sand to create a beach. Or how that same sand plus gravity and time will turn into sandstone. And there are slow destructive forces too, like ice ages and erosion and wind. And there are sudden catastrophic forces like meteorites and volcanoes and fires and floods. And then out of this chemistry and weather and elemental forces, the creation of life occurs, which is a big enough force to balance out all the meteorites and volcanoes and fires and floods. Nothing was able to stop life from beginning, and nothing has been able to end it yet, and there has been life present for at least 3.6 billion years—three quarters of the existence of the planet itself. And there were some pretty huge catastrophes in those 3.6 billion years—asteroids and ice ages. And then more complex life forms appear and finally primitive forms of humans appear and live more or less human lives. And that’s when I lose interest, when civilization appears.

And Jerry said, “And they’re both creation stories, too.” And I said, “What?” and he said, “I mean that not only are they both stories of the universe being a balance between two opposing forces, but in their own way the Milton and the museum’s prehistoric exhibits are creation stories too.” “Oh!” I laugh. “I never thought of that, I swear. But you’re right. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Most of my writing is like that. I don’t know what I’m writing until later.”

37 02 Churning of the Sea of Milk, Siem Reap Airport, Cambodia (photo Wikipedia)Churning of the Sea of Milk (from Wikipedia)

When I arrived in Cambodia two days later, the first piece of art I saw was at the Siem Reap airport. It was a scene from the creation myth in the Puranas—a collection of Hindu sacred stories—known as “Churning of the Sea of Milk.” It is a scene I will see portrayed numerous times over the next seven days not only in the temples—most famously at Ankor Wat—but even in public paintings and sculptures like the one at the airport. On one side of a tug of war are the Gods (Devas), and on the other the Demons (Asuras). The rope is a Snake (Naga), and in the middle is Vishnu, sometimes alone as the axis of the universe, and sometimes standing on a sacred mountain turned upside down.

The story is that both the Gods and Demons wanted to create amrita, an elixir that would give them immortality, but neither force was strong enough to create it on their own. So the Gods consulted Vishnu and he advised them to work together with the Asuras to churn the Sea of Milk. As they do, the Asuras and Devas create the universe together, so it is half light and half dark. First their churning created the night and day—the sun and moon—then the earth, the rivers, the wind, then everything that grows from the earth or lives underwater. And when the garden was ready, their churning filled the earth with bugs, and snakes, and birds, the four-legged, then the two-legged, and finally the humans. Our eternity is but an instant in the tug of war of between the Asuras and Devas, churning the Sea of Milk with a sacred mountain and a Naga, in hopes of creating an elixir that would grant them immortality.

For the rest of trip I would continue to see evidence of the persistence of different creation myths in every place I visited. But it wasn’t until I returned home and began typing up my notebooks that I realized that the first creation myth in my story was written while I was still in Beijing, on my third day in China, when Xi told me the story of Pangu.

37 03 Pangu (from Wikipedia)Pangu

Day Three: Beijing, China

While we were caught in traffic in Beijing, I asked Xi about some colorful creatures featured on pennants hanging in a public park. She said they were getting ready for the annual festival for Pangu, did I know the story of Pangu?

In the beginning there was only a formless chaos. But Nature’s eternal forces, yin and yang—the eternal balance of dark and light, male and female, life and death—made love for 18,000 years and shaped this chaos into an egg. And inside this egg was Pangu.

Soon Pangu was too big for the shell, which burst in half. The top half flew up and became the sky, and the bottom half sank beneath him and became the Earth.

Pangu stood up and stretched his hands above his head, pushing the sky into place. He continued to grow at a rate of ten feet each day, pushing the sky farther into space, his feet keeping the Earth in place.

From four drops of his sweat, four helpers appeared from the four directions—one drop from his left elbow, one drop from his forehead, one drop from his right elbow, and one drop from his spine. That first helper came from the east, and it was Qilin, a chimera who became Pangu’s wife and bore his children. Qilin restored Pangu’s life every morning with a kiss. The second helper came from the north, and it was Tortoise, who brought Pangu the wisdom of a long life. The third helper was Dragon, who brought Pangu the power of over life and death, creation and destruction; and the fourth was Phoenix, whose bliss radiated from the base of Pangu’s spine and was given the name of Love.

It took Pangu and his four helpers 18,000 years to create the sky and Earth we have today. But then one morning Qilin was delayed picking flowers to surprise her husband and Pangu woke up without her kiss for the first time. He was alarmed that she might be unwell and he struggled to his feet in a vain attempt to see her approaching. As he searched the earth for his wife, he began to feel weakness for the first time, and it tasted warm and soothing. And for the first time since he had broken open his shell, he remembered how soft and dark it had been before his eyes opened the first time, asleep to everything and without a thought. And at this memory Pangu smiled and stopped walking, stopped looking for Qilin, and willingly took his last breath. As it escaped his lips, he saw his beloved Qilin appear on the horizon, and she was running toward him with an armful of flowers and his heart was filled with such relief that he called out her name and smiled as he expired.

Pangu’s left eye floated off and became the sun, and his right eye became the moon. His body stumbled and landed on its side. Over millennia, his joints—his shoulders and elbows, his hips and calves and ankles—became mountains. His arteries and veins became riverbanks, his blood became rivers. The wind carried his silver hairs into the sky where they became the clouds and stars and the Milky Way. His fur became the fields and the bushes and forests; his horns and teeth and nails became the stones and minerals and metals; his sweat became the rain, his fleas became fish and animals depending on where they landed, his four limbs became the pillars marking the four corners of the world, separating Earth and sky.

37 04 Temple Painting of the 1st Days of Mankind BeijingTemple Painting of the First Days of Mankind, Beijing

The Creation of Human Beings           

After Pangu’s death, one of his daughters, Nuwa, was chased by her two half-brothers, neither of whom interested her. But when she came to a stream and bent over to get a drink of water, she saw her own reflection and realized she was lonely. So she decided to create life even though all she had to work with was mud and river water.

When she’d shaped the first body, Nuwa breathed on it, and when she opened her hand, she was holding a chicken. On the next day she held a dog. On the third day she created sheep. On the fourth day she created pigs. On the fifth day she created cows. On the sixth day she created horses.

On the seventh day Nuwa took a handful of the river bank’s light-yellow clay and shaped it using the mandrake root as a model. But the clay was not strong enough to stand on its own and sank back into the mud. (This is why all of his descendants must at their end return to the earth as well.)

Nuwa had never failed at anything before. So she tried again, this time using a piece of thread from her dress to hold the mud together. (Evidence of this thread remains in every human being as their spine.)

This second human was able to stand on its own, so she tested it by poking it in its middle (which is where our bellybuttons come from) and when it wobbled but continued to stand, she blew into its mouth and gave it life.

When this living man of clay and water opened its eyes and blinked, Nuwa felt wonder for the first time. She quickly made a woman to keep him company and help with the livestock and the planting, and she enjoyed the two of them so much that she made smaller versions of them as children, and then she made elders and every race and color. These were the Golden Race.

But Nuwa quickly became bored with the laborious process of handshaping every human, so she took a piece of rope and soaked it in mud and swung it around her head, and out of every drop of mud arose a human being. But because they were mass-produced, this second race of humans was a Silver Race. But even these Silver humans are demi-gods to their children, the Bronze Race. And we—the children of the Bronze Race, who have had no contact with the divine at all, will forever be the Mud Race.

37 05 Peacock, Panda Preserve, ChengduUnretouched Photo of a Peacock, Panda Preserve, Chengdu

The Qixi Festival

“Magpie,” Xi whispers, and points to the branches above us. I don’t know where to look. “Follow its song.” When she decides it’s time to move on, Xi tells me the story of the Night of Sevens, the Magpie festival, the seventh day of the seventh lunar month on the Chinese calendar. It’s known as the Qixi Festival, she tells me; it’s the Chinese Valentine’s Day. On that morning, women gather with the shamans and perform rituals to bring them a husband, or to fill their womb with a son. Then from dawn until sunset, single girls demonstrate their domestic arts by weaving or sewing in public, or sit among their flocks, or beside their dowry, or exhibit their cooking skills or their beauty or their singing or whatever they think will attract a man.

37 06 Altairi and VegaAltair and Vega, Separated by the Milky Way, from the internet

The Story of Niulang and Zhinu

The seventh lunar month falls in late summer, when the stars Altair and Vega are at their peak and at their annual nearest, and on the seventh day, the Chinese re-tell in song and dance and poetry the story of Niulang—a young cowherd—and Zhinu—the seventh daughter of the Goddess.

They met in his pasture. Zhinu had grown bored in heaven and escaped in hopes of finding some fun on Earth. Niulang spoke to her with great courtesy and modesty, even though he did not recognize her as the daughter of a goddess. Zhinu knew she would never feel unloved with a man of such a giving nature, and allowed herself to fall in love with the goatherd and say yes when he proposed.

The reason he was proposing to her and not her father was that she told Niulang she had no living kin, which was true in a manner of speaking. But it also meant she had nothing she could offer him in dowry. So Zhinu reconsidered and refused his offer and released him of his vow. “But,” Niulang said, “will you not give me everything you have when we are married?” And Zhinu vowed that everything she possessed would be his as her husband, as little or as much as it was, which she knew included immortality, which he did not. “Well, how could you give me more than everything?” he asked her, and she agreed and said yes, a second time—once with regret and once without doubt.

They married on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month and it was a happy marriage, and in due time they became the parents of a boy and a girl.

Zhinu’s job in heaven was to paint the clouds, a job she did not take seriously, and she often skipped it in order to do something she found more fun. So it wasn’t immediately obvious to the Goddess—her mother—that she was gone. But one day the Goddess wondered where her daughter was and, asking around, discovered that her daughter—a goddess—had married a mortal and had two children with him. The Goddess became furious and ordered Zhinu to return to heaven, and her daughter could not refuse.

Niulang woke up and his wife was not at his side. But their animals had seen everything, and his Ox began to talk and told him that if he would kill him and wear his skin as a covering, Niulang would be able to enter the Land of the Immortals and attempt to reclaim his wife.

Niulang was very sad that his noble Ox had to die, and he apologized and thanked him profusely, and then killed him as quickly and painlessly as he could. Niulang performed the rituals one performs for the closest of kin, and then he skinned the Ox and wore his hide so he might pass safely into the Land of the Immortals. Then he picked up their children, one under each arm, and ascended into heaven.

When the Goddess saw Niulang and his children in heaven, she became angry, and took out her hairpin and scratched a deep abyss between the two lovers to keep them apart. We call this abyss the Milky Way. And since Niulang was immortal but not eternal, he could not resist a goddess’s command, and since their children were only demi-gods, they could not resist her either, and all four remain in heaven (the two children are also visible—but lesser—stars) separate for all eternity, except for one night every year.

37 07 Temple Offering BeijingTemple Offering to Local Death Goddess, Beijing

Once a year all the magpies in the world take pity on the two young lovers and form “a bridge of magpies” (visible over the star Deneb in the Cygnus constellation) so the lovers can be together for a single night, which is the seventh night of the seventh moon, their anniversary.

At sunset any woman not yet betrothed makes an offering to the spirits of Niulang and Zhinu, as lovers whose love has endured for all time. Then, dressed as brides, they walk singly to the graveyard, bringing a basket of fruit, or teas, or flowers from their garden. Each carries a jar of facial powder, which gives the local Chinese women their pale smooth skin. After dark, under the rising moon, the women sing to each other under a rejoined Altair and Vega.

When the sun rises, the women leave everything but the facial powder on the graves of their female ancestors, knowing they would not be here unless their ancestors had performed these same ceremonies in their time. (But would their daughters and grand-daughters, they worried?) Then half of the facial powder is thrown onto the roof of the eldest marriageable woman, and the other half is divided among the younger women who throw it on their roofs when they get home.

Another tradition is for girls to throw a sewing needle into a bowl full of water on the night of Qixi as a test of embroidery skills. If the needle floats on top of the water instead of sinking, it proves the girl is a skilled embroideress…. People say that on this day it will rain, because of the crying in heaven. Others say that if you stand under grapevines on this night, you can hear the lovers talking.—from Wikipedia

The cowherd’s story is almost identical to one of the past lives of the Buddha, as reported in the Sudhana Jataka. He too fell in love with a goddess who appeared to him in disguise. They too married and had two children, a boy and girl. But a Buddhist goddess in the Jataka can lose her life and she died following the birth of their second child. This ancestor of Buddha followed his wife into heaven, but he returned to earth alone. This teaching is known as the Doctrine of the Irreversibility of Death.

37 08 City Wall XianCity Wall Guards, Xian, China

Day Four: Beijing
Conversation over Breakfast

“It’s cold enough for mittens?”

“You make me warm just to see you.”

“Why is that?”

“It is a saying we have in China, when someone says it is cold. We say it makes us warm just to see you.”

“Oh.”

“Are you disappointed? It is a compliment. You only say it to family and close friends.”

“What makes you think I’m disappointed?”

“Why do you pretend not to know what I am talking about?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. I’m serious.”

She squinted at me. “You know many things but you are wrong about this.”

“How?”

“Something I said has hurt you and you refuse to discuss it. You are choosing to be the poet and romantic, but you are other things too.”

“What other things?”

She sighs and turns away. “It is an attitude you have. It is charming but dangerous.”

“Dangerous? How?”

“I believe you. That is very dangerous for me if I am wrong.”

I said nothing and continued eating. After a long silence, Xi put down her spoon and said something that looks angry on the page, but it wasn’t. She was explaining something to me, something she thought I should have learned by now.

“A woman needs a man. She should not have to be the man as well.”

There was, however, a great deal of irritation in my response. “Yesterday you said you wanted a soft-ear husband, and today you want a man. You can have one or the other, but you can’t have both. You’re the one who told me that a woman craves a bad boy when she’s fertile and a papa when she’s not. I’m not going through that again.”

“That is no danger to you. Things come over a woman, whether she wants them or not. But she sleeps with the man she wants to wake up next to.”

“But yesterday you said that for a woman it’s all chemical—that she has no control over who she loves and how or when. So, which is it?”

“It is both. Why is that so impossible to believe?”

“This is why men stop believing anything a woman says, because in one conversation you can argue both sides of any argument. The discussion never ends because you keep changing the subject. I have to use up so much mental space just to track a simple conversation.”

“But it is simple. If you say all of life is choice, I will say it is fate, but I could argue the other side as well. What does it matter? I am practicing my arguing in English. I enjoy talking to you. I want to talk to you more, not less. What is important that you are missing is that we are having this conversation. I am here because I am following an omen, so I was expecting something unusual.”

“An omen? What kind of omen?”

“I should not be leading this group. I could not believe they called me. I had already worked five four-week tours with only five days off this season. I had only one night in my own bed. When I opened my mouth I was expecting to say no, but I saw a vision of a thick white envelope. I thought it was an envelope of money, so I was saying yes to the money. With the money I could take my family to Beijing, or my parents to Hong Kong. But now I think that was not an envelope of money but a message being delivered to me. And that is why I am here. I am trying to open that big white envelope. So I must ask you, why are you here?

I laugh.

“I see our meeting as fate, that makes sense to me. How do you explain our meeting? Do you feel this way about many people that you meet?”

“Like I do with you?”

“Making me repeat myself again. Do you feel this way, the way between us, with many people that you meet?”

“No, absolutely not.”

“So what are you going to do about that?”

“What I am doing, enjoying your company. Appreciating the time I get to spend with you, knowing that it’s limited, that you’re working. And knowing that no matter how close we get, I’ll be getting on a plane in three weeks and we’ll never see each other again.”

“You cannot know that.”

“I can and do know that. You can’t get into the country and I’m not coming back.”

“It is only when this life is over that you cannot go wherever you want.”

“Says the young unmarried Chinese woman who can’t get back into the States.”

“But with reincarnation, there is time enough for everything. Can you imagine for a moment that it might be true? That would explain this sudden feeling. How many times do you think we have met already if this true? How many more chances do you think we have left? Or is it already over and this is our goodbye? How does it feel for you?”

“For me, it looks different. Yes, I like the energy between us, and that you’re comfortable talking at a very deep level because if not I’d get bored. Which is why I’m here, if you’re asking why am I here with you instead of being somewhere else. But I think the conversation is a lot different to me because it’s happening much closer to the end of my life than when I was your age. I have a daughter older than you.”

“I like the difference.”

“Ha!”

“In China we believe that age brings wisdom and wisdom is the most valuable possession and that the only way you can catch wisdom is from the wise. How can that not be true? If you were raised in China you would know this to be true. I like the challenge of you and I think you like the challenge of me. Day after day you find me interesting, for whatever reason. It does not matter to me your why. Unless this is how you say goodbye. Is this our last conversation? With some people you have to guess.”

37 09 Xi's paint boxXi’s Paintbox

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.

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