Poet embraces eastern philosophy to heal from sexual abuse

Twenty-one Chinese characters mark the start of “City of Eternal Spring,” poet Afaa Michael Weaver’s newest book.

“So that I might hear the quiet voice of the union of heart and mind,” the inscription reads, “help me forget the past and the future.”

Weaver wrote the epigraph, inspired by a chapter of the foundational Doaist text Dao De Jing, to guide him through writing “City of Eternal Spring.” The book concludes a trilogy that deals with a painful childhood that included sexual abuse.

The first book, “Plum Flower Dance,” was a way of understanding how trauma had impacted his writing for years. The second, “Government of Nature,” brought Weaver into what he described as the “valley” of his trauma.

“Once I was down there in the valley, struggling with those … primal elements inside the trauma itself, I knew I had to come out of it,” he told Art Beat.

“City of Eternal Spring” presented him with a space in which to heal. But first, he had to be present, he said, neither dwelling “in the actual space of the pain,” nor fretting over what his pen might yield.

“I was exploring the interior of healing itself,” he said. “To be a survivor of incest is to have to work through deep issues of betrayal. In the process of healing and recovery, you have to reconstitute those bonds and renegotiate those boundaries that are both internal and external and try to hold on the best you can to the love of family.”

The poems in “City of Eternal Spring” span hemispheres. Many take place in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mainland China, where Weaver has traveled extensively, first as a Fulbright scholar in 2002, then again on sabbatical from Simmons College, where he teaches. But, often, there is a pull back to the United States. In his poem “Archaeology of Time: Gambling”, the speaker’s experience on a boat in the South China Sea evokes memories of his time working in Baltimore factories, of the men who raised him and the women he loved. In his poem “The Long Walk Up to Mao Zedong’s Retreat,” a visit to the Chairman’s mountain hideaway sparks a dream of Virginia poplars.

Listen to Afaa Michael Weaver read his poem “The Long Walk Up to Mao Zedong’s Retreat” from his new collection “City of Eternal Spring.”

The Long Walk Up to Mao Zedong’s Retreat

In the museum that was his house, his books
are on the bed where a woman should be, except
he is not here either, we walk up the steep hill
to the courtyard, the gate looks down to Beijing.

I see the places the fires of the foreigners
did not burn, the stone left from buildings that stood
up to the invasion, and I lean against the gate,
my stomach upside down and full of the unfamiliar.

It is a cold chill over the harmony of mountain
and river, and we take tea against the shivers, old
and young poets, my American tongue now naming
the things it knows, cup, tea, cigarette, sky.

Chinese is the long drive here from the city,
standing next to Sun Wenbo, waiting to start his car,
listening to Zang Di speak of what it is to lead
poets along the riverbanks of metaphor, and I am

the one whistle in poplars in a state far away,
Virginia, where a tall young man finds his baby brother
sleeping in the grass, hiding from school, wakes him
so they can dream of families and sons that go searching.

Long before he had ever traveled to Asia, though, Eastern philosophy offered Weaver a way to work through hardship or pain. He was 21 when his infant son died, and a coworker at the factory where he worked offered him a copy of the Dao De Jing. Some years later, also at the recommendation of a coworker, he began practicing Tai Chi. He then started publishing his work regularly in local literary magazines and regional presses.

“The Dao de Jing and Tai Chi became a way for me to create a space inside myself where I could begin to accept my contradictions, and gave me an intuitive method for grounding myself,” he said. “Tai Chi and Daoism became the vehicle for my way of dealing with the troubles in my life.”

Weaver’s poems are not merely personal meditations, though. When he writes of his experiences as a stranger in a strange land, for example, he is also reflecting on some of the political and social experiences of African Americans. In “Tea Plantations and Women in Black,” the speaker recognizes that, though the Chinese women who stare at him see him as exotic and foreign, their context for him does not include America’s troubled racial history.

Listen to Afaa Michael Weaver read his poem “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” from his new collection “City of Eternal Spring.”

Tea Plantations and Women in Black

It is dusk in the city and here in the mountains,
inside the thick green way of a place where rain
is breath, and summer mist the gas that lets
you dream of being lost, cast away in a paradise

that is not a paradise for those who live here.
I am too familiar to nightmares that pushed me
here to hide from them, but they sit on the edge
of the sun’s light pushing down into morning

in the middle of the Atlantic. The tea comes
with a young woman who stares at me, the black
she has heard of, the black she cannot see, and
we light the fire in the table, hear it puff up.

I am full of reasons, strings of hurt I cannot let
loose here where no one knows the sirens on corners
of black homes, hard hands on the grips of guns,
bullets made for Nat Turner and Gabriel Prosser,

or for me, black man daring to live, black man
following the trance of women tipping on loose
stone tablets of sidewalks in thin, black dresses
under parasols to hide them from the sun.

Whether he’s reflecting on his own personal experiences or on large social contexts, Weaver uses poetry and language to contemplate the process of crossing between cultures and identity.

The journey from one half of the world to the other, Weaver said, is like a translation, which he describes as the process which “reveals to you the foreign element that exists inside you.” It’s what happens when he, as a Westerner, travels to Asia, but it is also a part of his lived experience as an African-American man. His transcontinental journey, in other words, helped him understand his home, too.

“You come face to face with yourself in many ways,” he said.

As he maneuvered through these different landscapes and worked towards healing, the idea behind his epigraph served as a reminder to remain open to those confrontations, a constant struggle while writing “City of Eternal Spring” and the books leading up to it.

“Being in the present means being present for myself emotionally, and being in the present creatively for the audience,” Weaver said. “It’s something that I hope comes to another kind of closure in this book.”

Then, he reconsidered. “I hesitate to say closure,” he added. “You can’t really say this kind of work is ever done.

“The Long Walk Up to Mao Zedong’s Retreat” and “Tea Plantations and Women in Black” from “City of Eternal Spring,” by Afaa Michael Weaver, © 2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.