Weekly Poem: Sam Taylor struggles to speak Chinese

Poet Sam Taylor thinks we’ve taken our environment for granted for centuries and now we’re at a point of “crisis.” That is the driving theme in “Nude Descending an Empire,” his recent collection published in August, that he was inspired to write during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Those years marked, “a time when we were initiating an insane war for deeply flawed and deceptive reasons, and also in a time when the urgency of our ecological situation was becoming quite clear and yet still being flouted and mocked,” Taylor told Art Beat.

“I wanted to develop a voice of a citizen poet that could speak poetically into our moment.”

Taylor started to compose the book while living as a caretaker in a remote wilderness refuge. At the time, he lacked any access to electricity, the internet or a phone line. According to Taylor, being secluded in the wild helped reinforce his belief that our natural heritage needs to be protected. Those years helped inform the title of the collection.

“There was a nakedness to that experience, being immersed in the natural world and stripped of all the dubious meanings our civilization has created, and it allowed me to see the possibility of a whole other way of being and thinking.”

Many of the poems in “Nude Descending an Empire” ask us to experience and contemplate the “crises” of our time through the focusing lens of poetry, but the book also touches on themes of interconnected-humanity and misunderstandings.

In his poem, “The Book of Poetry,” Taylor recalls his experiences travelling with a friend through Southeast Asia and how something as subtle as a mispronunciation led to the great confusion of their hosts.

Listen to Sam Taylor read “The Book of Poetry” from his new collection, “Nude Descending an Empire.”

Note: this poem contains strong language.

The Book of Poetry (Wo Shi Shiren)

A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. “I love water buffaloes,” she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say
, she thought, but insisted.
“No, really, I really love them,” trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. “They are so beautiful, so strong.
Don’t you love them?” But the monks just kept laughing.

Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
“I want to eat” with “I demand an ugly woman,”
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then “I want eggplant”
though mistoned “whirlpool shake concubine twins”
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.

Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
It’s not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, “I write,” wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, “I am a poet.”
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
“A poet” I’d repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
“I write poetry,” trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. “I write books of poetry.”

Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced “sure” and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb “to be”
in the falling tone—also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?

To be—poetry—shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.

I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.

I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.

I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.

I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.

It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, “I love penises” she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. “I really love penises,” she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. “Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Don’t you love them?”

Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.

Taylor said his poems normally aren’t something he comes up with out of nowhere. Instead he pulls his ideas from raw “sparks and rhythms” he finds in his travels. The anecdotal “The Book of Poetry” typifies that sentiment.

“That piece was, I felt, almost given to me just by the things that happened, the coincidental meanings that I encountered or was told about. All the pieces were just there and it clearly was a poem, it just had to be mined, or harvested or built in some way.”

The poem provides humor through the misunderstanding created by a slight shift in vowels, and that the word for poetry in Chinese so closely resembles the word for a bowel movement. Taylor says that as a writer, the quirks of a language and his own comical mispronunciation made it a piece he wanted to write even more.

“It does particularly relate to a love and fascination with language that most poets and readers probably share, but beyond that it’s a fascination with the particular set of meanings that happened to be in these words, of course one of them being poetry, in the sense that poetry not only overlaps with [expletive] but every word imaginable.”

“The Book of Poetry” as it appears in “Nude Descending an Empire” required several drafts, after he left his notebook in a taxicab in China.

Taylor is in the final stages of his next work, which he says will be more experimental in form and style.

“The Book of Poetry” from “Nude Descending an Empire,” by Sam Taylor, ©2014. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.”