Combating Racism – Even In Poetry

I’ve just returned from a two-week writing retreat conducted by one of my favorite authors, Natalie Goldberg, who is most well-known for her book, Writing Down the Bones, but has also authored many other incredible books about writing practice. During the retreat, she shared this poem, “The Blue-Green Stream” by Wang Wei (699–759), a Chinese poet, musician, painter, and politician during the Tang dynasty. The poem was written in 1921.

The Blue-Green Stream

Translated by Florence Ayscough and Amy Lowell

Every time I have started for the Yellow Flower River,
I have gone down the Blue-Green Stream,
Following the hills, making ten thousand turnings,
We go along rapidly, but advance scarcely one hundred li*.
We are in the midst of a noise of water,
Of the confused and mingled sounds of water broken by stones,
And in the deep darkness of pine trees.
Rocked, rocked,
Moving on and on,
We float past water-chestnuts
Into a still clearness reflecting reeds and rushes.
My heart is clean and white as silk; it has already achieved Peace;
It is smooth as the placid river.
I love to stay here, curled up on the rocks,
Dropping my fish-line forever.

*Li is a Confucian concept meaning conventional norms; a concept of an internalized code of civility that defined proper human conduct.

Wang Wei was one of the most famous men of arts and letters of his time. He is considered one of the greatest poets in China’s literary history. He also served in court as a high ranking official until the death of his wife, at which time he retired to a Buddhist monastery on the banks of the river Wang. Many of his poems are preserved, and twenty-nine were included in the highly influential 18th-century anthology Three Hundred Tang Poems.

After Natalie read the poem twice, she gave us the following writing prompt:

Imitate the tumbling of Wang Wei’s poem (become Wang Wei).

I took her instruction to imagine I was a contemporary Wang Wei. With my July 4th newsletter still sitting in the back of my mind, I composed the following poem, which I was encouraged to share in this newsletter:

The Stream of Contradictions

Every time we start for the river of equality and justice
We deviate down a crooked jaded path,
Twisting and winding away from the core values in our
Declaration of Independence –
That all men are created equal, and entitled to
Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Each time comes the confused and mingled sounds
Of Jim Crow, redlining, Tuskegee experiments,
The Emancipation Proclamation, The Civil Rights Act,
The Voting Rights Act, and the
13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
We have advanced scarcely 100 years.

We are in the midst of the noise of hopefulness,
The Black Lives Matter Movement,
The John Lewis Voting Act, The 1619 Project,
Eviction moratoriums, rent relief.

Yet the darkness of racism still hangs
Over our land,
Moving on and on.
There is yet no still clearness,
No clear path to equity.
No clear path to close the wealth gap,
Ensure equal health benefits,
Stop police killings of innocent Black people,
Ensure an equal criminal justice system.

My heart has not achieved peace.
It will never achieve peace until people see
The contradictions in our society.

We drop a fish-line of words,
“All men are created equal,”
“Liberty and justice for all,”
Into a stream polluted
By beliefs in the inferiority of certain races;
By closing our eyes to the fact that
Our nation was built by terrorism
Against its original inhabitants and
Built on the backs of slaves.

Every time I have started for the hope
Of a new day when Black people,
Brown people and White people can come together
To unite for the ideals on which we are founded,

I have floated down the stream of wishful thinking,
And while I’d love to stay here,
Curled up in my dream of a land where all of us
Will be measured by our character rather than
The color of our skin,

I am rocked, rocked by a call
To leave my zone of comfort,
Not float through my days in
Apathy or oblivion but to drop my
My fishing line into the cause
For racial justice…
Forever.

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