The Making of Axe Handles

by | Nov 17, 2021 | 0 comments

Editor’s Note: This essay will serve as a lead-in to a series on Wang Ping’s personal experiences with Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and the legendary Beats.

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The day I started teaching at Macalester College, Adam gave me a copy of Gary Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems, as a good luck and good-bye present. He was going away for a month to tour Japan, France, and Amsterdam, leaving me with a two-year-old toddler, a three-week-old infant, and a challenging new job at a private liberal arts college.

 

I had wanted this book since I met Gary at MoMA in 1988. I was his translator for the first American Chinese Poetry Festival, hosted by Allen Ginsberg. I’d been looking for this book for 11 years. Adam must have looked everywhere to find it for me.

The first poem I opened to was “Axe Handles”:

One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
“When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.”
And I say this to Kai
“Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—”
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wên Fu, fourth century
A.D. “Essay on Literature”-—in the
Preface: “In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.”
My teacher Shih-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.

I was blown away: Ezra Pound, Lu Ji, Teacher Chen, Father-and-Son Snyder . . . how did they all get entangled in this poem and form such a fiery energy field?

What shocked me most was the mention of “Wen Fu,” an essay on the art of poetry by Lu Ji, poet and essayist from 261-303 AD. Nobody in China reads his poetry anymore, but his essay, the very first in Chinese literary history, is a must-read for every Chinese student.

How did Gary Snyder know this nearly 2000-year-old text? Who was the professor translating and teaching Lu Ji? How did Ezra Pound get looped into this web?

This poet and translator from America’s heartland started waves of new art and poetry in Europe with his translation of Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh theatre, and those waves then reached America, causing new waves of literary revolutions on the other shore.

When I discovered his Cathay and Chinese Character as a Medium for Poetry for my dissertation research at NYU, new windows and doors opened up, allowing me to see the roots of Chinese language and poetry, and what it means to be a Chinese, for the first time, away from home.

How did Gary Snyder know this near 2000-year-old text?


And how did Gary find the obscure Chinese poet Han Shan (Cold Mountain) and make such beauty out of his poetry and spread it across the ocean, then throughout the world?

Everything seems to stem and grow from translation. Even though Ezra Pound didn’t know Chinese when he received Fenollosa’s study notes of Chinese poetry, he was set on fire. The texts and his translation led Europe into a brand new world. Later, it seemed to lead Gary Snyder and many American poets into a new world, and finally lead a Chinese native speaker, me, back to my roots.

 

Pound and Snyder’s translation gave me the courage to start my own translations: from Chinese into English, and English into Chinese. The translation gave me the key to enter poetry. It allowed me to step into two rivers at once.

“Everything seems to stem and grow from translation. “


The gift of Gary Snyder’s poetry was a signal for my first day teaching. I selected three poems: “Axe Handles,” “Riprap,” and one of Han Shan poems, to open my first class.

Students didn’t know who Gary was, didn’t get everything from the poems on the first reading, but definitely felt the power.

They were definitely impressed and excited when I told them Gary was Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s Dharma Bum,

Later, I added “Bath” and The Chinese Written Characters as a Medium for Poetry to my syllabus and taught them every year.

They were difficult to teach, because students felt more and more uncomfortable with the poem. I finally lost patience trying to explain, and decided to pull it out for my own safety, when I smelled the coming of the “cancel culture.”

The booklet on Chinese character and poetics was mostly lost on western students, anyway. I don’t blame them. I didn’t know the secret to poetry through Chinese characters till I came to America, till Ezra Pound gave me the key and let me into a land with even more mysteries and wonders.

But I kept teaching “Axe Handle,” and I kept translating, mostly from Chinese into English, which helped my own poetry writing. I published 4 books of poetry translation, in collaboration with the best American poets such as Ron Padgett, Ann Waldman, Lewis Warsh, Kenneth Koch, Allen Ginsberg, Keith Waldrop, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Ed Friedman, Simon Pettit, Dick Lori, and many others.

2019-20, during my last “sabbatical” at Macalester, I was scheduled to make three trips to China for teaching, lecturing and book tours for My Name Is Immigrant. But the pandemic locked me up in St. Paul. Being homesick, I decided to start translating American poets and myself from English into Chinese. The first poet I chose to translate was Gary Snyder, and the first poem was “Axe Handle.”

I thought it would be a piece of cake. Gary’s language seemed simple, the concept seemed simple, the structure seemed straight forward. When I started the translation, however , it fell apart. The simple words, concept and structure felt flat. My translation couldn’t bring Gary’s magic across the barrier. What did I do wrong?

In April, 2021, Gary received a lifetime achievement prize, “Poetry and Poet,” from China. I flew to Kitkitdizzy, his homestead on the Sierra, to host the ceremony, and broadcast it live to the world. His son Gen picked me up at the airport and brought me home. It was almost midnight. Gary stayed up to welcome me and shared a beer with me. It was almost three years since he visited Macalester. He looked the same, even though he claimed he was getting older every time I talked to him on the phone. He was 91 years old.

The next day, I got up at 5:00, as usual, and walked around his homestead, combing my hair. It draped to the back of my knees, and I didn’t want to drop the loose hair inside, a habit I learned since I was a child, to avoid my parents’ wrath. They really hated my hair entangling everything: floor, chairs, bed, vegetables . . . every time they picked up my long hair, they’d pick up scissors and chase me to cut it off.

As I was combing my hair among the ponderosa pines, Kai came down from the hill, a cowboy hat covering his tanned face. He’d just moved from Portland to live with his dad, in a small temple on the homestead. It was uplifted from Kyoto and moved here in parts, then Gary, Ginsberg and other poets and Zen masters put it together little by little, in the heart of the ponderosa woods.

We greeted morning. I remembered my questions from Axe Handle’s opening:

One afternoon the last week in April

Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet

One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.

“How do you throw a hatchet, Kai, and why? What is one-half turn?

Kai smiled big, as if my questions transported him back to his childhood. He pointed to the tree stump next to him, then to the workshop. He walked there and pulled out a leather pouch. It was covered with dust, weathered but well preserved. He opened the pouch, and revealed an axe.

“This is the hatchet my dad used in the poem.”

I stroked the leather, the metal head of the axe, admiring its shape and age, so delicately reflected through its patten of rust and shine.

“You call it hatchet. I call it axe. What’s the difference?”

“Oh huge!” Kai said, bending down to pick up an axe leaning against the wall. “An axe has a long handle, bigger and thicker head, and is used for different tasks.

“Ah yes, like chopping woods.” I stroked its long smooth handle. It has chopped many woods, as indicated in Gary’s Han Shan’s poems. “What do you do with a hatchet?”

“Many things, including playing the game of hatchet throwing.”

“As described in Axe Handles? So what’s a one and a half turn? How do you play the game?”

Kai’s face now opened like a flower as he raised the hatchet over his head, aiming at the tree stump. “You throw the hatchet and it has to turn 360+180 degrees in the air, then lands in the stump. Like this!”

He threw it. The hatched hit the stump, fell off.

Kai laughed. “I haven’t played the game for so long.”

“May I try?” I took the hatchet and raised it over my head. A sharp pain in my shoulder. I had injured my rotating cuff skiing on the New Year’s Day, and it was still trying to heal. “May I use both hands?”

“Yes, just make sure you throw it with control. Use the core power, let the force transfer from the core to shoulders to arms to wrists to hatchet, Consider it as part of your body. Treat it as your arms, hands and fingers. You’ll see what I mean.”

I threw. It made one and a half turn, hit the stump, and rolled off.

“Almost,” I shouted.

“Not bad for the first try. You’re a natural.”

I was smiling big. This throw answered all the questions I had during the translation: the turn, the hatchet, the axe, the workshop, the game, and most importantly, the energy field where the father and son played the game together, the teaching and learning of making axe handles.

And Kai just opened that field and let me in with such generosity.

I still had questions: how did Ezra Pond and Lu Ji get into this field of wisdom and play?

“How’s your transition from Portland to the woods?” I asked Kai.

“I love it. This is my home, where I belong.”

I nodded. Gary built this place and this community with his friends, with bare hands. It’s been a legend, a myth, a beacon for the poets and environmentalists from around the world. Kai grew up in this community since a baby, all recorded in Gary’s poems. Kai is part of this legend. Of course he belongs here.

“This is my home where I belong…”

“Are you staying in that house?” I pointed to the small building uphill.

“No, my place is further uphill. This building is Gary’s library, and we call it the Barn.”

He started walking towards it, knowing that I wanted to take a look. I followed him. The Barn was wide open. I could see books spilling from ceiling to the floor from a distance.

“You leave the door open? No animals come in and chew the books?”

“Bears? Nah, they’re interested in the meat in our freezer. No food in the Barn.”

We entered. I felt Gary’s presence here. He had spent most of his life reading and writing in this place.

Kai pulled out a book from the shelf and opened it.

“Wow!” he exclaimed.

“What is it?” I asked absentmindedly, admiring a certificate on the wall. It showed that Gary completed his summer reading program, and the Seattle Public Library awarded him with the certificate, in 1938. That seemed like many lives ago.

“That’s Gary’s most treasured award, all of the awards he’s got,” said Kai. “But look what I found!” he held the book out to me, “Gary’s notes on Ezra Pound and Lu Ji, when and how he used them for the Axe Handle poem. I can’t believe this!”

No way! I jumped and rushed over. Sure it is, in Kai’s hands, laid the open book, yellowed, fragile, but Gary’s red inky circling Ezra Pound’s translation of Book of Songs, China’s earliest anthology of poetry from 3000 years ago:

158 Axe Handle

How does one cut an axe-handle?

Without an axe it is impossible.

How does one take a wife?

Without a matchmaker she cannot be got.

Cut an axe-handle? Cut an axe-handle?

The pattern is not far to seek.

Here is a lady with whom I have had a love-meeting;

Here are my dishes all in a row.

I gasped for air. I’d managed to collect every book by Ezra Pound, except for this translation, this original edition that Gary obtained in 1965, San Francisco, which he marked with his beautiful calligraphy. I had been looking for this treasure everywhere, since 1988, the year I encountered Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Bei Dao, and Ezra Pound’s translation, as their poetry translator, the year I stepped into the two rivers of American and Chinese poetry at once. I’ve been looking for this edition during my PhD years, during my writing and publishing years, during my teaching years. I thought I’d never find it. And yet, here at Kitkitdizzy, in the Barn Library wide open to animals, bugs, trees, wind and rain, Kai pulled it out from Gary’s bookshelf, just like this. Now the treasure I’d been seeking for 25 years was in my hands.

“What mysterious force that led me here, that led us here”

What was the chance?What brought me here in the first place?Was it just for hosting an international poetry prize ceremony for Gary, or just a signal, a beginning for something bigger?What was the chance of finding all the answers to the mysteries of Gary’s Axe-Handles with one gesture, as Kai pulled the book off the shelf, without knowing anything?Was it true he truly didn’t know?What was the chance of encountering Kai, the main character in the poem, who showed me the hatchet game, who led me to the barn, who pulled out Ezra Pound’s translation, who opened the page of Pound’s “Axe-handle” that revealed the origin of Gary’s “Axe-handles?”

What mysterious force that led me here, that led us here?

What about Lu Ji, who wrote the first book on poetry and its art in the 3rd century, based on an axe handle? He didn’t quote directly from Confucius Book of Songs, the #72  poem, a love song by a young man pining for her beloved. No Chinese scholars studying Wen Fu ever mentioned the link between Poem #72 and Lu Ji. Ezra Pound translated the Book of Songs, but didn’t have a chance to see Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, or he might have made the link between the two. Yet, the form is there already. The form has been there since the birth of language, poetry and humanity. It has been waiting for Gary Snyder, an American poet, translator, Zen master and Deep Ecologist, to connect the dots. No, it was the child, Kai Snyder, who was playing a hatchet game, who hit the tree trump with his first try, who wanted a hatchet of his own, who began to fit the hatchet head with a broken axe handle under the guidance of Gary Snyder. As the father and son brought the handle and axe to the machine, trying to fit the two together, something clicked. Something illuminated the mystery of the cosmos, how everything began, worked, progressed, passed on.

This is what German Philosopher Karl Jasper called “a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness” to the Axis Age, aka Pivotal Age. During the period from the 8th to the 3rd century BC, new ways of thinking appeared in Persia, India, China, Palestine and Greco-Roman world.

Between the 9th and 5th centuries BC, various Jews started writing words sung to music for the temple worship, thus Book of Psalms, an anthology of individual Hebrew psalms, meaning “instrumental music,” “the words accompanying the music,” and poetry in the heart of the Testaments.

About 500 BC, Confucius started traveling from state to state, trying to teach ren—kindness, benevolence—to the kings. He was laughed at and shooed off like a dog. During his travels, he started collecting songs from peasants, merchants, soldiers, laborers. He organized them by countries, music and content, and put together the first poetry bible—诗经shijing, for China and the world. He taught the poems to his students, with music and dance. When his son asked him why they had to study poetry every day, he said:

“Without poetry, how do we speak? Without poetry, how do we live?”

Without Book of Psalms, how do Israelis speak or live, as they wandered from place to place?

The Chinese character for poetry 诗 is composed of two radicals:言word & 寺temple. When we say poetry, it immediately signals words in the temple, words = temple, words stand together with the temple, in the deep of our consciousness. Chinese call the first poetry anthology compiled by Confucius: shijing—诗经—Poetry Bible.

The words and music run deep in the veins of every Chinese.

Through thousands of years, as Jews wondered from state to state, continent to continent, they carried Book of Psalms as their temple, in their chest. Every time they sing the psalm, they return to Jerusalem.

Cut an axe-handle? Cut an axe-handle?

The pattern is not far to seek.

Book of Songs, 600 BCE, tr. Ezra Pound

How Ezra Pound knew, as he translated Book of Songs word by word, from its sound, image, and spirit. Even though he didn’t know the language, never stepped on its land, he understood the pattern, and he could fit his handle perfectly to the axe head.

This is the task for every good translator: seeking the pattern, till the handle fits perfectly into the axe.

This was what Pound did, bringing Shijing to Europe, then America. This is what Gary did, bringing Zen and Cold Mountain to America. This is what I’m doing, bringing Chinese poetry to America, and American poetry to China.

This is how we go on, “model and tool, craft of culture.

In the photo where Kai was demonstrating the game, I discover, many days later, that the hatchet is hanging in the air, captured by the photographer. This is what poetry does for us: seize the moment and pause it, like the Zeno effect in the quantum world, where an arrow stands still in midair, for us to marvel and treasure.

This is why we write and translate poetry, in order to go on.

This is why I write this essay, to treasure the making of axe-handles, to marvel at the hatchet standing still in the air.

more RIFFs to enjoy

<a href="https://writersatlarge.com/riff/author/wang-ping/" target="_self">Wang Ping</a>

Wang Ping

Wang Ping came to USA from Shanghai in 1986. She is a multimedia artist, poet, fiction writer, translator, essayist, filmmaker, and the founder / director of the Kinship of Rivers international project, building relationships through creative exchange among river communities. She is the author of 14 books and the recipient of awards, grants, residencies, and fellowships from the NEA, Lannan Foundation, NY State Arts Council, McKnight Foundation, and others. Wang Ping is Emerita Professor of Creative Writing at Macalester College.

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