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View from a mountain at night.  Dark clouds below in the foreground, horizon after sunset in the background.

“how old are the questions tonight”

I’d never heard of Su Tung P’o* until I read a letter written to him by W. S. Merwin.  Merwin penned the letter in the form of a poem 900+ years after Su’s death.  He writes of sitting “at night above the hushed valley” and imagines Su on his river — “that one/bright sheet of moonlight in the dream of the waterbirds.”  Merwin then ends with:

                                  …I hear 
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight

The silence after your questions.  Wow.

Merwin’s poem, titled “A Letter to Su Tung P’o,” originally ran in The New Yorker and appears in the 2008 edition of The Best American Poetry.  In the contributor’s comments, Merwin writes “It seems as though I have been sending a letter to Su Tung P’o for most my life.”

I wonder what Su would think of this millennial correspondence.  Could he have imagined that his work would reach a poet half a world and a thousand years away?  And that the poet would answer?  Perhaps “answer” is not the best word, though, as I picture Merwin and Su both, communally, pondering the same questions in the same silence.

I like the following poem by Su.  It makes me think that, while embracing transience, he’s also happy to speak to the 21st century.


To what can our life on earth be likened?
To a flock of geese,
alighting on the snow.
Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage. 


*Su Tung P’o (1037–1101), also known as Su Shi, was a Song dynasty writer, artist, calligrapher, pharmacologist, and government official, born in Sichuan province and later living and working in Hangzhou.  He was banished on two occasions for his political views.  He was pardoned in 1100, but died in 1101 en route to his next post.