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by Keith Holyoak
56 poems/97pp/ $10.00
Dos Madres Press

Reviewed by: Ed Bennett

Some years ago a dear friend mentioned to me that in order to be an advisor to the
emperors in ancient China, one had to be a poet for at least 10 years. As it turned
out, this was merely the tip of the poetic iceberg in Chinese culture. In the two
thousand year tradition of Chinese literature, poetry was used as both a public and
private means to express emotion and comment on the nature of one's surroundings.
During the Tang Dynasty (c.8th century CE), poetry was an essential aspect of the life
of every literate person. Not only was the Emperor's choice for advisors dependent on
poetic literacy but the examinations for anyone entering the imperial civil service
tested their knowledge of poetry. The Tang Dynasty was definitely China’s Golden Age
of Poetry.

Keith Holyoak's book, Foreigner, has its roots set firmly in the Tang Dynasty. Mr.
Holyoak, a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at UCLA, is also a Guggenheim Fellow
and a translator of Chinese poetry. His translations were primarily of the works of Li
Bai and Du Fu, two of the giants of the Tang Dynasty. There are translations of both of
these poets in the book along side poetry written by Mr. Holyoak. My first impression
during the early part of reading was to wonder why there were translations present. There
are only six translated poems present as opposed to 50 by the author. As I read on I saw
that these translations were important because they set the mood of the book and, while
nested within the poets original work, demonstrated how the poet’s voice captured the sense
of place that was so much a part of Classical Chinese poetry. Taken as a whole, Mr. Holyoak’s
book of poems conveys the beauty of this ancient art form. The poems however, are contemporary
accounts of ferry rides and traffic jams with settings as diverse as China, Tibet, Los Angeles
and Canada.

The reader does not simply hear the poet’s description of the surroundings. The poet is on a
journey through the disparate geography mentioned above and his unique ability to describe the
action has more of a feel of active accompaniment rather than passive listening. After a series
of poems about Lhasa, Tibet he arrives at a Buddhist temple in the Himalayas. His poem “Wheel of
Life” describes the painting found on Tibetan monasteries denoting the samsara, the cyclic existence
of life. He states:

“All those born to this earth have come
      To visit, but not to dwell.

Passing beyond this place, desire
      And dread both fall away.

This is what death is: just life
      At another turn of the wheel.”

Not content to leave us at the monastery gate his next poem is about climbing the mountain above
the monastery and the sequence ends with the poem “Qomolangma”, the Tibetan name for Mt. Everest.
He describes the scene as one dominated by the mountain’s “icy beauty of indifference”, hardly the
language of a travel brochure. From the peaks of the Himalayas he recounts a scene described so
poignantly in “Red Snow” of a massacre of a group of unarmed Tibetan religious pilgrims. The last
stanza of the poem is almost a blessing:

      “Sleep, little pilgrim,
under the sacred peaks,
      your frozen palm
still reaching out for freedom.”

The indifference of the mountains seems to take on the humanity of the dead who still remain on their

From this climactic journey from spiritual questing to Everest, the scene shifts to Los Angeles where
he describes this most western of cities with the same language used to describe the scenes across the
Pacific. The geography may change but Mr. Holyoak remains steadfast in his homage to ancient Chinese
poetic forms.

In my own opinion, the most striking poem of this book is “Lament of the Translator Sun Dayu”, a scholar
and translator of Chinese poetry into English who lived in the early 20th Century. The lament is Sun
Dayu’s lament for the ancient poet Qu Yuan who wrote about 2300 years ago during the “Warring Period” of
China’s history. The bloodshed and intolerance of this period drove Qu Yuan to suicide. Mr. Holyoak takes
this story from a bleak period of two millennia ago and makes it universal. In the first verse paragraph
he gives us the motivation that drives a translator

      “Truth distilled into word is pure,
      it slips the bond of time and tongue,
passed down from oracle to oracle;

He then speaks about the “incandescent books” burned not only in Qu Yuan’s China but also in Alexandria,
Baghdad, the Mayan codices of the New World and, finally with a paraphrase from Joseph Goebbels during a
book burning in Munich. He follows Goebbels words with an almost Prufrock like stanza

“A small man crazed by lust for glory
tries to shrink the human story,
consigning to the fires of war
all the best that came before.”

We leave the distant past and find ourselves with the true subject of the poem, Sun Dayu as he finds
himself a persona non grata in his own country as the Red Guard burns his books. Despite the danger of
speaking truth to power, even in these delicate verses, the poet’s lament leaves us with a final legacy:

“The eagle does not flock with other birds,
and all that I shall leave you with are words.”

Part of the beauty of this book lies in its integration of Chinese and English, ancient and new, original
poems and translations. In addition to the superlative poetry found in Foreigner is the artwork of Jim
Holyoak, the author’s son. The cover art and 10 plates found throughout the book are based on his work
with Chinese brush on rice paper in the traditional Chinese landscape style. The plates add depth to the
poems and are most pleasing even to this untrained Western eye. Word and image combine holistically to
present a loving presentation of a culture that is still vibrant here in the 21st Century.

I definitely recommend this book not simply for the poetry, which is excellent, but for its ability to
place before us the sound and sight of a past golden age. Mr. Holyoak has detailed end notes in the book
to help unfold the meaning of the Asian words as well as the philosophical and historical references of
the poems. His poetic sensibilities, trained in two languages, has created a work that can be read alone
in the stillness of our thoughts yet, ideally, can be shared with those who appreciate art, no matter
where its origin. In the words of Li Bai

“May we long share our odd, inanimate feast
And meet at last on the Cloudy River of the sky”.


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