by Qu Yuan 屈原
translated by Red Pine
When Qu Yuan was banished,
he wandered among rivers and lakes,
he sang as he walked past the marshes,
his body weak and his face forlorn.
A fisherman saw him and asked,
“Aren’t you the Lord of the Gates,
what fate has brought you to this?”
 Qu Yuan (340-278 BC) was China’s first poet. Chinese celebrate his death on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by rowing boats to reach his body before the water dragons do and by making rice tamales to throw into the river as a distraction—or to eat with friends and loved ones.
 As Lord of the Three Gates, Qu Yuan was in charge of the religious affairs of Chu’s three most important clans as well as the education of their sons.
Qu Yuan answered,
“The world is muddy.
I alone am pure.
Everyone is drunk.
I alone am sober.
And so they sent me away.”
The fisherman said,
“A sage isn’t bothered by others.
He can change with the times.
If the world is muddy,
why not wade into the mud and splash in the mire?
If everyone is drunk,
why not strain the mash and drink up the dregs.
Why get banished
for deep thought and purpose?”
Qu Yuan said,
“I have heard,
when you wash your hair,
you should dust off your hat.
When you take a bath,
you should shake out your robe.
Why should I let something so pure
be defiled by others?
I would rather jump into the Xiang
and be buried in a fish’s gut.
How can I let something so white
be stained by common dirt.”
 The Miluo flowed into the Xiang which flowed into Dongting Lake.
The fisherman smiled and laughed
and sang as he rowed away,
“When the river is clear,
I can wash my hat.
When the river is muddy,
I can wash my feet.”
And once gone he was heard from no more.
 A euphemism for serving at court.
 A euphemism for retiring to the countryside.
The bio in the back of On Time, Joanne Kyger’s collection of poems written between 2005 – 2014, describes her as, “One of the major women poets of the SF Renaissance.” That is, of course, correct, but I would make a case for removing the word “women” from the sentence. While I’m sure the intention of including that gender signifier was to emphasize the importance of her position as a woman in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, its placement before “poets” in the sentence diminishes rather than enhances her standing. It reeks of “pretty good for a girl” condescension, unintended as that may be.
Joanne Kyger was one of the major poets of the San Francisco Renaissance coterie, period. She was a woman. She was a woman who, despite operating in what was largely a man’s world/boy’s club, became a major member of that club. But even that SF Renaissance signifier, while more accurate than the Beat Generation designation emphasized in her New York Times obituary and useful in placing her in time and place and lineage, seems unnecessarily limiting. In his introduction to As Ever, her selected poems released in 2002, Kyger’s longtime friend and fellow poet, David Meltzer, says of the atmosphere in the late ’50s when they first met:
“It’s important to remember (or realize) that those days were before literary academicians freeze-framed them into ‘movements or ‘generations.’ The slickest, surest way to defang dissent and creative doubt is to accept it and (ugh) incorporate it into glossy narratives circulated throughout institutional castle culture. (A big irony many tapdance around.) Even then, Joanne was a thoughtful and thinking (and self-effacing) poet of deep innate knowing. Her early work was distinctly complex, personal, and resistant to expectations.”
So how about something like this: Joanne Kyger was a thoughtful and thinking and self-effacing poet whose distinctly complex and personal work made her a major figure in the SF Renaissance/Beat Generation orbit. That self-effacing quality is what gives poems such as “Town Hall Reading With Beat Poets” and “Bob Marley Night Saturday Downtown” and “Fact Checking” their charm. Her poems are at once deep and learned yet casual and conversational. They are also often quite funny. She comes across as a poet who took her poetry seriously while not overly-concerned with being taken seriously herself.
There is more to her poetry than self-deprecating humor, of course. A great sense of reverence is on display throughout her work when engaging with mythological themes, her Zen Buddhist studies, interactions with the natural world, and considerations of the lives and deaths of friends. From the poems in her first book, The Tapestry and the Web, published in 1965, to the late work collected in On Time, Kyger’s writing displays a marvelous way of finding the mythic in the mundane and revealing the mundane in the mythic. Here is how “Pan as the Son of Penelope,” probably her best-known poem, begins:
Refresh my thoughts of Penelope again
solitary was her wait?
I notice Someone got to her that
barrel chested he-goat prancing
around w/ his reed pipes
is no fantasy of small talk.
More the result of BIG talk
and the absence of her husband.
In his thought-provoking essay, “The Great(ness) Game,” David Orr discusses how Elizabeth Bishop’s stature has risen posthumously while her friend Robert Lowell’s once-towering reputation has been in decline. It would not surprise me to find Joanne Kyger’s stature ratcheted upward by a similar recalibration of reputations in years to come while those of some of her better-known male peers and predecessors in the SF Renaissance/Beat pantheon are demoted. As a stunningly lovely, yet delicate, voice like Billie Holiday’s or Karen Dalton’s would be difficult to hear when a big booming voice like Pavarotti’s was bellowing nearby, so, too, a subtle poetic sensibility, like Joanne Kyger’s, can get drowned out when there’s a big personality like her friend Ginsberg Howling nearby. Not to mention Duncan and Spicer and Snyder and Whalen and McClure and Berrigan and others. She moved in serious circles.
But life is life and death is death. Reading the books of dead poets after their time has passed and their legends have cooled is a different thing than reading the living. Sometimes the poet of the moment isn’t a poet for the ages. Tastes change and change again. Who knows what the literary landscape of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries will look like to readers a hundred years hence. In his essay, Orr quotes a passage from J. D. McClatchy wondering about how Bishop could be claimed as the favorite predecessor poet of contemporary poets as varied as John Ashbery, James Merrill and Mark Strand. Orr takes a stab at an answer: “It’s possible, one might answer, because Bishop was a great poet, if we take ‘great’ to mean something like ‘demonstrating the qualities that make poetry seem interesting and worthwhile to such a degree that subsequent practitioners of the art form have found her work a more useful resource than the work of most if not all of her peers.’” I predict that Kyger’s work will be similarly deemed a useful resource by poets to come.
The Times obituary includes Kyger’s poem “Night Palace” but, for some reason, they did not format the poem, which was composed in projective breath units and spaced on the page in the composition by field manner, as written. That’s a shame. The spacing, in large part, makes the poem the poem it is. It’s not unusual to come across poems laid out in the composition by field manner for which reformatting them with a standard left margin justification doesn’t detract much from the poem. Sometimes it’s little more than ornament. This is not the case with “Night Palace,” a fine example of how much emotional information can be conveyed by spacing and placement on the page in the hands of someone who fully understands the approach.
Her poem “Elegant Simplicity” written May 22, 2007 ends:
Demons are more or less human in appearance
Monsters are more animal like
The first soul or spirit
that resides in a person is immortal
The second soul is the animal spirit
you acquire at birth
with a real counterpart
roving around in the world.
If it dies, you die
Joanne Kyger’s real counterpart animal spirit died in March of this year, so that was it, but her poetry will live on and, I suspect, gain greater prominence in the years to come.
I needed more instruction
in the everyday
Cody lying luxuriously
in the front yard
light wind blowing across
the sagging tree dahlias
you never had time
so we’ll feel it for you
flattened like sun at almost
green flash sunset
was there. big, flat
“The World Was Spinning. She Was Right There With It.
… And she was.” She was a force of nature, engaging with all the world around her. Joanne was most at home in her home, the old Portuguese fisherman’s house she bought, just three rooms, a small bathroom with shower only and the gray-water system she installed, but lots of outdoor space. Super-Coot, her row boat, used to adorn the front of the yard, behind the hedge. The deer and quail that used to come and visit, but damned deer ate all the apples. She loved the quail and fed them. Later came the big “shed” that became the dining room and her bedroom when it became too much for her to climb up to the loft, or was a guest room on occasion. A one-block walk to the cliff’s edge, over the ocean. A short bike ride when she’d go to the Hearsay News’ office as the Wednesday editor for the community newspaper. Friends’ houses just a short walk away. The world she inhabited, her own habitat.
I fully remember the night I heard of her death. My husband, Joe, came in to tell me to put down the knife I was using to cut up that night’s dinner. I could tell it was going to be bad news, but didn’t expect that news. I called mutual friends, hoping they’d say it wasn’t true. It still doesn’t seem true.
Joanne wasn’t perfect, but she was always there, there with you. She talked a lot, especially on the phone, though she also listened carefully. She had this gentle way of sing-saying Spanish phrases, like “pus, pus,” or chanting/singing Native-American lyrics. Music was always in the background or part of the conversation. “Hit me with your rhythm stick, hit me, hit me,” as she’d say.
She was the most generous person I’ve ever known. All the gifts we exchanged on each other’s birthdays, chosen with care and attention: scarves, earrings, necklaces, toys, cat brooches. Generous in her hospitality, especially at her dinners, table formally set, cloths always ironed. Generous in her smile and laughter, especially with advice. She counseled me when Joe and I began dating that love was like a plant whose roots had to have time to grow for the plant to flourish. Generous in arranging a walk along Palomarin Trail with her and Donald to Bass Lake, where I found scores of friends waiting to celebrate my birthday. Joanne had planned it all. She was at my wedding. She was part of the fabric, no, the tapestry of my life.
The hour(s)-long phone calls, many times at 9:00 or 9:30, at the end of which we’d both say that we’d have problems pulling away the phones stuck to our ears. Sometimes she’d call around dinner and I’d have to cut her off to cook. Would that I could take back all those missed/lost minutes, especially when I was forced to turn down what would be her last Thanksgiving invitation because I’d had surgery on my lip that limited talking and eating. All now lost, along with her presence.
Joanne was the glue for the people who were lucky enough to be part of her world. She kept up on everyone, like the character Lucia in London whom she was smitten with, and then let us all know what was happening in each other’s lives. In a funny way, she kept us alive for each other.
So many occasions. Meeting her at a party at the Dosses’ after hearing her read for the first time in SF, Duncan talking to me outside during intermission with a giggly-teenagey laugh, just saying “She’s terrific.” How right he was.
The only time I’ve ever seen a “green flash” (a rare oddity at sunset) was with Joanne, on the deck of my little rental unit with a wide Pacific view. The same unit she’d come to, put a chair on the deck, unfurl the towel she brought along, and pull out the box of Toni permanent solution I was to administer in the hope that she’d be able to put some curls into her straight hair. We called it the Farallon Beauty Salon, ocean mist mixing into the chemicals.
Her presence at our little group, led by Duncan McNaughton, into the Koran. Our other reading group, held at Bob Grenier’s, where we would discuss various authors, including Olson. Reading her Japan/India Journals (Tombouctou version, which I was privileged to proofread), I understood how important Olson’s “Projective Verse” was to her poetics.
I knew she had been in a lot of pain towards the end. She called less and less frequently then, emailing to say that she wanted to finish the book she was working on. She also wrote how grateful she was to Donald for helping her and being tender to her in her diminished physical state. I just didn’t know how fatal it was. She never let anyone know.
One time, I followed her explicit directions. We were living in Seattle and told her that Gary Snyder was giving a reading there. She asked me to find a good pine cone on our property to give him. I came up to him at the end of his reading as he was signing books and told him Joanne had specifically instructed me to give it to him. In response he said, “Joanne is a good poet.” He then paused and corrected himself. “No, she’s a great poet.” A truly correct emendation.
For Joanne Kyger, 2021. “Gat, Gat, Parasam Gat, Bodhi Svaha.”
Edward and Miriam Sanders
Remembering Joanne Kyger
She loved the beautiful things
you could find in the natural world
She would arranger
beautiful items she would find
in natural places when we toured together
whatever was in the environment at hand
for her traveling altars
in her rooms
She was witty, funny, easy going
fun to be with
She sent me
2 million year old fossil
from the beach in Bolinas
& she sent a slice of black obsidian
that looked like when you cut off a slice of
cranberry sauce, only black
I sent her back a black pegmatite specimen
from a road cut above Boulder
& also she sent me
which I could never identify,
maybe lotus, from her travels.
read at Joanne’s Memorial 11-6-17
at St. Mark’s Church
In Praise and Memory of Joanne Kyger
You came to a party
at the Peace Eye Bookstore
on East 10th
In July of ’67
fresh from a visit to Europe
You were radiant and beautiful
standing near Julius Orlovsky &Tom Clark.
Always those years we referred to you as
Kyger Kyger burning bright
in the forests of the night.
For decade ’son decade
I was amazed at your poetry!
We visited you in Bolinas
over the years
where you were very active in town affairs
& wrote for the Bolinas Hearsay News
You helped protect your oceanside village
from excess development.
Later when we toured Italy together
in your hotel rooms
you always set up a Buddhist shrine
with holy items & images & incense to burn
We exchanged many emails for years
all the way to your final months
when you shielded your health from
much of the world
Your books shine brightly
—a fine stack of them
glowing in our living room
Kyger Kyger Burning Bright.
—Ed Sanders, read at Joanne
Kyger’s Memorial at St. Mark’s Church.
November 6, 2017
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