Joe Survant. View from the Stork Building: Chinese Variations. Monterey, Kentucky: Larkspur Press,  London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. RRP $50.00 USD.


review by J. Rhett Forman


Joe Survant’s View from the Stork Building: Chinese Variations expresses loss through the mode originally adapted into English by Ezra Pound a century ago. This mode privileges subtlety over garrulity and image over abstraction and studies the similarity between human affairs and natural forces. In our cyclonic age of tumult and disease, Survant’s sixth collection reminds us of the locus of human meaning: intimate friendship. Alongside We Will All Be Changed (1995), Anne and Alpheus: 1842-1882 (1996), The Presence of Snow in the Tropics (2001), Rafting Rise (2002), and The Land We Dreamed (2014), View from the Stork Building exhibits Survant’s range of voice and interest. As the 2002-2004 Kentucky Poet Laureate, recipient of the State Street Press Poetry Prize and Arkansas Poetry Prize (Anne and Alpheus), and Professor Emeritus at Western Kentucky University, Survant has fashioned “variations” that recall the Malaysian verses of Presence of Snow while viewing the past through the kind of personae featured in Anne and Alpheus. Along with Survant’s poems, the book provides exquisite calligraphy by Gan Fei Li of Beijing.

As Survant himself attests, Pound’s influence in this work merits our attention. But rather than simply rehearsing Pound, Survant successfully makes it new. In his “Preface,” Survant explains that he “wrote these twenty-one poems in the same mode as Pound” (ix). Covering the themes of “friendship, love, separation, [loneliness, and impermanence],” the project began as “a small cultural exchange” between Survant and scholar Wang Yu Huan of Western Kentucky University’s Confucius Institute, an exchange wherein the two would share American and Chinese poems at weekly meetings (ix). Survant describes how “[o]ne day, after a discussion of Pound’s poem [“The River Merchant’s Wife”], [he] decided to follow him and make ‘versions’ after the originals” (x). Overcoming the feeling of “literary transgression” at failing to provide literal translations, Survant embraced “a poetic tension that allows the resulting poems to stretch, breathe a little on their own, and maybe even run about.” In Poundian terms, Survant’s “variations” seek news that stays new as they gather from the air a live tradition capable of its own independent movement apart from the shackles of strict translation.

The book is organized into ten parts according to the ten Chinese poets who inspire these poems. These poets are Han Shan (7th-8th cent.?, Tang Dynasty), Wang Wei (8th cent., Tang Dynasty), Gao Shi (8th cent., Tang Dynasty), Cao Zhi (3rd cent., Three Kingdoms Period), Du Fu (8th cent., Tang Dynasty), Zhang Ji (8th cent., Tang Dynasty), Su Shi (11th cent., Song Dynasty), Li Bai (8th cent., Tang Dynasty; Pound’s “Rihaku”), Bai Ju Yi (8th cent., Tang Dynasty), and Wang Zhi Huan (8th cent., Tang Dynasty). Rather than mislead us—and trespass upon the originals—with the preposition by in front of each name, Survant appropriately suggests his own autonomy with after. The titles of the poems largely indicate places, such as a peach orchard, a jade house, Maple Bridge, Lu Shen Mountain, and the titular stork building. As much as this is a book about friendship and loss, it is also about the human relationship to place. In addition to these place names, other titles mention loved ones and connote the emptiness left behind in their absence.

The first poem after the apocryphal Han Shan, “In a Far County I Miss You,” expresses both the connection to place and the loss of a beloved (5). The speaker laments that he and his loved one “live at opposite ends of the sky” and that they have remained apart so long that they would no longer recognize each other, so thoroughly has the “coinage of [their] faces . . . worn away” (5). This metaphor itself merits meditation on how human things and humans themselves decay and shift like the weather, though the cycles of nature remain steadfast. Similar thoughts arise after considering Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife,” “Jewel Stairs’ Grievance,” and “Exile’s Letter,” all of which feature speakers that allow the natural and manmade worlds to express their sorrow for them.

Another poem after Han Shan, “Thinking of My Life in an Empty Moment,” likewise anthropomorphizes nature and naturalizes man (9). Like Pound’s “Leave-Taking Near Shoku,” Survant’s rendition acknowledges how human fate and senility are inalterable. As in “The Beautiful Toilet” and “A Ballad of the Mulberry Road,” Survant’s “The Jade House” marvels at a beautiful girl “with eyebrows like moth’s wings” whose “songs are 3 months long” (12-13). The group “For a Friend Traveling Far” (Wang Wei 23), “Saying Goodbye” (Gao Shi 25), and “Saying Goodbye at the Yellow Bird” (Li Bai 39) recall Pound’s “Four Poems of Departure,”  also by Li Bai (i.e., Rihaku). Imploring a friend to “Wait! One more cup!” as they drink to his departure, the speaker of “For a Friend Traveling Far” seeks solace in inebriation.

Continuing this theme, “Written While Drinking in Lakeview Tower” after Su Shi reminds us of the sorrowful but endearing voice of Pound’s “To-Em-Mei’s ‘The Unmoving Cloud’” (35). Here the speaker numbs himself with drink in the expectation that, once sober again, the pain in his heart will have cleared up along with his drunkenness. By contrast, “View from My Room” after Du Fu defends the virtue of staying put as the speaker views from his “black doorway / . . . ships / from far Dong Wu,” eventually vowing to “abandon all travel” (31). Finally, “Poem Gotten on a Grassy Plain” (Bai Ju Yi 47) and “View from the Stork Building” (Wang Zhi Huan 49), express the kind of pain of memory found in Pound’s “Exile’s Letter.” “Are you not the friend / of my childhood? / Did not the tree sparrows we killed / as boys feel and fear their deaths?” asks the old speaker of “Poem Gotten on a Grassy Plain” (47). Something personal is seemingly confessed as regards the experience of old age in “View from the Stork Building,” wherein the stubborn speaker insists that he and his friend ascend the stairs they climbed as “short-haired boys” in order “to look 500 miles, / where the white sun / drops behind the mountains” (49).

Just as Survant’s variations eschew the martial poems of Pound’s Cathay, so too does Pound offer little counterpart to Survant’s “Climbing Lu Shen Mountain” and “Moonlight Walk” (Li Bai 37; 43). Pound would have likely blessed these two Imagist poems. In the former, the speaker looks back upon a time when he thought Lu Shen Mountain “only / a purple smoke” (37). And in the latter, the speaker recalls how, as a child, he “did not understand the moon,” thinking “it was the white jade plate / from which [his] grandmother ate” (43). Above all others in this little volume, these two best instantiate the childlike capacity for accidental metaphor.

Survant’s volume is an important contribution to the tradition of Poundian-Chinese verse. And in the midst of hardships that we trick ourselves into thinking will last forever, as we ourselves grow ever older and more isolated, these variations remind us of the change of season, the change of place, the change of human hearts. But they also suggest the endurance of generations in the very fact that the ancient voices themselves are as familiar to us as the sounds of our own thoughts. Perhaps that is what Survant was looking for when he undertook this project, to find a language from a distant land for expressing his own loss, offering it up kindly to us.