One of the beautiful things about being alive is how much there is still to learn and engage with. Since I restarted this blog, I’ve been semi-regularly posting these informal “poetry analyses,” and almost every time, when I’m not leaning on Bukowski at least, I encounter someone renowned I’d never heard of before. That is, I’m not sure if they are renowned both in the literary world and the broader world, and I’ve simply been ignorant this whole time, or only within the former, but even then, I try to regularly familiarize myself with said world and still, there are wonders to be discovered. Today is such a day and today’s poetry comes from such a person: Marilyn Chin, a Chinese American born in Hong Kong, but who was raised in Portland, Oregon. That dichotomy is always ripe for art.
Chin is a poet, activist and feminist, and who in 2018 was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her list of accolades is long, but includes pretty much every prize one could ask for in the literary world. In other words, clearly renowned.
The poem for today comes from her collection, Dwarf Bamboo, and is entitled, “The End of a Beginning.” Here is the poem in full and here is an excerpt:
The beginning is always difficult.
The immigrant worked his knuckles to the bone
only to die under the wheels of the railroad.
One thousand years before him, his ancestor fell
building yet another annex to the Great Wall—
When you’re younger, nobody notices the beginning. Even as an adult, understanding the beginning is difficult. We see the talented athlete as a finished product rather than a collection of beginnings. We see the finished Great Wall, as Chin evokes here, as the finished product rather than quite literally a collection of bodies, both dead and alive, whom put it together under awful conditions. And in many cases and examples historically, those who labored for whatever the “finished product” was died before they saw the fruits of what they had done (or were forced to do).
The way in which Chin connects this to her own lineage, at least as I interpret it, is interesting. She notes that she, too, is a “beginning of an end, the end of a beginning.” That is, like all of us who are the benefactors of those who came before, whether it was to gaze upon the Great Wall in awe or to quite literally be alive in order to do so, are because we are the “end” of their “beginning,” and the “beginning” of their “end.” But she also seems to merge these two thoughts by classifying her own lines of poetry as “paltry.” That is, up against what her grandfather did and his grandfather and so on down that lineage, her contribution to someone else’s beginning is “paltry” by comparison.
Now, I’ve always loved a good riddle — I was seriously obsessed with them in the sixth grade — and the last stanza sure is filled with them. My takeaway from each riddle, and the throughline I see, is that the Chins of today have forgotten the lesson of how difficult the beginning is, and that’s why pain befalls the baboon, the horse, the hyena and the hare, and that they all seem unprepared when it does come.
On one level, this poem came across like a meditation on the circle of life, but there’s a bit more here than that.
What do you make of this poem?