When Dada Wrote Koans
by Theodore Wei Changsheng
"A few blown-up letters on paper is not art," the student tells Da-Ren, flicking the edition of Die Schammade onto the table, the one with "Dadameter" as a title. "How can someone calibrate something he can't ever find fault with?" The student seems irate. Da-Ren is washing down the urinals with a garden hose, the water blue because of the colours behind. Marcel Duchamp has cable-locked his wheel into a framed
position; the stool was stolen too. Da-Ren has passed his student the bolt cutter. The student is severing the hose to set the water free. "The only thing worse than the bad scholar," Da-Ren says, "is the one who takes his work seriously." He is jumping into the spray like a raindance.
The Bruitist Poem:
Da-Ren is teaching his student to write the Bruitist poem. What does the world represent for you? Heart-bleeding blogs that sound the same. Christmas Island sold for good but the red crabs still live in its burrows. "Look at the labyrinth of them," Da-Ren says, pointing to frenetic sand shadows. He has overturned a crab to look at its lungs and gills. "This one remembers living in the sea as a baby."
The Simultaneist Poem:
Da-Ren is teaching his student to write the Simultaneist poem. "Just write down your thoughts like telegrams," Da-Ren says, "and make papier-mâché animals with them." He seems patient enough, dusting lint off his one-piece robe. Before he leaves this town, he would like to try on a cassock just to feel the weight of it. He hears they now sell it in 100% organic cotton. Look at the low loops in Hans Richter's letter to Robert Motherwell. Those extravagant curves mean sex. It was 1949 in New York
and someone's wife had died in a small room above a grocery store. What provisions had she purchased that day? The student is still looking for purity in his experiences. "At last," Da-Ren mutters to himself, "he is giving up the historical anecdotes." In the bar, someone's vomited into a Mai Tai. The collins glass looks like autumn.
The Static Poem:
Da-Ren is teaching his student to write the Static poem. The student is finding difficulty sitting still, walking over to the window to look for the mailman who always leaves before the door opens. Da-Ren looks under the drum table to check if the bottom skin is maple ply too. Indeed there's a sound hole but a wire comes out of it. The wire must light the banker's lamp. Da-Ren returns to his Franklin library stand to locate the koan about flags. "Maybe it's cypress or cedar," the student says to his teacher, thinking wood
is wood but how weird it sounds to say it like that. He thumps the table and hears a snare that reverberates like labyrinths, like them.
Sima Xiangru Rewrites Da-Ren:
The Yellow Emperor has asked for Da-Ren. Da-Ren arrives and looks at the yellow all around; even the small teacups have lost their chrysanthemum cities to become one unremitting saffron. No one is levitating in this court although they all want to. Da-Ren's student has taken to the merchant's daughter; they intend to open a tavern together and serve hot rice wine in petri dishes. "I've left my wife and children," the Yellow Emperor tells Da-Ren, pushing his tea towards him. I feel like an orphan in my rented room in America. They say boiled chrysanthemum roots are good for headaches, now that Da-Ren has disappeared into the fresco, inveterate.
A new catalogue has arrived. It sells everything from hampers to visors to worry stones. Da-Ren moves his thumb across the face of the angel carved into his jadeite piece. That was a birthday present from his student. Da-Ren wrote him a poem in return about an old river that had dried up. It's now used as a parking lot. "It comes in other colours," Da-Ren recalls his student saying, afraid his teacher wouldn't like the brown-tinged green. But Da-Ren sees the tree of life in it like a forest in India and all the bloodstone it can afford, the martyrs hidden within.
"Teacher, what is the self but what you make of it?" The student asks. "Yes but before the question," Da-Ren replies with a smile, "came the question and before that came another question." The student nods because keeping silent to such answers connotes understanding or at least acknowledgement or quietly, simply lack thereof. He then opens all his workbooks in front of his teacher, reading the poems he copied
like a scribe, poems about temples and bodies. The calligraphy has seeped through the pages to the other side to set, diaphanous as Rorschach tests.
The Kite Fight:
"The wind is your friend," Da-Ren tells his student as his student struggles with his umbrella. The umbrella's steel rods are bending backwards, flapping gadfly legs. Why does master's hair always stay perfectly combed? Why does his robe fly out in all the right directions like an Issey Miyake confection? The Buddhist nuns from Burma have run for shelter with their begging bowls, white robes clinging like wet muslin. They drop ten dollar notes in their bowls to up their profit margins. Buskers are slick like that
too, the student thinks to himself, hiding his harmonica. A ginger cat is preening itself like a goldfish against glass. A boy is running with his kite to cut down other kites. You can see the glass on the string shimmering, silver line in the sky, iridescent. The field has filled with criss-crossing children, the student notices, before letting go of his umbrella to retie his robe. For that brief moment, he feels the wind on his chest before his teacher hugs him to squat behind a building. Behind them a shop opens to sell
royal jelly by the bottle.
Max Ernst - Two Ambiguous Figures:
"Have you been watering my plants? Because I haven't."
Da-Ren is looking back at his student who has already shrugged his shoulders like knobs. The student catches his inertia and comes up with a reply: "There are times to be politically correct and there are times not to be. There really aren't any scruples either way."
A Friend in Need:
Liuling is pottering around naked because he lives between heaven and earth. He feels his house suffices in bundling him up. Da-Ren is in the house too, reshelving The Homeric Hymns under Depth Psychology. He likes the way verse translations help him hum about things he would never hum about like subway tokens and bad directions. Old journals end up in the in-tray and the dictionaries? They now line up under Creative
Non-Fiction. Liuling hasn't taken a bath in a long time because he perspires into no shirts that put his own dirt back on himself. "He must go back a long way with master," the student thinks to himself, reading a Thank You card that was never sent out. There are food coupons and tax forms and warranty cards strewn across
the sideboard. The dishwasher is plugged into the kitchen tap where water flows in and siphons out. The computer monitor is covered with stickers like a screensaver that never blinks. "I made that myself," Liuling gesticulates towards the windchime of cowbells, seashells and paper cranes. In his wine, Liuling sees the entire world for what it is and then tries to drink the memory.
Meeting Old Friends:
Da-Ren has met Dada for tea and now has to join the
other table. "Toss them down the stairs," Dada tells
Da-Ren, "and see where the sticks land." Playing
pick-up sticks online is nervous energy especially
with that plasma screen replaying last season's bad
soccer. Someone forgot the hops in this batch of
microbrews that now pass off for babycham. Dada has
stopped star jumping and begun spinning saucers on
sticks. "He always liked attention," the producer
whispers to his cameraman in amusement. The grips are
transferring the flats into Studio A4 to paint the
Venice scene with Danish mermaids and overcrowded
gondolas. There's no recourse for the Wonder Woman
props there; they're being airlifted out of here
Wednesday now that the entire estate's been bought out
by a Macau tycoon. "Let's try this with toothpicks,"
Da-Ren says at the adjacent table, nailing a housefly
down by the wing, its body flurrying like duckpins.
Its compound eyes register viewfinders.
Compositions can't end as dreams or flashbacks or
futile ambition. "Our lives can't end in bathos," the
student repeats the line in a how-to book on good
expository writing. Da-Ren doesn't seem to exist for
anyone else like a figment, like fig trees growing in
fisheries. The figs have eyes that stare back like
Tristan Tzara in that Man Ray photograph. The eyeglass
makes him look like a pirate with one good eye, his
right hand digging into the socket in the back of his
head. The student thinks he looks dangerous but
self-content in assessing how much black will
eventually pixellate in the picture. "Promises must be
kept," he says to Tzara, circling round the good eye
till his pen punches it out like a scab.
Effort of Surrealism:
"Dada makes gods of men," Da-Ren quips, "then makes
them men again." There's a painter walking down the
street that's at once mysterious and melancholic. It
is like a yellow brick road with monastic arches
lining it on one side. Its long roof is the only red
in the picture. The other side is likely to go on
forever. The painter has drawn an architect's straight
line on a white wall. "That's Giorgio de Chirico!"
Da-Ren exclaims all of a sudden. "That's him hiding in
his own silhouette!"
The student wants to achieve immortality. "Where are
the Nine Wilds, teacher?" The durians are ripening on
trees, falling like spiked balls. Little beds of ixora
are in bloom. Da-Ren is sipping pink nectar out of
them. "What do you know about time travel?" The
student performs stunts like a macebearer, working in
slow motion, performative as if to underscore his
point. Da-Ren has taken off his cross-trainers to feel
the grass beneath his feet. The grass is lying down
for him. The grass is turning many greens for him. He
looks up at the clouds through the canopy and says, "I
wouldn't do church for free if someone paid me."
Based in Guangzhou, Theodore Wei Changsheng has edited several books but has yet to find a home for his poetry collection of hybrid forms. He does ghost writing and index editing for a publishing house in Hong Kong.
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story copyright by author 2006 all rights reserved