top of page

Monkey Business

by Debra Kang Dean

Spalding MFA Poetry Faculty

Screenshot 2016-02-07 23.08.46

Courtesy of Selden Durgom Lamoureux

February 2nd:  I’m writing as we enter the cusp between the Year of the Goat, my year, and the Year of the Monkey.  It’s Groundhog Day, and Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow.  I like that the prognostication is based on a mammal going outside, and perhaps that I still tune in suggests a nod to what I cannot know with absolute certainty even in the face of sometimes alarming patterns and trends.  So from day to day, I try to check the forecasts and/or keep a weather-eye open because I practice taiji outdoors a few times a week.

For the past ten winters, when I have to turn on the heat again, I rediscover by trial and error my one-degree margin: set the thermostat lower while I’m working, and I’m mentally swatting away the chill until it finally registers; higher and sometimes I’m on the edge of breaking into a sweat and will if I get up and exert myself physically.  It’s a process by which I discover what’s normal though if I sit long enough, my feet still get cold.  I know the recommended set points and perhaps should follow them, but I wonder if I would pay attention to the interface with the world that is my body if I did.  So far, I have skirted both cold and flu this year, knock on wood, and I wonder if that would not be the case if I simply kept my house a little warmer.

I’ve been thinking about the way “sick” has become a synonym for “awesome”—I’ve heard it most often used for performances—and wondering why this use of the word seems different than “crazy” or “insane”—though what they share is the idea of going beyond what is considered normal.  My late husband was an independent scholar; in a former life, he was briefly a sailor and never entirely quit cussing like one, so I am more familiar with “sick” being used as an adjective for a word also ending in “-ck”—definitely not positive and often reserved for a person whose behavior is way beyond the pale.  From what I can gather, what may have begun as an inversion of meaning—think of “wicked good” or “bad”—that shifted the term from condemnation to praise entered print in 1983 and was used among skateboarders or snowboarders to describe the performance of a move that only someone out of his or her mind would attempt—suggesting, of course, real physical risk or danger.  Is it just dead metaphor, I wonder, the word, like the phrase “bite the dust,” just words; and if so, could it be, to use a distinction from First Aid, a sign (what can be apprehended by the senses) or a symptom (what is felt and must be communicated) of the times?  Most of the time, I don’t think about these things, but when I do, my poet’s mind takes charge of my lazy eye and mulls things over.

Screenshot 2016-02-07 23.08.51

Photo by Debra Kang Dean

February 3rd:  Many people have tried their hand at translating Basho’s famous hokku about the frog and the pond and interpreting it.  One Hundred Frogs, edited by Hiroaki Sato, is a compilation that even includes one version that turns the seventeen-syllable original into a story.  In Basho and His Interpreters, Makoto Ueda offers this nearly literal translation:  “the old pond― / a frog jumps in, / water’s sound.”  In a headnote to “1686,” the section in which this hokku appears, Ueda writes that illness had interrupted Basho’s work on an annotation of “a hundred-verse sequence in honor of Kikaku, who had just declared himself to be an independent haikai master.”  In this context, one can see in the hokku well wishes to a favorite student entering the old pond of poetry.  According to Sato, this verse was capped by a wakiku (a name to specify a fourteen-syllable couplet that is the second link in a haikai no renga) that is attributed to Kikaku:  “suspended over young rush blades a spider’s web”—the image is a sort of photographic negative of Basho’s.  If one sees in Basho’s hokku a little of Chuang Tzu’s refusal to serve in the court―”I’d rather be a turtle wagging my tail in the mud”—the image in Kikaku’s wakiku might be seen as a response to the dangers implicit in serving at court.

About Basho’s annotation project Ueda writes:  “The work is noteworthy for its emphasis on atarashimi (‘novelty’), which can be defined as newness not of diction but of perception; through the mind’s eye, the poet discovers hitherto unnoticed beauty in life or nature.”  Several interpreters comment on how by convention frogs appear in verse vocalizing—that is, croaking—but no mention is made of the technique of linking used―I think of it as eye rhyme―perhaps because it may have seemed obvious.  The frog and the pond might resemble one another in shape and even color, before the frog leaps—its whole body making the sound and setting the static image into motion, its arc half of a vertical circle that will be completed and made visible in the waves radiating outward on the surface of the water.  In an instant, then, a seemingly static image is full of movement, a mirror of the mind in a moment of insight.  In its treatment of the image, moreover, the hokku also seems to me to prefigure Basho’s late aesthetic of karumi as embodied in the following New Year’s hokku:  “Bush warbler— / a dropping on the rice cake / at the veranda’s edge.”  Basho said of this haiku, “it shows the kind of innovation I am trying to achieve nowadays.”  By convention, the bush warbler, as Kenkichi Yamamoto, one of the interpreters notes, was “depicted as an elegant bird that sings among blossoms.”  There is an eye rhyme here, too, in the shape and color of the moldy rice cake and bird droppings.  In both hokku, beyond novelty, a being trapped in language is released back into the world.

In a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-told Tales, Herman Melville notes that the stories are not meaty enough, a sentiment that jibes with my sense of Hawthorne as a writer with a poet’s temperament. Among the stories I read closely while working on my Master’s thesis was one called “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe.”  It is about Dominicus Pike, a likeable young tobacco pedlar who has a weakness for a good story and who, hearing a rumor that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, spreads the rumor, expanding, embellishing, and modifying the story he’s creating as he receives new information.  At the end of the tale, we see the gap between conceiving a crime and executing it—and also how very often people readily hear what they want to believe. In the tale two Irishmen and an African American—depending on who is speaking, Hawthorne uses the “n-word,” “Negro,” “yellow man,” and “Ethiopian”—conspire to hang Mr. Higginbotham in his pear orchard, but two of the three men abandon the plan, and Pike encounters them singly on the road. The tale is told with a bemused tone, earned in the end because things turn out well for Mr. Higginbotham at least—though it could have been otherwise—and, it is implied, for Pike at least materially. 


I believe the tale reflects Hawthorne’s philosophical bent, his probing the connection between thought and action, and, by extension, whether one can be held culpable for wayward thoughts.  I encountered this tale as I was crossing over into Literature from Philosophy, and so what interested me then was the way Pike’s response to being chastened after escaping being tarred and feathered and/or ridden out of town on a rail—I only recently saw what this latter dead metaphor meant literally—for spreading false rumors in Parker’s Falls; it is the intervention of Higginbotham’s niece, who happened to arrive at the town with his lawyer, that spares Pike—though, of course, their testimony also gives the lie to Pike’s story.  It’s a mill-and-factory town where the more affluent Higginbotham, who lives in nearby Kimballton, is despised.  Pike pauses to review the details of his encounters with various travelers, and as the hour of the purported crime approaches again, with some trepidation, Pike decides to see for himself whether the rumor is true by going to the orchard—and unwittingly saves Mr. Higginbotham.  (The narrator attributes the townspeople’s wrath to their disappointment that Higginbotham is not, in fact, dead.)  In summing up the tale, Hawthorne uses the word “fate,” which, from a mortal perspective, could seem a little like luck when one sees in the necessary chain of events how one broken link, and the rumor might have been confirmed.

February 4th:  My husband Brad would have been 62 today, Rosa Parks 103.  Perhaps it is because I write poetry, that I give my monkey mind greater compass in prose, and perhaps I hew to poetry precisely because the formal demands help to discipline my mind, which, I know, may be the exact opposite of what many people think about writing poetry.  Even when I have a word count, it feels as if in prose I have room to stretch out, to fill the space and to explain and digress, whereas in verse, I cannot always, as Frost put it, “ride easy in the harness.”  But I’ve learned over time to love how this limit, too, can reveal, not something about a writer’s ineptitude, but something about the harness.” More often, now, I find myself thinking about how to use this uneasy fit, to simultaneously draw a picture while asking, What’s wrong with this picture?  Whether in closed or open forms, beyond irony of tone, line and line break breaking the sentence is what verse can do, and I am feeling more compelled to care about language in the way Orwell talks about dead metaphor in “Politics and the English Language,” because the act itself serves to show what it feels like to move in a mediated world where fragmentation and manipulation make it difficult to know whether what I hear or see is true.  Hawthorne’s tale reminds me of imperatives I was given in grade school:  Before crossing the street, stop, look, and listen.

Screenshot 2016-02-07 23.09.03

Looking ahead to February 8th:  The Three Monkeys—one covering its eyes, one covering its ears, and one covering its mouth—are an image of these imperatives.  It’s interesting that these monkeys have been used to express, on the one hand, bad behavior—a turning away from responsibility—and, on the other, as a reminder to comport oneself with restraint.  Apparently, among Mahatma Gandhi’s few possessions was a small statue of these monkeys.  From what I have gathered, monkeys were not only trickster figures but also messengers between Earth and Heaven, where once a year one’s bad deeds were recorded in one’s karmic ledger.  Such is the business of living, and in the way that words themselves are so often full of surprises, “ledger” can also refer to “a flat slab of stone laid over a grave or tomb” and, spelled “leger,” to the lead sinker for a fishing line.  There’s a razor’s edge to this monkey business, a sometimes idle business, we are engaged in as writers—as Etheridge Knight put it, poets, like preachers and politicians, are both the users and abusers of language.  This year, on the page, I’d like to work harder to keep words and images, our common instruments, sharp, for they are adjuncts to work in the world.

At the start of this Lunar New Year, friends, I wonder, What image or dead metaphor troubles your mind?

Debra Kang Dean is the author of News of Home and Precipitates, both from BOA Editions; two prize-winning chapbooks, Back to Back and Fugitive Blues; and Morning’s Spell, a chapbook of renku written with Russ Kesler. Her poems have appeared in many journals, including most recently in Rattle and the thirty-fifth anniversary issue of Bamboo Ridge, and they have been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer’s Almanac. Her essays have appeared in the expanded edition of The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World and in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin. A member of the faculty of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing Program since 2003, she is a regular contributor to the program’s blog.


bottom of page