NEA Literature Fellowships

John Bradley

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(2007 - Poetry)

"Written on a Wall Facing Another Wall"

Swallows remind me of bats, yet bats don't remind me of swallows.
Raspberry thorns sting the fingers long after raspberries are gone.
Some will say I was Cheng Hui; others will say I was Cheng Ku.
In Changshan I sign these lines: "Written by a minor poet of the Sung."

[Author's Note: Translator Red Pine calls Cheng Hui (fl. 1210) "a minor poet of the Sung about whom we know next to nothing." Cheng's  poem "Written on the Wall of an Inn" can be found in Poems of the Masters, the famous collection of T'ang- and Sung-dynasty poetry. Some editions, however, attribute "Written on the Wall of an Inn" to Cheng Ku (fl. 890-930), a "prominent poet," notes Red Pine, though he attributes the poem to Cheng Hui. The poem above, "Written on a Wall Facing Another Wall," eerily anticipates Red Pine's responses to Cheng. It is not clear if in the last line Cheng refers only to himself or if he's implying that even the more "famous" Cheng (Cheng Ku) will one day be obscure. Raspberries bloom in Changshan in late spring, and swallows in Chinese poetry usually represent conjugal bliss. Changshan, where the author stopped at an inn to compose this poem, was on a road from the Southern Sung capital. Wild raspberries can still be found in Changshan, though they are not edible due to ground water pollution.]

John Bradley grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts; Lincoln and Omaha, Nebraska; Massapequa and Lynbrook, New York; and Wayzata, Minnesota. He received his MA from Colorado State University and his MFA from Bowling Green State University. His book Love-In-Idleness, a collection of persona poems set in Fascist Italy, won the Washington Prize. More recent books include Add Musk Here, Terrestrial Music, and War on Words. He has received an Illinois Arts Council grant and a previous NEA Fellowship in Poetry. He has been teaching writing at Northern Illinois University since 1992.  He lives in DeKalb, Illinois, with his wife, Jana, and cat, Luna.

Photo by Jana Brubaker

Author's Statement

When I've told friends and colleagues about receiving an NEA fellowship, many have expressed shock and surprise. The government? Giving away money? To a poet? Yes, I know it does sound strange. People are so used to hearing about their taxes going to the Pentagon and the CIA and for Star Wars research that they can't believe there are funds to support our artists and the arts. I'm incredibly thankful for this fellowship. It will allow me to have this summer to revise my Cheng Hui manuscript, to read more ancient Chinese poets, to learn more about translation, and to read other works that play with the concept of translation, like Armand Schwerner's "The Tablets." I feel like I've been given permission to hang out on the back porch with Cheng Hui, Tu Fu, Li Po, T'ao Ch'ien, Chuang Tzu, and other dear friends, wanderers, and exiles. They have much to teach me. Meanwhile, I tell my family members, "I promise to put your taxes to good use."  Maybe I should say "we": me, Cheng Hui, and associates.