June 10, 2020
“In Halebsky’s third poetry collection Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), published in
2020 by University of Arkansas Press, the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai and Du Fu encounter everyday
life in Oakland, California. In his introduction to this collection, Billy Collins writes, ‘Halebsky’s
stylistic range is on full display when she switches from pure observation to a kind of revved up
American rap…she likes the unleashed energy of poetry, and in the poems gathered here, she
To the Readers of WordTemple from Judy Halebsky:
Greetings, I am writing to you from a safe distance: 6 feet and a keyboard and an email password.
I often feel that poetry can connect us miraculously. When I read I feel the voices living with me in the
here and now. So really, poetry can cross almost anything. When I wrote Spring and a Thousand Years
(Unabridged), I was trying to understand so many things and I was trying to get to the moment when
things become bright and lift us up from our usual gray confusion.
In my second book, Tree Line, I read Basho’s instructions on how to write haiku and applied them to
free verse poems. Basho was writing in 17th century Japan and celebrated for elevating haiku from
comic poems that made fun of court poetry to a literary form that has aesthetic weight. He originated
a form call hai-bun which is an extended work that has both haiku with prose descriptions. I wrote
poems about reading Basho’s work and about being a person in the world, sometimes failing and
some-times getting to shore in time. So, I was reading Basho while also being an ordinary person and there are poems about both of those things in that book.
In my new book, Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), I trace the writings and literary forms
that influenced Basho. In his work, he often references classical Chinese poetry. Li Bai and Du Fu are
celebrated as major poets of China’s Tang Dynasty, which is often called the golden age of poetry in
China. In Basho’s time, these poets were revered and references to their work were readily identifiable.
For me, I had to do a lot of ground work to see these references and understand them. I absolutely fell
for these Tang Dynasty poets and loved reading their work and learning about them. That’s where a
number of the poems in this book originated.
I…tried to understand how Basho came up with the haibun form. There’s a tradition in Japanese
literature of a poetry-journal or an utanikki. While Basho’s travel journals are the first examples of
haiku and prose narratives, there is a much longer tradition of writing poetry journals with bringing
together verse and prose. Of these, my favorite is Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon was a
woman living in the imperial court in Heian, Japan (modern day Kyoto) more than a thousand years ago.
She wrote the Pillow Book, which is a collection of lists, anecdotes and observations. Both Basho’s
travel journal and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book are texts we read as non-fiction, as works that record
experience in a true-to-life way. This is part of the form of a journal, it purports to be a day record
rather than a story. That’s part of the form and part of the writer’s craft to make a work that reads as
a day record even though it might be crafted and fictionalized.
More than anything, as this book grew and took on a life of its own, I imagined it as a book in
translation with notes…The idea of poetry as a field guide, as a way of being in this world is at the
heart of my writing. I want poetry to bring me closer to living vividly, to being fully present in the
wildness of being alive. — Judy Halebsky
Here are a few poems from Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), followed by a brief bio
of Judy Halebsky:
Dear Li Bai,
A million times I read your letter. I know what you mean about sadness
being the easy way to go in a poem. About Americans being spoiled? I
see how you might get that idea.
Trust me, a cruise ship isn’t a good example. I’m glad you liked
Melbourne and I’m sure the Galapagos were amazing. I’ll look up
the pictures on the Internet (that’s a new kind of library, more on
that later). The cream they put on their skin is to block the sun. They
want to stay young-looking (A tan doesn’t make them less white) it’s
Let me just say. the war was a kind of storm. I sat in my kitchen. I wrote
sad poems. My dear Joshua joined the army. He loved the uniform. He
loved jumping out of planes. He wasn’t in the helicopter that crashed.
He was part of the crew sent to the wreckage. They found the pieces of
bodies and cleaned them and put them in groups and sent them home.
He survived. We eat at taquerias and see movies about Britain. We plan
family trips to the mountains. Spoiled, yes, in many ways.
I came only with your poems. I read them the night the train left
Oakland. By Portland, I was beginning to doubt the translations. I kept
going. We walked the sea wall in Vancouver. My father said, Where are
we? Where are you?
It’s morning here and the middle of the night in China. I keep all your
letters. I promise I won’t sell them at auction. I promise no more sad
poems. I’ll write about the rain and these mountains and how very
young I am and how writing to you is just like talking on the phone.
Let’s make a plan to drink and hike. We can meet at base camp. I’ll bring
you a rainproof coat. They sell beer in cans there. I know, it’s amazing.
Li Bai Considers Online Dating
on a clear night and a full moon, I lie on the grass
and talk to friends far away.
(note to self: before writing profile, eat cookies
then resolve to lose weight, then drink beer)
I carry little, move often
the distances between cities grow
right now I am fleeing arrest in another country
(leave this out, maybe?)
my chances of returning diminish
the mountains here are lush green, jasper green
a color that won’t translate but let’s try —
I sit in the lecture hall and check out the painters
I want one who quits early, who stays up late
who can lie with me in the grass
leave lines of charcoal down my thigh
I’ll cross the creek with my arms raised
to keep this letter dry.
River Merchant in Blue
of course I’m expecting you now
the butterflies are yellow with August
and you’ve sold everything you possibly could
between Gilroy and Weed
blue plum — a kind of apricot
in the damp heat of this summer night, wherever you are
blue for pale
blue for livid and leaden and bruised
know that I chose you as my spouse
you were never my king or my lord
blue for loyalty
blue for distant and unknown
a river merchant’s wife —
would I rather have married a farmer?
one who would walk up behind me
put his dirt hands on my waist
one who would know
blue is for young and fresh and green
rather than what we choose
I think sometimes love is what we can’t escape.
I put my suitcase down
see the robins outside
on the window, I notice
the waxy imprint of tail feathers
faint outline of the arc of a wing
rose robins sing
as if classically trained, as if they are drunk or in a hurry
desperately and beautifully
my dad beaming that I’ve come to see him
I can’t remember a single thing, he says
in firethorn bushes
males sing a whisper song
to mark territory, to sigh defeat
I tape squares of colored paper to the glass
he sleeps on the couch
I sleep in the be
each morning it’s the same
How does the stove work? Where am I?
What is that sound?
a bird hitting the window
songbirds navigate by the stars
but when it’s foggy
when the clouds are low
they fly into the lights
that shine in dark windows
Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Judy Halebsky is a poet, teacher, and translator. The author of
three books of poetry, she directs the low-residency MFA program and teaches writing and storytelling
at Dominican University of California. She is the recipient of the Graves Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities. Halebsky researches embodied knowledge, cultural translation, and improvisation.
Her article on June Watanabe’s Noh-influenced collaboration with Leslie Scalapino won the Emerging
Scholars Award from the Association for Asian Performance.