Meditation on the Wen-Fu
When the Heavenly Arrow is at its fleetest and sharpest,
what confusion is there that cannot be brought to order?
Lu Chi speaks of the heavenly arrow
and the sky parts. Quietly: not
with the flourish of trumpets, nor
with the clang of bronze doors thrown back, nor
with the velvet pomp of the lifting curtain — but
with the almost invisible shift of a cloud
that had obscured the sun, or the way
the dusk melts slowly into dark
and the stars ignite. This is not
the firing of the arrow, but merely
the drawing of heaven’s bow.
It is hard to draw, and harder yet to say.
For this the brush had to be
invented, to speak in a wet rush like the living
tongue, moving over everything as a stream licks over
stones, in love with the feel of what
is opposite, or meeting another stream
with the lush music of affinity, or
after a long coursing through the rock beneath
the earth, it cries up
into the light, as a fountain.
As to the flowing and the not-flowing,
no one can explain it: how the spring
that gentled the earth with moss
and drew from it the delicacy of ferns
suddenly dries up
as if the voice of a god were stilled.
And the dead ferns rasp brittle underfoot,
the dry moss answers the hand with the scratch of briars,
making it a place now for the tourist,
for the disappointment of cameras. Though,
now and then, one comes who imagines
she hears in the sighing of wind in the dry weeds
some spirit released — a bird sprung from a trap.
While, in some unmarked spot, sacred
to no tribe — a trickle begins in the rocks, and,
in the slow way vision alters from below,
a pool takes shape like a quiet eye
to hold the heavens in its gaze, the sky
looking up through floating leaves,
having found its proper home.
And, as to the heavenly arrow
of which Lu Chi speaks — it must have struck
straight down, deep into stone, into the heart
of granite. Strange, then,
what wells up, what pours forth in a flood,
should be both clear and bright
as water, heavy and dark as blood;
that stone be wounded into speech
and that such wounds should heal us.
~ Eleanor Wilner
The Arrow Of Inspiration
In this lovely poem, the “heavenly arrow” refers to artistic inspiration, and in particular that of the writer. The phrase is drawn from a text devoted wholly to the art of writing: Wen Fu (Essay On Literature) penned by the 3rd-century Chinese poet Lu Chi (aka Lu Ji). Stand-alone English translations of the Wen Fu include:
- The Art of Writing: Teachings of the Chinese Masters, translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping
- The Art of Writing: Lu Chi’s Wen Fu, translated by Sam Hamill
The translation referenced by Eleanor Wilnor in her Meditation on the Wen Fu can be found in the Anthology of Classical Chinese Literature. The “heavenly arrow” phrase appears in the context of following verse:
As for the interaction of stimulus and response,
and the principle of the flowing and ebbing of inspiration,
You cannot hinder its coming
or stop its going.
It vanishes like a shadow,
and it comes like echoes.
When the Heavenly Arrow
is at its fiercest and sharpest,
what confusion is there
that cannot be brought to order?
The wind of thought bursts from the heart:
the stream of words rushes through the lips and teeth.
Luxuriance and magnificence
wait the command of the brush and the paper.
Shining and glittering,
language fills your eyes;
abundant and overflowing,
music drowns your ears.