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Poem: At Least - The New York Times


In a wry poem of direct counsel, Ha Jin dismisses obligatory mingling and networking. He’s talking to himself or to any of us, as the poem quietly advises and reasons. “A Distant Center,” Ha Jin’s profoundly appealing collection of poems written in Chinese, then translated by the author into English, contains so many breathtaking cleanses-of-spirit — begone bombast and posturing! Reading it is better than going to a spa. The title of this poem adds another encouraging nod to the topic. We may not know everything, but “at least” this. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye

By Ha Jin

You don’t need to appear everywhere,
attending parties and conferences randomly.
That would show you are still
diffident about your art
and would also debase you.

People who see you in person
might think you’re too common,
your achievement due to luck
like a blind cat that stumbles on a dead mouse.

Your frequent appearance
would dishearten others
because you exist far away,
at the end of their imagination —
you should be watched but not reached.

Look, this skyful of stars,
which one of them
doesn’t shine or die alone?
Their light also comes
from a deep indifference.


Naomi Shihab Nye is the 2019-21 Young People’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago and the 2019 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Ivan Sandrof Award for Lifetime Achievement. Ha Jin has published novels, poetry, stories and essays and has won a National Book Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award and two PEN/Faulkner Awards for his fiction. He teaches at Boston University. “A Distant Center” was published in 2018 by Copper Canyon Press.

Illustration by R. O. Blechman

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