Clearly Enigmatic: Glenn Mott’s Analects
on a Chinese Screen Paperback
74 pgs. $16.00 Chax Press, 2007
Hank Lazer

     Every book of poetry is a first book, in the sense that each book is an effort to find out what a book of poetry might be.  In writing that book, the poet may wish to consider the peculiar nature of the labor involved: how that labor links to the labor of others, what is the value of that labor, what would constitute proper ambition, and what might amount to success.

     In American literature, the greatest such first book of poetry is a prose work: Thoreau’s Walden (which is as much, or more so, than the writings of Confucius a key precursor to Glenn Mott’s Analects).


     It would be nice for a book of poetry to rest on the bedrock of fact.  Or, as Robert Frost put it (in “Mowing”): “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.”  Perhaps one way to map poetry is to find that intersection of fact, dream, labor, and knowledge.  Mott in Analects declares, 

I’ll tell you, much the most interesting thing about me

is that I’m in China.   (9)

It is the China of a specific time and place:  “In the years I was there the economy of Shanghai grew 19%” (42).  Or, as Thoreau says about the most salient fact:  “If you stand right fronting and face to face to a fact, you will see the sun glimmer on both its surfaces, as if it were a cimeter, and feel its sweet edge dividing you through the heart and marrow, and so you will happily conclude your mortal career” (W, 98).

     For Mott, that fact is his being in China, and the book, Analects on a Chinese Screen, that emerges from that experience.  It is a fact with a specific historical and cultural determination: the boom time of the early and mid-1990s in China.  Nonetheless, as Thoreau asserts, it is a blade-edged fact that cuts deeply.  One might begin to delineate those divisions as the personal and the historical; the one (singular) and the many, or the individual and the collective (or the shipwreck of the singular vs. of being numerous, to use George Oppen’s terminology).

     Perhaps the blade-edge of fact wherein (or whereon) Mott dwells in Analects is an extended historical moment that makes apparent the end of American global/economic dominance, and that marks the emergence of a reinvented China as the central nation for the twenty-first century.  But the empiricism of Analects restrains our attention to the facts, peculiarities, and dynamics of 1990s China, as well as tracking Mott’s own personal reflections.


     It may be easier to say what Analects is not than to say what it is.  It is not a typical first book displaying proudly mastery of a received craft.  It is not a book wherein the poet preens for the approval of professionals in the field.  It is not (principally) a self-expressive I-story about me and my feelings.  The book does begin to establish an odd bristly smart relationship (and aversion) to community and to “poets” and to other imagined collectives.  Of course, that such thinking takes place in a China in transition – at a historical moment when communist ideology begins a determined and perhaps uncontrollable experiment in hybridity with marketplace economics and its attendant cult of individuality – is crucial.  So is an over-arching, nearly eternal perspective guided by wisdom-writings such as the Analects of Confucius – the sort of temporal and tempered corrective to our American obsession with the raging importance of the present moment.  As Mott notes,

My interest in Chinese culture, economics, and history are all intertwined in my book Analects on a Chinese Screen … that takes Confucius as its starting point and builds on the contemporary landscape of China.  It defies the traditional Western imagist orientation of a tranquilized East, replacing it with writing that engages the Chinese reality in a period of hypermodernization.  China is anything but tranquil in this era of rapid development.


     Thoreau, with a mixture of dry humor and dead-on sincerity, suggests, “I have thought that Walden Pond would be a good place for business” (W, 21).  And so Shanghai and New York City for Mott.  Thoreau asks men ([sic] his term, pre-our age of enlightenment) “what field they were called to labor in” (W, 5).  Labor can be a calling, though as Thoreau indicates, most men “labor under a mistake” (W, 5).  That mistake begins with a failure to consider seriously the terms of one’s labor and whether or not it is an answer to a calling and whether or not the time required for the labor constitutes a fair exchange.  In Walden, Thoreau’s central pre-occupation (and thus occupation) is “the problem of a livelihood” (W, 33).  Mott, like Thoreau, knows that “trade curses everything it handles” (W, 70) – a conviction that becomes a critical lens through which the poet witnesses the late twentieth century spectacle of China’s logarithmic economic growth (as well as his own debut as a book-publishing poet who thus enters the bizarre economics of that semi-profession).  Thoreau, like a good mathematician, seeks to reduce the terms to their lowest common denominator, to simplify the problem, to state the solution in the fewest terms (that remain comprehensive): “to maintain oneself on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely” (W, 70).  Thus he is our American Confucius and the bridge to Analects, itself an enigmatic wisdom text drawing on prior wisdom texts.  

     For Thoreau, the solution about how to live and thus how to labor comes from an acute observation of nature: “let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves” (W, 78).  Thoreau wrote Walden (and the even more impressive two million word Journal) when we were still “nature’s nation,” when a romantic nature-based metaphysics still seemed plausible, when nature could still be thought of as our primary text.  NOT the case if one is living and writing in today’s Shanghai or today’s New York City.  Thoreau’s questions and his mode of observation, his insistence on honesty and clarity, and his attention to fundamental terms (such as labor, livelihood, success, value, economy, and cost) remain central and critical – to Mott, to Analects, to us.  

     But we live today in a post-natural world, a fact illustrated beautifully in a film such as Koyaanisqatsi (1983), where the director Godfrey Reggio tells us (in the director’s interview) that the most fundamental change for human beings goes virtually unnoticed: that our home has changed location, from the natural world to a mediated technological milieu.  It is that fundamental change that underlies Analects (though it is not the insistent or overt subject matter of the book).  In fact, that is a telling characteristic of Mott’s Analects: its subject matter and its advocacy are rarely if ever overt, insistent, or central.  It is a book that requires the reader’s input and thinking.


     Analects exists in a kind of liminal state, at a kind of threshold – for the poet, and for China.  The poet, who may “lie about in the open fields at night,” can (in terms straight from Thoreau) “give a good account of myself if I need to” and “can say instead that I am conducting a kind of experiment in free living” (57).  But as “poet,” and particularly as a poet in New York City, there are expectations: “Why haven’t we heard of you? presumes that we should have been heard of” (58).  And presumes that there is a valuable “we” and that “you” should aspire to be one of “us.”  Such a presumption does not sit well with Mott, whether it is (as in the case of the question above) a remark coming from an aggressively careerist experimentalist or whether it comes from the more mainstream I-centered “jackals of sensitivity” (11).  While Mott may have initially come “to the jackals of sensitivity with something like love,/ the mind making too much of everything they were” (11), he is true to his Midwest sensibility: “There is a stubborn determination among the peoples of Northwest Missouri/ not to be conned” (11).  Living in China, watching the cultural and economic transformation, being told (and sold) what it means, Mott nonetheless wishes not to be fooled: “Return in a joint-venture corporation is spoken of. We compare similarities in facades, we/ visit eyeglass shops & lavatories that are the functioning ends of sewers” (13).  

     Confucius and Thoreau do surface in Analects; there are even direct citations from Thoreau’s Journal.  If there is a hidden third figure who provides an ideal, a measure, a kind of wisdom, a test, it is George Oppen.  Certainly Mott’s remark – “There must be a word for/ whelmed—/  to appreciate something the exact amount” (30) – resonates with the discipline of Thoreau’s two million words of natural observation in the Journal (where, the task, over time, becomes not to mine the surface of the natural fact for its corresponding transcendentalization).  But an equally pertinent kinship is with Oppen’s pronouncement in “Route”:

Clarity, clarity, surely clarity is the most beautiful

thing in the world,

A limited, limiting clarity

I have not and never did have any motive of poetry

But to achieve clarity  (185)

Consider Analects to be an exploration and manifestation of what it might mean to be “whelmed”:  to see clearly; perhaps to abandon lines of lyricism for a more sentence-like writing; to be honest, truthful, objective – whether one is dwelling on the changing economy of Shanghai or the history and nature of the self.

     But how to do that, how to “succeed” (if one could determine what that might be), when one must be something, one must make something of oneself, one must acquire (or wear) a personality?


     Thoreau tells us that “in the long run men hit only what they aim at” (W, 27).  What to aim at is worth thinking about (particularly in a slowly brewed first book of poetry).  For Thoreau, that aim became a quest “for a true integrity day by day” (W, 6), which became the enterprise somewhat for Walden but which was always at the heart of the Journal.  For Thoreau, that integrity – of observation, of decoding, of devotion – burned away more customary self-obsessions and self-centerings.  He became Emerson’s transparent eyeball, albeit an eyeball full of opinions.  And one might spend a day or two, profitably, considering the relationship of Thoreau’s “integrity” to Oppen’s “clarity.”

     Though personal psychology (i.e., a twentieth-century inwardness, part Freudian, part bourgeois romantic individualized identity) does not become an abiding concern or interest for Thoreau, nonetheless his advice does point us in the direction of that all too familiar western interior world:  “…be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought” (321).  Thoreau, ever fearful and observant of the corrupting nature of trade, still promotes an adventurous interiority, perhaps without foreseeing how that frontier too would become subject to commodification.  Mott, resistant to “the jackals of sensitivity” and placed within the Chinese culture of emergent economic development and an anti-individualistic ideology, must nonetheless struggle with the place of self and individuality within his own process of developing what to aim at.  

     To excise or repress or censor that self would not be “integrity” or “clarity.”  Mott announces, “Mine was a life planned to go wrong./ There is no reasoning with me about this” (15).  Though he warns us, “This is not to say that I knew the laws of my own being” (8), and that “If I do not/ convert my opportunities there is no need to have my opportunities increased” (15), Mott does continue sporadically to labor toward some representation of the self within a larger cultural, historical world where that self is not imagined to be so central.  He does not choose the path of romanticized failure (which is clearly still an option within western romantic stories of The Artist, indeed in any art form where the pursuit of the craft is culturally marginal and of questionable economic sense).

     But there is a persistent allure if not of failure outright then of a deferred success, or a redefined success, or a path that mocks and rejects a too quick success.  Hard not to hear Bob Dylan, in “Love Minue Zero / No Limit,” sing, “there’s no success like failure,/ And that failure’s no success at all,” and imagine that one might find an enigmatic way to labor, protest, and circumvent standard definitions and standard modes of hard work and careerism.  Standing beside the new prosperity of the metastasizing Shanghai, Mott notes,

What I resented about the new money in Shanghai was their presumption to global taste, their cultural fluidity, and their inability to understand my privilege was not like theirs, but one of my own making.  They did not value my privilege to reject them, their hard won but ersatz cosmopolitanism.  They had no antennae for a cultivated regionalism from the original province of their ambitions.  They could not understand that my failure was not preordained, but intentioned.  (47)

Part of Mott’s position of privilege is to be a disdainful citizen of “the original province of their ambitions,” i.e., the United States and its standards of wealth=success which the new entrepreneurs of Shanghai seem determined to replicate.  And perhaps, paradoxically, the greatest wasteful “privilege” of an American would be intentional failure.


     Analects explores another tactic, another strategy of location: to stand beside, to reflect upon, to see without being absorbed by what one sees….  To be a poet, but not a member of “the poetry community,” not a professional, not a part of the initialed conventions and organizations and attendant businesses and industries of poetry’s institutionalization….  Mott observes and asks,

We look over the bridge and see our own effigies floating in the water

framed by the arch below.

Dragon-patterned koi drift into the exhibiting

umbrage of our outlines beneath a surface of sun-fired clouds.

How can that depth be known where we see ourselves reflected? (15)

I suspect that Mott would assent completely to Oppen’s assertion (in “World, World –”):

Soul-searchings, these prescriptions,

Are a medical faddism, an attempt to escape,

To lose oneself in the self.

The self is no mystery, the mystery is

That there is something for us to stand on.   (new SP, 80)

     The truthful complexity of Analects – perhaps the source of its enigmatic clarity – is that there is an alluring siren self, a flame to which the poet-moth is summoned, though the task of poetry (as Mott aims it) is neither to ignore that self nor to allow it to be something that replaces that more important “something” upon which we stand.  Each is mysterious: self, and world. 


     If one major force or thematic for Analects is the observation of China’s hazardous effort to assimilate and integrate an American economic version of success, an equally prevalent story is Mott’s own struggle with that most American of products: the self.  On several stages, Analects delineates his role: as poet, as person (with a particular personal and familial history), and as businessman.  As Mott notes:  “There is nothing more irritating or more stupid looking than the sluggish spectator who turns up on stage by mistake.  He must perform or clear out; the world has no use at all for the clumsy” (19).  At a certain stage of one’s life, one is inevitably on stage whether one likes it or not.  As the fortune cookie tells it, “To lose occupation but continue to make profession is slow death” (20).  There are terms in Analects that resonate with Thoreau’s language as Mott and others seek what might be “an authentic life” and “the road that would authenticate the singular struggle” (21).  While the seemingly opposite values of America and China might cast this struggle in terms that Oppen recognized – “Obsessed, bewildered// By the shipwreck/ Of the singular// We have chose the meaning/ Of being numerous” (151) – for Mott, the more pertinent terrain lies with the complexities of a profoundly questioned self that must nonetheless function in the world (or worlds of poet, person, and businessman):

The dark is deeper within.

        It is personal.

This is where we are stunted

like light starved houseplants

blanched apparitions in the Orient night.

Though I didn’t know it at the time,

This is the quality of a self-darkened place.

The hole is deeper than China.  (22)

     One option – perhaps the prevailing option in American poetry of the past fifty or so years – would be an obsessive investigation of that personal, interior darkness.  Mott is too fully a resident of the bright light of the external world and too fully attuned to the distortion of perspective that would allow such self-absorption to become one’s dominant locale.  Even so, facts, pressures, and difficulties – if one is to be an ethical poet in the mode of Oppen and Thoreau – must be acknowledged and noted.  As Thoreau advises, “In sane moments we regard only the facts, the case that is.  Say what you have to say, not what you ought” (327).  Indeed, it would have been easier, and much less conflicted, for Mott’s Analects to remain a “pure” consideration of China in transition.  But the precisely true moment is also one of extreme personal import as well, tempered by the understanding that “In written Chinese it is impossible to forget that personality once meant, not the soul, but the soul’s mask” (29).


     As the author of Analects, Mott evades the standard expected performance of a first book of poetry.  Though he writes a poetry that leans toward prose and the capacities of the sentence, Mott, on occasion, ably displays the kind of euphonious, echoic lyricism that is part of the rite of passage of learning the poet’s craft:

City of sirens

I enter the city of declamation and anonymity

From the calcined glare of New Jersey

entered by slipping under the rock of Weehawken.

Nobody here but us chickens! (17)

But Mott’s ethics and stubbornness lead him resolutely away from writing a superficially pleasing poetry.  As I wrote in The New Spirit (Singing Horse Press, 2005), “please the ones    one aims to please   that way danger lies?” (11)  An alternative posed in The New Spirit is “singing for its own sake” (11).  Mott’s affinity with Thoreau and Oppen is as much ethical as poetic (if ethics and poetics are at all separable, and I doubt they are), and thus in all of his professions, roles, and writings, he is aware of the hazards of (merely) pleasing others.  I would suggest that the hazard of pleasing others via poetry is a liability and misdirection significantly re-enforced by workshops and programs in creative writing.  Instead of writing to please them (each week, each semester, each degree, each contest, each book), poetry should be, at its heart, an intimate, profoundly ethical relationship to language, to the nature of being human, and to an exploration of human capacity (as experienced in language).  Of course, there is no need or advisability for poetry and poets to dwell in a desire to displease others – that impulse too proving shallow, repetitive, sophomoric, and confining.

     Thoreau, expanding our sense of all human interchange and exchange into a kind of commerce, sought to extricate himself from the need to sell his products: “…and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.  The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind” (19).  Thoreau ended up owning and holding many copies of the books that he published.  Mott, as a journalist, managing editor, and director of publishing for the Hearst Corporation, is, unlike most poets, neither inexperienced nor naïve about business.  With Analects, Mott is a latecomer to the business of poetry; mostly he sidesteps the careerist moves of the profession and keeps his sights set on more fundamental relations.    

     In addition to Thoreau and Oppen, one other predecessor who merits consideration and has pertinence for Mott’s muted ambitions is Whitman:

It is true that journalists and poets are often antagonists in opposition for the meaning of the word and the world; poets envy the journalists their readership, and journalists I suppose envy the poets their permanence.  But they share many traits in regard to the daily practice of their craft.  The American poet Walt Whitman was a journalist, and a poet, proving these two pursuits could coexist in one personality.  That disintegration of the boundaries of the self, which he wrote about in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” was something to be hoped for by the poet in him, to gather his environment and his era within his poetry and reach out to those to come.  This was something he could not find as a journalist, who was tied to the “well-joined scheme” with those returning home from their professional lives.  I myself have known this feeling, crossing Manhattan Bridge on the Q train, heading home to Brooklyn from the towers.

For Mott, there are dual enigmas at the heart of Analects: the nature of the new China, and the nature of the self.  Each proves to be enigmatic, complex, and somewhat beyond conclusion, in keeping with Mott’s formulation: “There’s something obviously dishonest about putting it all together” (30).  In Mott’s case, though, the obvious dishonesty of “putting it all together” does not relieve him or us of the task of thinking about it, of seeing, and of attempting to put it all together.


     The enigma of the self receives it fullest investigation in the second half of Analects.  The page opposite the page that details “In the years I was there the economy of Shanghai grew 19%” begins

I became extraneous.  A man unable to say I – correctly – to my

satisfaction.  It is better when I did not know

there was an I to be delivered, to a casual & unsympathetic

over-thinker.  (43)

One way out of the painful annoyance of selfhood would be some sort of absorption in something beyond the self.  Hence, the exploration of a life in China.  Or, a more metaphysical Whitman-like or Thoreau-like absorption in the natural world.  Or, in a seemingly odd reference – “I think of Rell Sunn, the surfer/ … I will not forget her” (43) – one might posit the self fully engaged in a compelling and consuming physical deed: “The body resisting in water/ the tendency to be absorbed, letting go her energy on a wave’s/ energy” (43).  Oddly, Mott’s own situation in Analects is precisely analogous to that of Rell Sunn, as he both submits to the amazing energy of the wave of a newly emerging China and resists absorption into that world.

     One other traditionally American poetic response to the difficulty of selfhood is to make oneself, as Whitman did, and more recently Allen Ginsberg, into the nation’s bard.  In one of the most gorgeous sections of Analects, Mott tries on this American singer persona, and does it well, as seen in the concluding strophe:

   Because America who can say what America is; 75-odd thousand efforts a day,

held together by the love of a very few people.  In combination the cheapest and angriest people ever made by God, though paradoxically generous to victims of natural disaster and giving of gift wheat.

Because America your fatalistic drum of low prices.  Because Jesus Loves You 

America.  This I know, your beautiful-hot-gorgeous-forgetful-Jesus Loves Me.

   Because $64 in my pocket today.  America, I could probably give you more. (44)

     But this bardic persona – the one who speaks the true state of the nation – is not a final or comfortable self for the writer of Analects.  Such a bardic pose requires egotism and a sense of self-confidence – and confidence or faith as well in a kind of heroic individualism – that is anathema to the poet of Analects, who, like Thoreau, tends to locate himself most fully in moments of opposition:

I remember those first parties we attended in Shanghai.  I had the agonizing feeling on arrival of being utterly out of place.  I had known dens of privileged association before, but those were of like-minded people, associations into which I fit easily because of their demotic nature (free congregations of easy beings), but whose overly cultivated sensibilities nonetheless, like my own pretensions, affected me negatively.  It was difficult for me to remain among the like-minded for very long.  I need enemies.  (45)

At the heart of Mott’s sense of self is a kind of reverse magnetism, a resistance and repulsion to one’s own pretensions.  In an existential mid-twentieth century mode, one might call this sense of self alienation.  Mott writes,

I believed I was living a persona.  I now realized Glenn was the persona, for a self in reserve.  I was its life.  It was a being whose particular characteristics I could not remember to recreate exactly on a daily basis.  (45)

In the newly transforming China and in the lore of American culture, Mott can see and understand what is required to be a “success” – i.e., to present an aggressive, consistent, affable version of the self (not consumed by doubt and reflection).  It is precisely this question of what constitutes “success” that is critical to Mott’s precursors – Thoreau, Oppen, and even Ginsberg (of the mid-1950s especially).  Mott, probably not so much by choice as by temperament or fate, casts his lot with a more radically self-questioning version of selfhood, one that resides in an ongoing experience of anonymity, anxiety, and alienation (understood as distance from a simple sense of belonging).  Unlike the existential version of this experience of selfhood, Mott’s sense of distance from the self-in-the-world is not accorded some heroic or sentimental status.  

     The root story of this uprooted sense of self does emerge in Analects, with a 

compressed telling of the circumstances of Mott’s birth:

narration – 

with patrician diction

he left my mother

she’d done him wrong

but he stuck inside her

half-nasty – 

a success

when her mother told her

to abort – 

didn’t     (60-61)

But Mott will be damned if he will be the author of a Sharon Olds-career of telling and re-telling a self-centering tale of familial pain.  I cannot imagine a poetic career that would be more the opposite of what Mott seeks to do.

     The self already exists in a social and cultural world of appearances and accomplishments – as poet, businessman, person – so that mere questioning and withdrawal does not constitute a feasible or ethical “success” either, leading Mott to wonder, “or is it that I am to be merged/ to disappear into these manners,/ in satisfaction and success// dodging in the most shameful way my fullness of meaning” (65).  Evasion of definition and avoidance of affirming any particular persona or life in the world will not be seen as other than shameful dodging.  As Analects demonstrates, in its beautiful delineation of the enigmas of China and self, “We are as we do not know” (66). 

     And where else and how else for such thinking to be embodied than in the writing of it?  Analects is thus a classic first book in the sense of being foundational.  It constitutes a way of proceeding and being in writing.  Oddly, for a book of poetry, the sentence is chosen as the best site for such occupancy and preoccupation:

The making of a sentence is a way of remaking the mind

in hesitancy & occupancy     in residence     FULL

& this spirit, that lyrics have not synthesized, is a stranger’s life

by all accounts

      though it is nothing before the words can be found.  (66)

The book, the poem, and the sentence allow occupancy, residence, and accounting, in the full spirit of hesitancy, an ethical and necessary inconclusiveness, and in a productive anonymity, they allow the poet’s energy to enter the energy of the word, much as Rell Sunn, the surfer, lets go “her energy on the wave’s/ energy” (43).


     Analects, then, is a type of experience – both an adventure (or venturing forth) and a literary type (of the American abroad).  As a participant in the genre of the American abroad, Mott’s Analects, facing the rapidly changing China of the 1990s, offers a lens through which to see the collision of two radically different myth-structures: America’s individualism/capitalism vs. China’s collectivity/communism.  There is, perhaps, a certain wry self-congratulatory aspect (not necessarily Mott’s, and perhaps ours) in seeing the once devoutly communist China now seeming to pursue “our” way of life.  Subconsciously, today’s narratives by Americans in China may be fueled by the sense that China’s capitulation to the allure of capitalism (and the virtues of personal wealth) excuses America’s own contemporary moral collapse.  If even “they” (China) succumb to the lure of wealth, greed, and corruption, then perhaps our own “fall” and our betrayal of the democratic, reason-based ideals articulated in the American Declaration of Independence – our current political and world cultural presence being one of tainted and hypocritical platitudes, an economy of rampant greed, the politics of deceit and secrecy, policies of personal profiteering, exploitation, and corruption masquerading as compassion, kindness, and democracy – become excusable due to its inevitability and universality.

     Equally intriguing, though, is the counter-reverberation of Analects: the way that an experience of China (communist and Confucian) causes a reconsideration of the premises of American individualism and western bourgeois selfhood.  While Mott’s Analects does not become a didactic wisdom-text, it does situate its author and us in a place and time in which the order of things – personal and global – is undergoing fundamental change.  As Mott’s book makes abundantly clear, classical and traditional terms such as success, self, occupation, and profession take on today a renewed and timely urgency.