Tom Sexton

Li Bai, A T’ang Dynasty Poet, Finds Himself
at Denali National Park and Preserve

This small gathering of poems imaging the Chinese T’ang Dynasty poet, Li Bai, wandering Denali National Park is based on “Peach Blossom Spring” a poem by his contemporary, Wang Wei, where a fisherman floating on a stream comes to a village that “lived outside the world” in peace and harmony. He became homesick and left the village thinking he could find his way back. He never did. We never will. In these poems, Li Bai follows a pass he thought would take him to a stream that would take him home only to find himself at Broad Pass and then Denali.

— Tom Sexton, 2014


Li Bai Crosses Broad Pass

When the narrow pass he thought led
to a stream that would take him to
the Yangzte River and a waiting friend
brought him to this wind-swept place,
he wondered if he were awake or dreaming.
Snow-covered peaks were all around
but lower down no smoke rose from
the huts of recluse poets who might
invite him to spend the night drinking
wine and chanting poems to the moon.

Li Bai at Wonder Lake

He gazed at Denali beyond the lake
until he lost all sense of time or place
before he knelt down to examine new
green shoots at its edge. “What do you think
of the mountain?” the man at his side asked.
He had climbed it in both summer and winter
and thought Li Bai was another Chinese tourist
and not a Banished Immortal, however confused.
“Honor it with your absence,” Li Bai replied.

Li Bai Watches the Tundra Fade at Dusk

He was walking along a gravel bench
above a stream when he looked up
at the tundra that was just beginning
to fade reminding him of the rouge
on a beautiful woman’s cheeks.
This was the time of day he loved
when the moon was beginning to rise.
He was no longer young, but once
he was a bright flame fed by desire.

Li Bai on the Road to Kantishna

When would he find the stream
that would take him home even if
this is a dream? Sadness filled his cup.
He thought of his mistress, of peach
blossoms covering her garden path.
Yesterday he met a man wearing
the head of a wolf for a hat, a wolf
that reminded him of China’s wooly-
wolves. “I’m a recreational trapper,”
the man said. “It gets me out here
in the woods with all the critters.
My hat was once an alpha female.”

Li Bai and the Brown Bear

When he saw it ahead of him on the road,
he was amazed by its size, and he had seen bears
when he wandered Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
When the bear turned its massive head
to look at him, Li Bai quickly composed a poem
in its honor, a poem about its generous
nature and courage. As he chanted, he bent
forward rolling his shoulders from side to side.

Li Bai Arrives at the Murie Cabin

How had he missed this small cabin
during his long summer of wandering,
searching for the pass that would
take him home? Inside the cabin,
he found a copy of Wang Wei’s poem,
“Peach-Blossom Spring.” Someone’s
studying for his civil-service exam,
he thought, then because it was there,
he drank a cup of tea then took a nap.
When he woke, he wrote, “Thank you
for the tea. You should study Li Bai.”

I meet Li Bai Near the Summit of Polychrome Pass

Acrophobia had turned me to stone near
the summit when I saw him leaning over
the edge for a better look. When he saw me
motionless except for my shaking knees,
he called, “This view deserves its own poem,
why are you on the far side of the road
away from the edge if you’re a poet?”
He’s as agile as a mountain goat,
I thought. With my eyes on the ground,
I turned and made my way back down.
When I reached the cabin, it was cold.
His long beard was as white as a snowy owl.

Li Bai Says Goodbye

He smiled when the Milky Way, his Heaven’s
River, appeared for the first time since he
arrived. I put it there for him to follow home,
but he wanted to sleep beside Wonder Lake
one more time then wake beneath Denali.
He would spend his last day wandering
and end at Polychrome Pass at dusk to say
goodbye to the yellow-crowned sparrow
whose song had made him weep with joy.
Using his long silk robe for a sail, he rose
then disappeared to the west, trailing alpenglow.


He was on the side of a hill eating berries
when he looked up and saw something
in the sky, a golden eagle he thought
but he soon realized it was the figure
that followed him on the road one night,
that made him roll on the tundra laughing.
Her stood on his hind legs, swaying a little
from side to side, his massive teeth clicking,
a lament for a friend he would never see again.

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16 minutes, 36 seconds

Former Alaska Poet Laureate and Denali Artist-in-Residence Tom Sexton speaks with host Kimber Burrows about his fifty years living in Alaska, and influences on his poetry.

Photograph of writer Tom Sexton
Tom Sexton
Tom Sexton, of Anchorage, AK, is a former poet laureate of Alaska who has lived in the state for more than fifty years. He began the Creative Writing Program at the University of Alaska, Anchorage in 1970 and retired in 1994. He is now professor emeritus of English. Most of Sexton's poetry can be considered nature poetry, but he is also the author of three collections about growing up in a decaying Massachusetts mill town and was the opening poet at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in 2011. Dean Young, writing in the New York Times, said of Sexton's latest book, I Think Again of Those Ancient Chinese Poets, "he revels in the natural: river otter and Arctic char, sedge wrens and yellow warblers, witch hazel and the wolves of Denali."
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Last updated: March 29, 2017

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