The title of the “Tao Te Ching” has been translated as “the way of integrity.” In his poem “The President, the Tao, the Day,” Wyoming writer David Romtvedt describes this ancient text — the jumping-off place for his latest collection of poems — as a “…miracle / of gemlike lucidity and deep wisdom / offering guidance in the conduct of life….”
On the heels of 2020, guidance in the conduct of life focused on integrity, lucidity and wisdom? Yes, please. Romtvedt’s transformation of the wisdom of the “Tao” into a contemporary American context proves to be a simultaneously uplifting and grounding re-envisioning of how some very old thinking might serve us in a weird new world.
Romtvedt’s poems are often quite sly in the ways they present ideas that feel wise while simultaneously playing with these ideas in ways that make light of wisdom. The poems in “No Way: An American Tao Te Ching” are no exception. In this collection, the voice in Romtvedt’s poems regularly sounds trickster-like, or perhaps like a master working against any attachment to himself as a master. The first stanza of the opening poem, “The Names,” sets this tone:
No way I’m telling you
my secrets. I’m not even
telling you my name.
Opening the collection this way suggests to readers that any secrets they uncover while digging into the collection do not belong to the poet or to any individual poem’s speaker…unless they do. Contemporary scholars question whether or not Lao Tsu, the sixth century BCE “author” of the “Tao Te Ching,” existed or if the text is a broader documentation of Taoist thought attributed to a persona with a name meaning something like “old sage” or “old master.” Romtvedt playfully undermines his own authority as the poet through the collection and in doing so creates poems that feel accessible and open to readers for engagement.
The process for composing the poems in “No Way” that Romtvedt described in his launch reading feels aptly American. The poet read each numbered passage of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the “Tao Te Ching,” and responded to each passage with a poem. He then set each poem aside and, at a later date, revised his poems without referring back to the original passages. This process was repeated several times for each poem, so that each of the published poems becomes, as the poet himself said, “a kind of solitaire version of the party game Telephone.”
The way Romtvedt absorbs the ancient text and transforms it into titled, stand-alone poems carries a sort of American audaciousness to soak up influences from other cultures and other times and to transform these into something contemporary and new. And then there is the fact that “No Way” has one more poem than the “Tao” has sections, so we conclude with a direct address from the poet to the reader, an exchange between contemporaries after navigating ancient wisdom together.
The original wisdom of the “Tao To Ching” emerged in response to a warring feudal system, so it makes sense that many of the passages refer to the actions of rulers and how they rule. To transform the ancient wisdom of the Tao into a contemporary American context, Romtvedt’s poems share thoughts on subjects as varied as how we navigate Walmart towns, how doctors encourage self examinations without giving much direction on the positioning of mirrors and lights and how we might try to live with integrity with a (now former) president who openly and willfully lies.
Many of the translations of the “Tao Te Ching” feel encumbered by a sort of Yoda-like mumbo-jumbo that strives to sound spiritual at the expense of clarity. Romtvedt’s poems shun such aspirations for a plainspoken language that often sounds like a conversation over a yard fence. An example comes late in the collection in the poem “No Lie.”
These little observations
sound great but as to what they mean,
your guess is as good as mine.
And all that stuff about knowing
and not-knowing as the shining gate
to true knowledge—who can say?
I don’t know why
I should be lying
so late in the game.
But don’t be fooled. There is a craftsman working with great skill here. The sharp facets on those last gemlike line breaks, the ways the breaks both build up the integrity and undercut the authority of the speaker, are indicative of a collection that cares deeply for its readers, for its subject matter and for the artistry of its poems.
The poems in “No Way” remain grounded in the specific details of day-to-day life in contemporary America, and often in landscapes and cultural settings familiar to residents of Wyoming.
There is a particularly funny and engaging recurrence of a neighbor whose lifestyle, politics and behavior often run counter to the poems’ speakers. And yet the poems approach this foil with a generosity that even includes a kidney transplant. In these neighbor poems, and elsewhere in the collection, “No Way” engages in the deep work and wisdom of the “Tao Te Ching”: addressing the way in which a life can exist in interaction with other lives that does not bring about their mutual diminishment.
While the interpersonal relationships referenced in the collection, including poems about raising a child (Romtvedt’s writing about parenting has long been beautiful and insightful) and a challenging relationship with a difficult father, are quite kind and generous, the poems focused on politics and the state pull no punches. Whereas the “Tao Te Ching” focuses its commentary on how a leader might act (or not act) to support a flourishing society, Romtvedt’s poems call out political systems and administrations that reject or subvert integrity as a ground on which a government and society can flourish. Or, as the poem “Political Action” concludes:
If you want to change
the system, you must turn
your back on it. Only then
will it disappear. It’s not quite
that cut and dried, but it’s a start.
Reading these poems aloud is a pleasure, and if you have heard Romtvedt read his own work, it is not difficult to imagine his voice running through each line. Colloquial phrasing makes for a lively reading experience that feels almost easy. The poems get to the point and the point is often complex and a little mysterious. This lively interaction between accessible language and nuanced meaning makes multiple readings of many of the poems a pleasure.
Both of Romtvedt’s most recent poetry collections are published by Louisiana State University Press.