After the crab eyes, the fish eyes appear.

– Chinese saying about bubbles in boiling water

“Crab Eyes” is also a poem in Guide to Capturing a Plum Blossom, a 13th century book of 100 ink paintings and 100 accompanying poems by Sung Po-jen – the world’s oldest known art book. The book begins with the buds of early spring and ends with fruit plucked for the soup pot.

The buds in painting number 4 remind Sung of the small bubbles in boiling water that are called crab eyes. This leads him to imagine how the world must look through the eyes of a crab – the rough seas and unforeseeable dangers. He concludes that a crab would rather die in the wild, from any cause brought by the dawning sun (Lord of the East), than in a boiling pot.

scuttling across sands of rivers and seas
at home in the foulest wind and waves
preferring the Lord of the East
public death to the cauldron

Looking at the ink painting again, after you’ve read the poem, the painted image is transformed. You see not only the buds but also oval eyes nestled in sockets, and an idea that brings the two images together – life in an uncertain world. We live in hope, but are all at risk of the cauldron.

Translation by Red Pine (a.k.a. Bill Porter, 1995)

Photo: Karl Stull

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Leavenworth is like “a giant mausoleum adrift in a sea of nothingness.”

– Inmate writing to his mother in 1929 (quoted in Pete Earley, The Hot House, 1992)

The Kansas tourism board most strenuously objects. Sea of nothingness? Those are the amber waves of grain out there, in a sea of plenty, which we sing about in “America the Beautiful.”

But the inmate’s metaphor is interesting for having two parts. The first part equates being in prison with being dead. The second part emphasizes how far removed the mausoleum is from the land of the living. “Far from where I want to be,” says Johnny Cash in “Folsom Prison.” Cash hears a passing train and imagines a fancy dining car in which people are “drinking coffee and smoking big cigars.” People in the land of the living “keep a-moving, and that’s what tortures me.”

In “1998,” a poem from Stone Hotel (2003), Raegan Butcher writes:

I used to sit and cry and hold a loaded gun up to my head,
but I chose a slower way of being dead.

Photo: Leavenworth Penitentiary/Wikipedia