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Ian Boyden: Frog Song

—Dedicated to everyone who has lost their freedom in the pursuit of freedom


This page is a quiet pond

The lamp an unmoving sun

My hand traces familiar arcs

into what     I don’t know

A log shifts within the fire

rolls to one side as if in sleep


Within this darkness

an egret stands at the pond’s edge

its hunger a still white flame

burning within the frogs’ silence


It waits for a movement

for a frog to snatch an insect

and in so doing reveal itself

only to be transformed

into white feather


And now by night the frogs’ song

burns like starlight a galaxy

of voices clustered by the pond

dispersing across the meadow


And I wonder how many insects

does it take to become a frog’s song




And why did the frogs go suddenly silent


I step into the silence


a meadow in the darkness

the smell of spring

I will never know

what made them fall silent

Even the poem disappears

into the shadowed body of the pine

I give myself

to all of this with a completeness

that has become a stranger


And then a single frog sings

it sings the world round again

in the black galaxy of silent frogs

sings as the center of the universe


Who will sing next

Who will join that single frog




I throw another log into the fire

and smell the incense

of a hundred years of standing

I breathe in slowly

to hold in this wisp of smoke

the tree’s incredible precision

growing ring by ring

as a blossom of gravity

home to bird

dance of wind

shower of needles

ring by ring by ring


All this vanishes

in a wisp of incense


The fire is greedy

When it is finished

all that is left is ash


Soft ash

soft as a spring night

singing an ashen song

in a pool of moonlight

where my hand follows

carbon’s thread

into what     I don’t know




And within the ash a relic


a stone heart

an unburned tongue


And then a stupa

a bone-white stupa

to house the relic

which even fire

could not touch


A pagoda

to house the relic

that holds in its body

something that could not be burned


An ash-white pagoda

against a blue sky




Swallows return

at first one then tens

then thousands

to fly around the relic

around and around in giant arcs

around what could not be burned


Their beaks fill with mud and straw

to repair their nests in the rafters

Their beaks fill with insects

to feed their children in the rafters

Their children take flight

from the eves

and sing


What is the true relic

Is it the bone

the building

the bird


Could it be a gathering

of each thing around another


The frog’s voice

before it becomes a feather

The feather’s lift

before it becomes a tongue

The tongue’s language

before it refuses fire




Another nun lights herself on fire

and chants the ancient syllables

Om mani padme hum

Om mani padme hum

the syllables untouched

by the fire that takes her


She is that single frog

who chose song over silence

in the shifting darkness


And as one sound drifts

from one language into another

it aligns with other meanings

human and animal become one


Om becomes the buzzing of a bee

the chanting of the sangha a great swarm

gathering around a hive


The croaking of a frog

becomes the Chinese character 嘓

pronounced guō

            guō   guō   guō   guō   guō

filling the spring night      guō   guō   guō


but this single sound guō

is also a sob

the swallowing of grief

guō   guō     wǒ guō


The body of the word holds a country

its borders marked by breath

                                                     sobbing    my country

The frog marks the stretch

of its land through song

If the frog sings it may be eaten

If it is silent its country disappears


And there is another sound           huō

written as a mouth next to fire (吙)

meaning to exhale

a breath of surprise

blowing out the flames

                                                     huō huō    wǒ huō

The body of the word holds a fire

that gathers as glowing embers

to measure the vanishing


My burning country

human and fire become one

guō huō   guō huō   guō huō

Om mani padme hum




I have eaten of this world

I have eaten frogs

I have eaten fish and sun-warmed figs

I have eaten birds and blackberries

rose petals and leaves of mint

honey comb and lotus roots

countless grains

milk-white mushrooms

golden cashews

eaten it all with pleasure


I have become because of them

They ride my breath

swim my voice

open into the endless prairies

of my dreams

My tears contain their salt

My blood is their red iron

The bones of my ears rattle

their calcium


If I am a bell

I am a bell cast

of all of this


I am the relic

of each thing I have eaten

and have held for this life

something beyond my own knowing




I do not wish my body

to be given to fire


The fire is greedy

When it is finished

what is left is ash


The fire does not give its body

to another’s becoming

so much as it gathers as smoke

and gives its body to erasure


I do not wish

to give what I have held

to erasure


I would rather my body gather

back to that which I consumed

not as ash but as a sea

of elements and molecules

perhaps to become feather

fish scale or beetle wing

clam shell or spider egg

pear flower a cloud of pollen

a tree to become the pulp


of another sheet of paper

to glow as an invitation

in another’s night


I would like for this

unknown holding to ebb

and flow with the seasons

as it always has

as the song of migration

as the song of the frog

and as song of the frog’s vigilance


Author’s note: This poem was born out of my conversations with the Tibetan activist and poet Tsering Woeser, in particular our discussions of the wave of protest by self-immolation that has swept across Tibet since 2008. A couple of years ago, I made a huge self-portrait out of wood, which I then burned. The idea was to place it in the context of photographs of forest fires here in the Pacific Northwest, to forge a visual argument that what happens to the environment also happens to us. But as soon as I lit it on fire, I saw that I was channeling something else—self-immolation, which has a long history in East Asian Buddhism. So I reached out to Woeser, who had recently written a book on the subject, and this was how she and I became friends. I am now working on a book about this sculpture and she is going to be writing an introduction for it. This spring has seen a dramatic increase in the Chinese oppression of Tibet, many suicides and several more self-immolations. The situation goes almost completely uncovered by western media and virtually no response from foreign governments. It is horrible. This poem was my response to these self-immolations. It was written primarily in English, but part six was mostly in Chinese, which I then translated back into English, making for a somewhat unusual writing process.


Copyright 2017 Ian Boyden


Ian Boyden


2 comments on “Ian Boyden: Frog Song

  1. anisioluiz2008
    July 11, 2017

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.


  2. Alice James
    July 11, 2017


    What a genius of a poem, elemental, Historic and timeless, beautiful and terrifying Like Ozymandeus, only better.

    Thank you, dear Ian

    Alice James

    Sent from my iPad


    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on July 11, 2017 by in Environmentalism, Opinion Leaders, Poetry, Social Justice, War and Peace and tagged , , .

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