The Ammonite Archives

Welcome to The Ammonite Archives, where selected works from Alex Witonsky’s many poems, short stories, notes, sketches, and diaries will live on. The archive is maintained by his sister Ava with the hope that the breadth of Alex’s work will continue to touch new readers.

Cold 山 is Alex’s translation of 50+ poems by the Tang Dynasty-era poet Han Shan. Due to the scarcity of ‘verifiable’ information about the poet’s life, the centuries have cloaked Han Shan in fable-esque, hagiographic language and uplifted him into Buddhist veneration. Prefaces to Han Shan’s work insist that his poems were inscribed upon the world around him: tree trunks and stone, the walls of houses and caves.

Alex first mentioned to me in September 2018 that he was completing his translations for a contest, which he had “…not a shot in hell at winning as Han Shan has already been translated a thousand different times into English. Still I feel compelled by forces greater than I to do this work.” 

Looking back, I am as mystified by Han Shan’s penumbral presence in history as I am by Alex’s fatalist compulsion to “this work.” I cannot help but think that Alex’s line echoes something of Han Shan, whose poetry (to my under-contextualized ear) often describes a solemnly-spiritual turning away from material prosperity and into the cold outflows of karma. As I gaze at my brother’s connection to Han Shan, orbits of imitation, inspiration, and grandiosity cross, bleed, and blur. He wrote to me throughout the month that the translations were one of the hardest things he had ever worked on; in retrospect I wonder how his thoughts on translation and positionality would have evolved.

A few days after Alex left us, one of his friends reached out to me via text. (All texts during that time were heart-rending, time-stopping…portals that threatened to deepen a spiral of mystery and pain.) The text explained that just a few days earlier, Alex had stayed at his friend’s apartment for the night and left a thank you note which included a reference to poem number 303 from Cold Mountain:

HS 303

Cold Mountain is a cliff with no outflows;
This cliff is a must if you would be saved.
It stays motionless amid the Eight Winds,
And people have told of its marvels forever.
So tranquil: a fine place to dwell at peace.
So empty: away from mockery and contempt.
The lonely moon at night is ever bright;
The round sun always comes to shine.
Tiger Hill and Tiger Valley—
No point in inviting me there.
In the world, one may be tutor to princes;
But there’s no way to rank with Zhou or Shao.
I shall betake myself to Cold Cliff,
Where I will be happy, forever singing and laughing.

(From The Poetry of HanShan (Cold Mountain), Shide, and Fenggan translated by Paul Rouzer)

Each year as the days shorten and cool, I am pulled into Cold Mountain and the vortex of questions surrounding it. The painful parallels that this work opens up will always stay with me; but I do not want it to be dominated by a discourse of disappearance and death. In sharing Cold 山, I hope to invite new folks to the history and reception of Han Shan as a figure, the rich, variegated translations of his poetry, and the affinities that tie artists to one another.

Fortunes of the Day


I look up into the indigo sky
My heart soars for your smile
As sweet to me as fresh fallen snow
Is to the pine trees.

I look up into the indigo sky
My heart soars as the thought of your smile
As joyous to me as fresh-fallen snow
Is to the pine trees.

I look up into the indigo sky
My heart soars at the thought of your smile
As joyous to me as fresh fallen snow
Is to the needles of pine trees. 

The indigo sky stretched above the bay
Boats rocked beneath the amber lights
The sky belches comets of the Milky Way
Through the well of deepening night. 

The comets run through the abyss of stars
That turn around like a vortex;
My eyes traced the arc of night-shining [?] Mars
My heart sinks down to deep sea wrecks. 


I don’t know if you trust me yet
Or if you think our hearts align
But I love you, and want to be
A better person for you.

You teach me what is the world
And make me happy
Purely happy, like fresh fallen snow
I love you when you speak and walk.

I love you for your eyes and spirit
Your body and your hair
You are a very courageous woman
And you inspire me.

Knowing you soothes my heart
From the pressure 
Knowing you has made me free
You sweet heaventree. 

With the heat of night against my window
I think of meeting you again, again;
The unlikelihood of the hot morning
The library doors closing around us. 

A part of my brain keens [seems?] to melt with you
And I can hardly form a word for you;
You are so lovely it is hard to speak
Without my words of love melting for you. 

Friends, lovers, a couple, what will we be?
What will our time show us to be Sujin? 
I hope that our hearts will run together
I hope to kiss you as you fall asleep


Carnations sprang from eyes,
From the pulp in a stone they grew,
No longer seeing stone
Grew a livid flower.

Its petals molted orange, pink and black
Tipped with wax and often downy,
Petals that would fly away without notice
Or release a fragrance of strawberries.

I cut short my nonsensical poem
To speak to you for a moment in truth:
I do not know what the future holds
But I can sustain my rising  breaths of air.

All that’s inside of me is pure
It’s doubt that cripples light;
It’s light towards which I will paddle.
Waves of sun forever.

Why do I toil in life without a lover?
My expression is darkened by air I hold
Pressing memories close to my chest waiting
Hoping someone will arrive.

I claw at myself uneasily
Something leaves me uncertain
Every second I asking
Uncertain, unsure, helpless.

When even expression becomes a prison
Because I believe too deeply in words
As if they had a religious magic
As if an adjective could erase my heart.

I play nonsense ball with words
Will they enrichen me?
Will I gather my sad children from a dusty yard
Recrew them with a merciless eye?

One last time before I sink into sleep

One last time before I sink into sleep
I feel blessed for our lives to have tangled,
For the joy of our hearts and souls aligning,
A day memory will hold forever.

Let our lives ascend together
Let us never flow down;
My soul’ll be an ocean for you
I pray it takes a sin. 

It’s all weird!

Whatever comes will come I do not tempt

Whatever comes will come I do not tempt
My dreams with overfanciful visions
Of a life I will never lead or see
I wish for health, happiness, and as many successes

As I have dreams, greater than the sky’s stars
And more permanent. For I fix a dream
In every second that I am awake;
My every moment gives dreams their desire

What I envy is life – life’s beauty
Which daily I step through, cloak myself in
Breathe heavily and outwhistle song into
Which the air catches and vibrates, my love.

So let the tides of life drown me,
I sink more in beauty;
Let what wreck come over the waves,
I am wrecked in beauty.

Why should I resist the decay of sleep

Why should I resist the decay of sleep
As black night settles into my window,
And the insects rub out their symphony,
As my wit slows and begins to dissolve? 

When sleep offers a blanket for the mind,
Why should I, weary from a thousand toils,
Battle against the tides which gutter nerves
And bring a salve of dreams to renew vim? 

The knives of thought blunt in the dead of night,
Wrongdoings, atrocity, end in bed;
And there is simple warm comfort in sleep,
A concentrate form of the buzzing day. 

In the night my soul is rising
Past the boundaries of day;
In darkness I move divinely
In rhythm to the moon.

Dream Tree


It was seen after I fled the palace
On a narrow empty suburban street;
Its boughs were supple, thick and striped with black
Like the sheep white bark of a poplar tree. 

Nothing stirred in the canopy, no breeze
Shook the boughs but the leaves, white, green, nictate;
I saw in their flutter crescents a hope
That the sludge behind me would fade away

That peace could curl out of my dodged nightmare
No pursuit from the palace ensuing;
I stopped and woke in the cord of the dream
To gaze awhile at this god-sent tree

Now where I go it stands for you,
Lines my avenues;
Now I know dreams and day erode
And so I hope for you. 

Dream Eclipse

Deposited on a hill, where am I?
It sloped to the top, a blue wood alpine;
Somebody led the way, I trudged forward,
Walking in his footprints slick from moonlight.

She ghosted. I looked around the hill top.
Above the trees on a dark blue lens moon
Light shone on the triangle hats of pines
Ah, a breath, I looked up to La Lune. 

But another body drifted over
Its edge made first transit, covered half, all
Left the [???] : a ring of pale fire
That flared, then thickened neon blue, then rainbowed

A song of lights prayed down from the solar moon
Heavy treading mauves, liquid blues, stargreen,
Colors like notes on a musical score.
A rippling brain wave of silent music

Crossed my eyes, bent the trees atonically, 
Then stopped. Shadows elongated once more
And the hilltop fell away like a leaf.
I woke up. Then I went to brush my teeth.

5/1/2018 Chapbook

Daylight, which chases the stars from the sky
And breathes yellow sun into the sky;
Which wars against the pools of shadows
And dissolves the night between sunny fingers. 

Daylight, which makes a mockery of the dark world
Illuminating the corners of trees
Brightening the sides of buildings and houses
And casting light shed from the sun on hills. 

Fresh daylight, cool and clear as the water
On which it plays its shimmers like a suitor;
Fresh daylight of oceans I fall into
Giving my body to the blue music. 

Heavenly daylight shine again on me
Chase away the clouds and the darkness,
Raise me up into a deep blue sky
And burn away doubt, fear and self-loathing

Three stars crash into the evening world
A burst of colored lights and crystals

What force in me lassoed them from the sky
And ground the minerals to dust

Why did I powder [ponder?] the earth with this gift?
Why do stars collide? 

Why do stars collide with the earth?
What attracts them from outer space? 

Perhaps stars have an affinity for blue and green,
A musical color.

Let this heartbreak fade 
Let it fade away,
Let this heartbreak fade,
It will fade away. 

A song from my past plays over my soul. 
I heard its bell ringing clearly,
So much that I didn’t know
That I could sing, that my soul tugged [?] music. 

Let this heartbreak fade
Let it fade away,
Let this heartbreak fade
It will fade away

The music of daylight plays on the world
In shades of blue and green
Under its sunny crescendoes
Insects travel up blades of grass. 

Water drops, from one bough to another as
Underground, mycelia quicken [?] and creep; 
Through to tunnels of earth life reawakens
And blackbears clamber out of sleep. 

Sun plays on a flat green leaf.
Streaked red, the leaf waves through the window
The sky is blue, deep blue, with a navy or clouds
Whose ships [?] warp: from squirrel to whale to dragon. 

Daylight conducts the day, the spring day,
And guides the wind [or bud?] around the earth. 
It charitably stars the earth,
Ends the frosty dream of winter. 

The purse of daylight; the shards of shadow.
Not all have been packed up.
I know that darkness remains
For me to sweep away. 

Sun warms the city
Emptying pockets of frost,
Green spring hugs the earth. 

Whatever comes green,
A windsunny shadow blows [?]
On the world of green.  

Blue commingles green,
Which spills from the mountainmelt
In cold streams of blue. 

Frost burns away too
The earth has awakened
In lilac, rose, earth. 

How do I touch the substance behind words?
These mute caverns exude
Whenever a vision bubbles out
Not insipid air. 

The universe in 
A word.

A rollercoaster of horses raced the hills 
That spilled as they lurched up
With regular streets
That opened like a hug [bug?]

She came in a dress of blue spirals. All of the guests murmured in the hotel by the sea. She strode through the party and into the ocean blue. From her dress the spirals churned into the water. They grew into vortexes; they went out into the sea. Each settled in a different sea. They spiral all day and night. Though separate their spiralling in coordinated. Mariners who pass the spirals, who have observed them with telescopes and oceanographers who have taken notes conclude that the spirals are connected as if in a network. What is the meaning to this new form? 

Spiral daylight comes, sunshine flows
Rewinding its spiralling, endless flows.
Spirals twist in the mist
Spirals go, accelerating their corkscrews, endless flows. 

What chance tripped in the sun?
Who could have fabled a collision with solar rays?
Why would you impede their illumination?
Why would you halt the sun?

It’s all over, backflips and cuddling,
No more doors pushed open or walks together
I thought that we were kindred souls
Bound one to the other. Darling was I wrong? 

Daylight clatters in with peacock’s lashes
Spreading light as long as monkey’s arms
The sun leaps out of the sky like frogs
Into the pool of the day.

Shall I compare you to a spring day?
You are more modest and temperate than
A columbine which droops blue in the sun
And you are impeccable like a harvest moon. 

Your light shines on me wherever I go
My blue flower has not abandoned me to time,
I see you in drifting clouds, sandcastles, sweet b. 

My darling spring light fades; your love’s eternal
It brightens my waking dream of life
And crushes the clock’s turning hand
We are somewhere together where it is sunny, always. 

My darling heavenflower I love you
I am sorry for all of the moments I did not say so. 
The stains of our past are a part of our tapestry
In my brain, in my soul; in the sky, there you are.

Ancient daylight, crushed new in your eyes
The music of faded poets, in your hair new
Your giggles at night, asleep, a dream fountain 
Your soul clearer now, heaven. 

I am sorry b. 

Words that I left mute sing now – too late
You cannot hear the songs I have prepared for you. 
Did you know that I could sing? 
Were you ashamed that I did not sing for you? 

A crushed song of heaven
If one daylight note embers my poem I will rejoice
And carve these rocky lives into having music
That I will display the sun. 

Old fear leave me
Troubled soul fly on
Open chords of heaven
Let music spill out

Old doubt I have eviscerated
You tatters on the floor
I have pulled an infant
Wearing white and blue. 

Old anxieties go away
I am patterning a shell
A conch of spirals
That will sing the world. 

Lips I kissed forgive me
You know I loved you too;
Do not doubt your joy love
You knew I love you too. 

Joy return to me
Bring your bundles of sunlight
And kiss my aching hand [?] 
Aching from [???] love

Old self be shed
New born anew

Let whoever’s words spill through me
None to keep, none to lose;
Flow on through me like a  torment
From soul to soul ending. 

Whoever back down, whoever kept falling
And doesn’t know up from down
Look up. I’ll give you a speck of light
I’ll show you where the road ends.  
I’ll paint you an open heart
You can rummage around there and take what you need.
Open to you, my stock of words and memories
Take them, work your spells, ascend me.

Up, I go up. Into the deep blue sky
Into the ocean with coral
Up into outerspace
Up through the yard I love. 

I go around, around, forward and backward too
Open me up, a cascade, we are for one another
Nothing owned, nothing possessed
My soul combines and shuttles on. 

Time for one last song.
I bled.
I breathed. 
I am.


When all of the rage of the day presses me,
The roaring cars, speeding work, twitching voices,
I forget what binds me to my era
And am drowned in a sea of colors.

I’d like to breathe deeply of love then
For love refreshes all of my senses,
Reminding me that I’m not alone in time
That others feel their way through shifting life

With no more certitude than I possess,
A drop of light shed from life’s enigma
In whose face I descry a glimmer of love:
The entire world reflected in its bend.

There comes a wave upon me then,
A lilt, a cry, a pulse;
Of love’s water breaking bluely.
From a drop floods the world.

How can I free my voice from the day’s insanity?
How can I do my work without sacrificing my time and composure?

How can I seek repose in love?

I cannot but give myself to the current. I will master its flows and dance. I will pitch in on the rhythm. But I will create my own rhythm. Already I can feel myself detach from the sordid day. I am an artist. I give to this world my love, knowing full well its expression can not be instituted on a [?]. I give then the words that come out of my heart. And sink down into a dark blue ocean. The rhythm of waves carries me along. And that rhythm is love.

Doubt that has scattered my head – disband, 
The rising of the sun buries my doubt.
The awakening day dissolves yesterday
And sheets over me bygone yesterdays

In the early morning sun I rise, fresh and new;
As I wipe sleep from my eyes, doubt goes too.
In the cover of a new day a new life
My heart and soul will be born anew

My kingdom lays before me, I will make it
From stuff that the rising sun provides:
Crushed blackberries, sunlight and ardor
My kingdom of hope and peace shall rise. 

For ill-expressed, though not for nought
Each failure’s lesson taught;
So that this morning though I rise
Tomorrow I will fly.