Meditation on Poems of the Nine Monks; Chinese Writing; A Zen Sonnet; The Last Ditch; What You Have to Get Over
Meditation on Poems of the Nine Monks
No robe of patches, no yogin’s hut
in a secluded mountain gulch,
but still, each morning,
I long for a poetry with the taste of gnarled wood,
a poetry to make children laugh and old men glad,
of little solitary humans in cloud-covered mountains,
poetry wrapped in mist or moonlight,
where there are deer and wild cranes,
dark clutching forests,
simple things: tea, wine, moonlight,
those calm fleeting pleasures,
for each night the world comes at me
swifter and swifter, wave upon wave. Thoreau wrote,
“Hardly a man takes a half hour’s nap after dinner
but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks
‘What’s the news?’”
In upper New York State, the wind keeps blowing
through a grove of white pines;
someone right now, right at this instant,
is smelling cinnamon. Someone else
has just put down a book and sits quietly staring at a wall,
fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high. . . .
What struck me years ago
as the greatest title in American English,
Hot Afternoons There Have Been in Montana,
comes into my mind, then fades. A grudge appears.
How serene the Buddha’s face forever looks.
Old MacDonald had a farm,
ei ei o. How difficult it is to calm the mind,
nearly hopeless: the Iraq War,
Where’s Monica Lewinsky? What’s she doing now?
Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum. And then,
through all the electrical and magnetic forces that hold us together,
stroll the wandering-cloud poets,
their lives of drinking and writing and farewells,
one branch of plum blossoms come into bloom
among ten thousand frozen trees;
the mountain rivers, the still lake with a battered wooden boat
moored in the distance.
To die and leave only
“a five-string zither and an ailing donkey.” In Chia Tao’s poem,
“Overnight at a BuddhistMountainTemple,”
One Buddhist monk,
Eighty years old
Has never heard
Of the world’s affairs
and is not diminished.
In my first week of studying Chinese writing,
I placed two horses beside two tigers
and the word careless formed.
With just five brushstrokes, I made an eye,
yet it took twelve for happiness,
eleven for success and fourteen for long life,
which I brushed on rice paper,
trying to master all the hooks and angles
of those difficult strokes. But then, writing English again,
for the first time since third grade I started to count
how many barely discernible movements my fingers make
guiding my favorite pen into broken cursive loops and crannies,
swirls and down strokes, up strokes, cross strokes
entering and leaving every sentence,
the anguished commas and dashes, the little ellipses
come out of their hiding places as if they were
pinpricks of honey at the end of clover spikes,
into this fine moving world.
And with such minute pleasures I was content
at the end of the day, which the Chinese might paint as rì-yuè,
or time passing in falling tones,
almost as beautiful as míng baí, to understand
those wonderful tiny crate characters,
that miniature broken ladder character,
the rising tones of sun, moon, clear-white, in two squares of sky.
A Zen Sonnet
It’s the knowing of not knowing, the firefighter said,
about to leave New England for those summer thermals
zigzagging Montana. One day you might be helicoptered
into a canyon, sweat bullets, get almost killed.
The next you’re watering down the roofs of suburban houses
and the neighborhood kids give out pink lemonade,
grateful you’re there. The firefighter was burly,
one of those words you don’t much think about
until you see an example—an overjoyed burly man
packing his firefighter gear and ready to be shipped
willy-nilly, hurly-burly. . . . Life will come, life will go,
you may drink water from your hands
or stumble upon a little book of poems in the road,
who knows? Que sera, sera. Zen flows everywhere.
The Last Ditch
We built it and maintained it with great effort,
its earthen walls high, its planked floor
solid enough above the ever-seeping groundwater
to keep us from slipping as we moved back and forth
from one lookout post to another. We slept there,
ate our meals there, made love there
beneath stiff army blankets that kept sliding from us.
And we held on. At night, the rockets
paraboled toward us, dark angels. In daytime,
we could hear the cursing of our enemies
while they probed our defenses—sniffing, sniffing
like dogs at fox burrows. Always,
we kept hope, we fanned hope to keep it, and to that end
some of us cast dollars upon the mud,
others read Emerson or Melville or Thoreau,
or prayed to rich gods. It’s a miracle
how long we resisted. . . . And then that famous morning
that frantic morning, that uprising
when we rose as one and swarmed across the fields
into our enemies’ arms. And they fell, astonished
because they were without poets, because
they had not conceived a people who believed in imagery,
plums, the lilac cellar hole, the Man-Moth,
more than themselves. Nor had they known
how one day the whole world may reverse itself
into its opposite, like magnetic poles, like storms into sun,
or how a single phrase may change perceptions of a century
even as it begins . . . and the ditch may be left empty
as an abandoned canal—that winding bike path
between its hard banks on which our children now roam.
What You Have to Get Over
Stumps. Railroad tracks. Early sicknesses,
the blue one, especially.
Your first love rounding a corner,
that snowy minefield.
Whether you step lightly or heavily,
you have to get over to that tree line a hundred yards in the distance
before evening falls,
letting no one see you wend your way,
that wonderful, old-fashioned word, wend,
meaning “to proceed, to journey,
to travel from one place to another,”
as from bed to breakfast, breakfast to imbecile work.
You have to get over your resentments,
the sun in the morning and the moon at night,
all those shadows of yourself you left behind
on odd little tables.
Tote that barge! Lift that bale! You have to
cross that river, jump that hedge, surmount that slogan,
crawl over this ego or that eros,
then hoist yourself up onto that yonder mountain.
Another old-fashioned word, yonder, meaning
“that indicated place, somewhere generally seen
or just beyond sight.” If you would recover,
you have to get over the shattered autos in the backwoods lot
to that bridge in the darkness
where the sentinels stand
guarding the border with their half-slung rifles,
warned of the likes of you.