Monday, July 18, 2016

"All the Time in the World" and Other Poems For Those Too Busy Not to Read Poetry

"All the Time In the World
And Other Poems
For Those Too Busy Not To Read Poetry

Someday I hope to pull all these poems together into a book, but in the meantime, they are here for you to enjoy. Written over the past thirty or more years, they are snap shots of my imaginative life, mostly from the time I became a Quaker in the 1980s.

bulletAbout the Author
bulletAll the Time in the World 
bulletQuaker Hymn to Spring
bulletBen Linder
bulletPluto McBane 
bulletDaphne and Apollo, Updated 
bulletMetamorphosis Critici
bulletCritic's Metamorphosis   
bulletA Retired Scholar Touching Up His Statue of Apollo
bulletEucharist for Baby Boomers 
bulletThe Wisdom of Olives    
bulletThe Other Shore
bulletVita Brevis 
bulletHiking in the San Gabriels
bulletSurrender Garden
bulletIn Memoriam
bulletThe Desert of the Heart
bulletThe Perfect Sound
bulletThe Mad Monk
bulletThings Are What They Are


About the Author

I have loved poetry ever since becoming intoxicated with the rhythms of Edgar Allen Poe while in junior high school. While at Boston University I had the privilege of studying poetry with Anne Sexton and some of the most gifted neurotics in New England.

After college I spent a year dharma-bumming around and occasionally doing poetry gigs in Vancouver, BC, and the Pacific Northwest.

In the late 1970s I went to grad school and completed my doctoral dissertation under the direction of Paul Fussell. At that time, the only poetry I wrote was in decent language of the overlearned. Fussell said of my efforts at writing Latin poetry: "It is wonderful that graduate students can still manage to waste time this way." Nowadays I sometimes wear a t-shirt that says, Si hoc legere scis, nimium eruditionis habes. ("If you can read this, you're overeducated.")

After teaching for two years at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, I moved to Rhode Island to practice Zen at the Providence Zen Center, where I started writing again for the first time in many years. My Zen master also wrote poetry of a sort (the sort that hits you over the head and makes you see galaxies). When a student brought him some haiku that she'd written, his response was: "You must learn to be stupid." A good place to begin writing poetry....

From 1986-89, my poetic background was enlisted for the cause of peace. I helped to edit a Quaker-inspired collection of poetry and fiction by Soviet and American writers calledThe Human Experience, which was jointly edited and published in the United States and the former Soviet Union. Our poetry consultant for this projects was Stanley Kunitz, who recently became poet laureate of the USA at age 96.

A peace activist, poet, gardener, gypsy scholar, cyberspace cadet, and currently editor of a Quaker publication called Friends Bulletin,  the author of these verses currently lives in Whittier, California (named after the Quaker poet), with my wife, a Methodist pastor. She loves butterflies and poetry (but only when her husband reads it to her).
The following poems have been previously published: "Quaker Hymn to Spring," "All the Time In The World," and "Exiles" in Friends Journal; "Metamorphosis Critici" in Classical and Modern Literature; "Vita Brevis" in Northeast Journal; "Nighthawk" in Wildfire; "Desert of the Heart" in Rebirth of Artemis and in Journal of Humanistic Psychology; "The Correct Way" in Antigonish Review; "The Mad Monk" in Greenfeather and Primary Point; "Artemisia" in Berkeley Poets Cooperative. "Song to Benjamin Linder" was set to music and recorded by Sharon Sigal in an album entitled January Sunbeam.

All the Time in the World

It takes all the time in the world
to enter the water and the wind wholly,
to let fall the imaginary boundaries
and return to the source and the destination.

It takes infinite patience to be the forest,
to cry with the chickadees and crawl with the ants,
to stalk with the cat, and forage with the bear,
to let the slow, timeless sap flow through your branches,
and feel roots and tubers pierce you like a lover...

Nothing begins or ends here: there is only the circle,
widening, calling back its own.
When you walk the path, you must be the path.
Do not be proud. Even the centipede knows this.

Everything that you touch changes
and changing, changes you.
Everything you think fill the air with its smell.

As you build you tipi or your city,
remember that knowledge and skills cannot save you.

When night falls, you must be the night.
When day breaks, you too must be broken.

(For Ramon, an El Salvadoran)

Walking upland through snowy woods
we used only the simplest words:
Cold, frio. Trees, arboles. Snow, nieve. Sky, cielo.

Using only such speech as exiles speak,
feeling the same cold, the same wind,
we climbed higher, slipped on the wet snow, laughed,
and clambered on.
Our sanctuary lay ahead, some lichen-spotted boulders.
We sat down without a word.

But echoing in my mind like wind trapped in a cave
were words Ramon repeated often:
"I have lost my God, I have lost my God."
Marriage, children, country, God--all lost,
like last fall's leaves.
What could I say?

Here, as we sat among the ancient stones,
nothing needed to be said.

With a smile Ramon got up,
wrote his girlfriend's name in the snow,
then leaned back against a rock and
disappeared into his poncho.

I continued to watch the trees:
buds, like tiny nipples, slept on tips of branches.

Quaker Hymn to Spring
(for Yuki Brinton)
The sunlight seemed to sing out in a weeping cherry tree
that spring day I arrived at Pendle Hill.
Someone had hacked it halfway down, and yet it sang to me:
"There's that in me no one can ever kill." (Repeat)

I stood amazed and listened until someone told me how
a widow old and small but hardly frail
had hurried to this spot when she had heard the horrid sound
of a chainsaw and its silence-shattering wail. (Repeat)

This tree her husband planted, and it now was in her care.
Some say she climbed it like a mother cat.
Some say she brought the woodsman down with just a piercing stare.
This much I know: this broken tree still stands. (Repeat)

In the stillness of the morning, in the stillness of my heart,
it sings its light-filled song to joy and spring. (Repeat)
Ben Linder
(set to music by Sharon Sigal in her album, "January Sunbeam")

  Ben Linder was an all-American,
  a hero, builder, and clown.
  He loved the folks of Nicaragua,
  and the contras gunned him down.

  He loved to build, not destroy.
  He was a true engineer.
  He knew that life is a narrow bridge,
  wouldn't give way to fear.

  He loved to ride a unibike
  and balance on a rope.
  He liked to try the impossible
  and never gave up hope.

  He wouldn't work for Boeing,
  wouldn't hustle for Star Wars.
  Kid, you'll never get rich that way,
  said his friends who knew the score.

  He was only twenty-two
  and five-foot four
  when he went to Nicaragua
  and saw poverty and war.

  He stayed in a war-torn village,
  made power from a creek,
  lived in a shack and dug Dire Straits
  like an old-time '60's freak.

  For the kids of El Cua
  he juggled beans, tortillas and rice
  "Eat balanced foods," he told them.
  They thought he was crazy but nice.

  He liked to pick wild orchids,
  and walk alone by a stream,
  joke with friends,
  lie in the sun, and dream.

  Some say he was a dreamer,
  but to me he was wide awake.
  He knew that life is the kind of game
  that we play for mortal stakes.

  He didn't win any medals,
  He didn't have any secret funds,
  He didn't kill or lie for a living,
  Sell drugs or bonds or guns.

  Ben Linder was an all-American,
  A builder, a hero, a clown.
  He loved the folks of Nicaragua
  and the contras gunned him down.

Pluto McBane
Pluto MacBane, atomic scientist,
worked in a tunnel deep beneath the desert
untouched by sun or rain or wind. He drove
an air-conditioned car with tinted windows
to and from his air-conditioned house.
For sixteen hours or more each day he worked,
staring at diagrams and flickering screens,
plotting and planning, figuring and faxing,
till ghostly afterimages disturbed
his sleep. He dreamed of a world gone dark,
rank with the smell of mushrooms. Tendrils
and tubers wrapped around his legs, his arms,
his neck, until he was cocooned. A cockroach
saluted, man-sized lizards flicked their tongues,
armies of ants attacked. He shrieked, awakened.
"Oh say can you see?" came booming from the tube.
Then static. Test patterns. And nothing more.
He poured a glass of bourbon, gulped it down,
and shivered. Night was long. He thought of Cory,
the golden-haired and giddy girl he knew
in college. Walks in Prospect garden, smelling
magnolias, holding hands, and talking
endlessly. What a woman Cory was!
Her eager mind ranged over everything,
and everything it touched seemed fresh and new.
Ecology and Bach and how to make
perfect soufflés. That was long ago,
another lifetime. Here there is no spring,
nothing but print-outs, charts, and deadlines, deadlines....
Pluto MacBane finished his final drink
as dawn crept like a spy into his room.
He dressed and went to work. He hunkered
down in the tunnel where no sunlight came.
Symbols and numbers danced in his brain like angels
upon a pin. The power of the sun
crouched in the dark and waited for a word from
Pluto MacBane. But he was drifting far
away, an atom lost in space and spinning
wildly across a reeling universe,
dreaming new ways to make the darkness visible.

Daphne and Apollo, Updated
Apollo Jones, the proud possessor of
a BMW, an M.B.A,
and his own company, called "Dr. J's,"
had no use for old Cupid's brand of love.

"Who needs that that corny stuff? I open up
my wallet, women come. My bedroom's got
not only mirrors, but revolving doors.
`Let's not get too emotional,' I tell
my women. `Love's a game,' and to myself
I add, `And I'm the one who makes the rules.'

Then one day as I wandered through the park,
a sweet nymphette, no more than seventeen,
was jogging along, jiggling as she went,
the sweetest bud that I had ever seen.
It was as if a golden hypodermic
plunged into my heart, as if the air
were angel dust. Taking Olympian strides,
I ran beside her, asked her name. "I'm Daphne.
Who wants to know?" she said. I told her my
entire resume. "Come to my place,"
I said, "I'll make it worth your while. I'll give
you roses, gold chains, diamonds, everything.
I'll even play the best sounds on my system."
But all she did was sweetly smile and say,
"You men are all alike," and kept on running.

I then decided not to mess around.
I grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her down
into a flower bed. "Please don't," she cried.
"I've never done it with a man before!"
She sounded so sincere I lost my grip.
Then she kicked hard, broke free, and slipped away,
laughed like a loon, and bolted out the park.

As poets say, this nymph was nevermore.

Then one day as I wandered in a bookstore,
a tome called "Daphne's Story" caught my eye:
it told of women changed to strange new forms
because of what we males have done. Bizarre,
but I must say, remarkably well-written.

Therefore, where games are played, and men compete,
hoping to rival my magnificence,
let "Daphne's Story" be the prize."

So spoke Apollo Jones, self-satisfied,
the proud possessor of an M.B.A.

What else could he, the god of reason, say?

Metamorphosis Critici
Carmina cum volui Nasonis rite docere
Ingeniosa novo conveniente modo,
Vates nugarum est visus mihi ludificatque
omnia quae docui deridens lepide.
"Cur mea," sic dixisse videtur, "carmina poscis?
Dissertanda apte materies tibi sim?
Aut, ut grammatici, studes ut sic talia dicas:
Versu syntaxis quid, precor, est in eo?
Estne dativus duplex, commodus ille dativus?
(Ecce chiasmus adest versiculo croceo!)
En, polysyndeton (estne prosodia recta?) videtur:
Illud spondeum dactylicumve legis?
Pernimii in versu semper piget hoc pleonasmi;
Quippe mihi brevitas zeumaque saepe placent.
(Gratia rhetoricis graecissare est animosis
atque Athenarum tantula magna loqui.)
Signat et ille synechdochen, hic signat polysigma,
antithetonque hic, en, aspice et hendiaden!"
Ante "metonymiam" Naso quam dicere possit,
nugarum vati carmine sic refero:
"Sustinuisse satis semel est, doctor paradoxi,
martyrium pro te: dulce nec indecor est!
Quippe scholam aestivam longe institimus studiumque
et cum grammaticis discipulus fueram.
Nunc vero ipse paro te mutare ut revirescas
ad tempus nostrum forma novetur et os!"
Talia dicenti liber iam clauserat ora,
inque scholae clausis moenibus invenies
(quid librarius affirmat ) hederam renovatam
quae vigat in loculo qua legimur critico.

The Critic's Metamorphosis
I wanted to teach properly and innovatively
Ovid's witty and sophisticated poetry.
Snickering, that bard of frivolity seemed to make
a mockery of everything I taught.
"Why are you seeking out my poems?" he seemed to ask,
"Merely so that I can be material for your diss?
Or are you eager, like the grammarians, to say thing like:
What's the syntax of that line, please?
Is this a double dative, or a dative of adantage?
Look! this gilded line contains chiasmus!
Here there seems to be polysyndeton (is the meter right?):
Do you read that as a spondee or a dactyl?
A plethora of pleonasm disgusts me in this verse:
What please me are brevity and zeugma.
(Full-blown rhetoricians enjoy "Greeking out" and making
big talk out of trivia, as the Athenians do.)
Behold such synechdoche, and such polysigma!
Here's an antithesis, and there hendiades!"
Before Ovid could say "metonomy," I replied
in verse to the bard of frivolity:
"It was enough already, doctor of paradox, to have suffered
martyrdom for your sake: 'dulce et decor' indeed!
I hunkered down all summer long at the Institute
and was a student with the grammarians.
I am at last prepared to transform you so you'll bloo-
m again for our time, your form and words made new."
Having spoken thus, my lips were sealed
by bark. On cloistered walls of academe,
uou'll find a new specis of ivy (as libarians confirm)
that grows in critical nooks wherever I am read.

A Retired Scholar Touches Up His Bust of Apollo Belvidere
Good God, old Polly, you sure look like hell,
your face pock-marked,
your body scarred and pitted.
The wind and the rain
have turned you Dorian grey.
Here, let's clean off the grime,
rub you down, patch you up.
And please don't mind
if I ramble, as old profs do.
It's clear you don't belong outside
even here in this weedy grove
of sage and laurel gone to seed;
your place is indoors,
on a shelf, among my battered books....

In another time and place
where Logos ruled, handsome and cocky,
you were made of marble, built to last,
able to brave all kinds of weather,
but those times have past,
remembered only by old fools like me.
Now gods and superheroes
are made of plaster,
or plastic, or celluloid,
cheap and easily replaced.
Rationalization, not Reason,
is the god of our age.

Still, it's good to remember
as I rub you down,
how Truth had manly contours once,
how to kalon kagathon,
the Good and the Beautiful,
was once made flesh, and strode amongst us
with a hero's gait....

Half-cocked Freudians may smirk and say
`The old man's acting queer again'--
but as I trace your noble lineaments,
even in this plaster imitation,
this shadow of a shadow,
something stirs in my heart,
a wish or a prayer:

O that Thou wouldst come again
and honor us as Lord of Light.
O that these dark days would pass
when memory chips are all we can remember
of Thy glory.

O that we would leave our dens and VCR's
and stand amazed before Thy Perfect Word!

Enough. It's twilight now. The birds are twittering.
My job is done. You're patched and painted.
Not quite as good as new, but fit enough
for a reminder, and a perch for crows.
Maybe you'll outlast this barbarous age,
my Pythian friend. You'll doubtless outlast me.

Eucharist for Baby Bloomers
June 16, 1994

Rejoyce, rejoyce!
for today is wholly Thirstday
therefore be mindfood and thinkful
of your many blissings
for today is the Verb made flash
and makin' a livin' amongst us
in every irony tower
His whimsies be prayséd
Gloria to the Void!
Sick transit to the World Everlustin'!

Old Jimjams, be our server
as we heist our cuppa cold cheer
and say with overdue respite,
"Up Ireland!"

May we be drinkin' of you
till we be seein' double
and feelin' single
may we be seein' Dublin
and feelin' singular
May we be singin' of you
for many boomlays to come

Ah women!

(The title "Eucharist" apparently refers to the original meaning of the Greek
verb eucharisto, to offer thanks, which implies a celebration with wine, bread,
and ritual poetry, as in the phrase preceding Holy Communion, "Come, let
us keep the feast!" -- Ed.)

The Wisdom of Olives
Try it, you'll like it, said her smiling uncle
who owned an orange grove. She trusted him
completely. Uncle Don knew everything
about trees and fruit and what was good to eat.
Taking the small, black fruit between her lips,
she took a bite and swallowed eagerly.
Yucch! it was bitter! Spitting out the pit,
she felt the bitterness inside her mouth
long afterwards. She never took a bite
of the unknown so eagerly again.
Nor did she ever fully trust a man
who smiled and said, Try it, you'll like it. Really.

Athene, wisdom's goddess, watched and smiled.
Olives to her were sacred, pits and all.
She was the only goddess with a breastplate
and spear. The city of philosophy
was named for her. No one could grasp or hold
her long. Her body was rubbed down with oil.

Odysseus was her son, a clever man-child,
quick with a tall tale, speech, or exit line.
Once, when he was exiled far from home,
Athene donned a shepherd's guise and asked
her son, "What father and what mother bore you,
stranger? You seem divine."

Odysseus lied as usual. Fictions flowed from his mouth like honey.
His mother smiled. She knew how many uncured
olives it takes to make a honeyed tongue.

She dropped her mask. Odysseus gasped. "Is that you,
Mother?" Already she had slipped away,
elusive goddess, fading into mist.

What of the girl, you ask? She's grown a woman
enduring all the sicknesses that cure,
false promises and fears, defeats and triumphs,
and years of being bottled up in brine,
till bitterness gave way at last to wisdom.
Beside her sleeps a man she slowly learned
to trust, and love. These days she smiles
remembering her uncle and his damned olives.

Vita Brevis
Off the Appalachian trail
not far from Dead Woman's Hollow
we crossed a stream
cold enough to numb our ankles.
We tip-toed over moss as soft as faded plush,
and kindled a flame among yellowing ferns...

Leaves, newly tinged with crimson, clung to branches.
Summer was not yet ready to give up.
Nor were you.

In the evening I quenched the camp fire;
we watched the world's end in the sizzling embers
and walked under a night sky
as if it were the first that ever
bloomed with a million stars.

You sat beside the stream
and became small as a pebble.
You respected the sound of water.

In the dark,
you touched me, and I half-remembered
the blaze from which we came.

The Other Shore

Something seemed to call us out of the stifling summer
night: a sound like the sea, "thalassa," salty,
irresistible. So we made our anabasis,
thousands of us, driving and driven to the Jersey shore.

There we grapple with gridlock and the Burger King strip,
and arrive at the sea's edge only to wonder why
we'd come, at last, to this:

a ghostly, starlit strand
scarred by the tread of dunemobiles manned by uniformed
rangers who approach us like the guardians of a
forbidden planet.

"Move along," they say. And we do,
wandering to a lifeguard station near a semi-luxury
hotel, where we watch some semi-drunken teenagers stagger
past, kicking up sand and spending their youth like loose change.

Searchlights from the nearby boardwalk
finger the sky. The hotel's glare surreally
frames each shell, each piece of trash.
The bone-white surf hisses:

"This is hell."

Just then an orange dot appears near the horizon,
an unidentified floating object.
Too large for a boatlight, it grows and stretches
larger and larger, a fiery crescent blob, alive
and red and throbbing,
pushing out of the sea like a baby's head
from its mother's womb:

the moon, born of the sea!

Getting down on my knees in the sand,
happy and amazed as my Greek forebears,
I know why I've come. To thank
the silent stars.
Darting in and out of the light,
swooping down with a whoosh,
it looked like a bat, but you set my straight.
That high, distant cry I took for granted
now had a name: nighthawk.

As we walked together in the starry night,
you shivered. You thought of returning to the familiar,
the nightlight of home and family,
but hearing your namesake high above,
hovering among the stars, something pierced
your heart, clutched you with its claws,
lifted you up beyond my grasp....

What is this thing
we cannot tame with a name--
darting in and out of the darkness,
calling us back, back to our senses,
back to our skin and bones.

Hiking in the San Gabriels
(with no apologies to Robert Frost)
Something there is that doesn't love a road
Here in the canyons where we hike along
An upland trail. The asphalt soon gives way,
Eroded at the edges, like the dreams
Of many a man who came here seeking gold.
Along the trails they blazed, the swallowtails
Dance in the sun, glittering with golden life
Among the sweet pea, broom, and monkey flowers.
The dreams of gold have faded, but the glow
Of something--flowers, fresh air, who knows what?--
Has brought us here where we must watch our steps.

Something there is that puts a mountain's face
Just where we want to go, and makes the trail
Narrowly wind around the cliffs and ridges
Where I walk on edge, avoiding loose rock
And poison oak (which always grows luxuriant,
Along with wildflowers, anywhere that men
Impose their roads...)

The climb is hard on muscles
Softened by freeways. But a rushing stream
Sings in the shadows of the woodward ferns
Down in the gorge--a sound more sweet than music
In this parched land. We stop to watch a lizard
Perched on a rock who gazes back at us
Bold as a dinosaur. A giant trout
Swims in a lonely pool, too beautiful
For hooks. Some quail come tumbling down a slope
Like clowns. The birds and squirrels that brisk about
Make us envious. We slowly trudge
With backpacks gaining weight with each slow step.
But other burdens lighten as the woods
Grow dark and cool and still....

At last, we come
To camp. Nowhere to go, at last! The sound
Of wind and birds. A big-cone spruce is standing
Watch at our door--a friendly wise old giant
Untouched by axe and unafraid. I stretch
My arms partway around her massive trunk
And feel the joy of staying in one place.

2. Sturtevant Falls

A trail over Mt. Zion? Impossible!
That's what the loggers said, and so old Sturde
(That's what they called him) built himself a trail
Where folks insisted it could not be done.
He used a peck of dynamite and killed
A mule or two, but he showed them, just as
He showed his wife and kids he left back East.
This trail remains, a road that's seldom taken,
And where the falls come crashing through the rocks,
Headstrong and reckless, it has Wilbur's name.
So rest in peace, old timer, if you can.

3. Return

Before I build a road, or clear a trail
I'd like to know just where I'm going to,
And where I'm coming from...
Today this trail is
Crawling with weekend hikers: groups and families,
joggers and cyclers. Mr. Serious puffs
Along, red-faced, with miles to go before
He sleeps. The Nerds, with staypress slacks, walk dogs
On leashes. Overweight, with too much makeup,
A girl guffaws at shirtless men with beerguts.
Women in baggy shorts, free of their bosses,
crack raunchy jokes, pick flowers, break the rules.
Some gangly teens with walkmen listen to
The same new drummer. Do I seem as weird
to them? No doubt. Here every prospect pleases,
And only Man's a joke.

The freeway lies
Ahead, where we're least free. I join the stream
Of traffic nervously. How strange! A mile
A minute seems so fast when you have been
Where footsteps, not odometers, track distance.
My mind plays with the thought: to walk, to wait is
The Way; we were not made to rush along
These man-made, God-forsaken thoroughfares.
But all too soon the human animal
Adjusts, steps on the gas, and hurries home.

The Surrender Garden
(for Wendell Berry)
I farm a room-sized plot of earth
where once a factory stood.
In spring, I'm met by eager volunteers--
onions and leeks, swiss chard and kale
green and sweet as those in paradise.

But as I turn the soil for the first time,
bricks the size and shape of potatoes
stick in my digger's stubborn teeth.
My brow sweats. My winter-weary muscles ache.
I feel the effects of the fall.

My seeds are scattered to the sound
of kids and cars, trolleys and boom boxes.
I use my hands instead of a digger
because I love to mold and stroke the earth,
to feel it touch my skin.
I sit in my garden like a kid in a sandbox
and think of my Greek grandfather
for whom gardening was no game.

With the sun and rains
weeds rise up like angry peasants
insisting on their squatter's rights.
I can't blame them.
I've been an absentee.
Down on my knees, I make a space
for my seedlings as I pull the weeds
carefully by the roots,
roots that go on and on
like my compulsions and obsessions.
This is the work that never seems to end,
the work my father and his father handed down.

Some evenings I come here simply to sit alone,
and watch things grow.

It's quiet and still as a church.
At the far end of the garden
a woman waters her flowers,
and the smell of wet earth rises
like a prayer, an offering,
into the darkening sky.

Philadelphia, 1985

In Memoriam
The sound of feathers
fluttering from a palm,
two great birds
alighted on the lawn.

The larger treading above,
the smaller panting below,
the two were locked
in such a warm embrace
they seemed like lovers.

But looking closer,
I saw the hooked beak,
the claws that clutched
the dove's throat....

A hawk hadfound its prey
was deftly setting to work
without mercy,
without hate,
without ultimatums,
without self-righteousness.

In the cool of the evening
a few gray feathers
lay scattered on the grass
for a memorial.

--- San Bernardino, January 1992

The Desert of the Heart
To what desert can one go
to escape the desert of the heart?
There's no extinction, no forgiveness, here:
everything that's born suffers and dies,
returns and, returning, turns in our minds again,
until we learn to look with love,
and without desire or fear,
at each lizard and rock,
each dry well and prickly pear.

What we know, or think we know,
brings death, sudden or slow.
Old newspapers blow across the proving grounds
scorched with our well reasoned fears.
Each mind contains a holocaust;
with each heartbeat a world's end nears.

What we don't know
gives life and peace and hope
beyond mere words.
A man tickles a beetle
with a stick, and lightning leaps across the skies.
A woman sits so quietly she can hear
dust settle on her face,
and in the earth below
invisible seeds await the unthinkable rain.

--- Providence Zen Center, 1986

At the Nuclear Test Site
near Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan
Dust, blue mountains, steppes.
Loudspeakers blaring slogans, cries of fear and anger..
But here on the mountaintop, voices in the wind whisper:

This is Karaul, cradle of Abai,
the first Kazakh to sing
of Shakespeare, Pushkin, and this sacred land.
Savor of sage and spring's all too brief greenness
floated from his books like incense.

Then came the bright future like a flaming sword.
The yurts that softly encircled our lives like hats
were traded in for box-like houses
made of tin and tar and steel.
We worked, we fought, we bled, we garnered medals.
The stones did not cry out.

Then one midnight the horizon flashed red.
Earth trembled. Trees withered. Winds turned black.
Children were never the same.
We were silent. What could we say?
How could we sing?
The stones do not cry out.

Then came a new Abai,
a voice that cried out for us
in the wilderness,
teaching us to listen to the wind,
teaching us new songs:

Nevada-Semey! Polygon zoylzen!
No more test site!
No more bright future,
no more flashes on the horizon,
no more trembling earth!

Give us this day our sacred land,
our healing winds, our crescent moons!
Give us this day our children's laughter,
give us your hand that we may dance together!

Only do not forget,
or you too will know fear in a handful of dust.
The dry bones of your land will rise up in reproach.
The black winds will blow and the black rains will fall.
Do not forget this place of skulls
lying beyond these blue mountains,
these all too brief spring days.

The Perfect Sound
(For Suzanne Schmidt)
Sometimes I wonder what it would sound
like if all the weapons in the world were beaten into ploughshares. I imagine
it would sound like a tremendous bell ringing out through he whole world,
louder than all the Victory bells that rang out during World War II....

--Ann Kellam

Each morning before dawn I ring a large bronze bell
and chant the Bell Chant with the rest of my sangha:

"Vowing this bell sound spreads through the whole universe,
Making all the Hell of Dark Metal bright,
Relieving the three realms of suffering,
Shattering the Hell of Swords.
All beings become enlightened."

I ring the bell, and try to let go of all thoughts--
forget the pretty poetry, the dream of Enlightenment,
my own situation, changing, and always the same, day by day--
just ring the bell, just listen,
experience the world-as-it-is,
the birds outside chirping from the eaves of the temple
as the bell clangs and clangs--
all of us making our first babysteps towards peace.

This morning a woman spoke of the sound
she imagined would be made
if all the weapons in the world were beaten into ploughshares,
the sound of a great bell ringing round the world,
and another woman wept,
silently, but openly, thoughout Quaker Meeting.
I went to her afterwards to offer what comfort I could,
and found her strong and clear as a bell.
She had broken into a munitions plant, beaten on a missile tube
with a balpeen hammer called "Hope,"
served a month in jail, and now awaited sentencing.
She had been weeping not only for herself,
but for the whole world trapped in a Hell of Swords....

In her silent weeping I could hear
the one perfect sound that would heal the world--
a sound that has never existed, and is always with us--
a sound that cannot be heard, or ignored--


The Mad Monk
"God, I've carried you on my back long enough,"
the mad monk sighed, "old and sick as you are.
Whenever I see something beautiful--
a tree, a flower, a lock of hair--
you mutter, `Beware!'

Whenever I despair, you tell me solemnly,
`Face it, that's the way life is.'
Well, I say, `To hell with you.'"

With that, God leaped off the monk's back,
and turned into the sun.

Sunlight streamed through the trees,
and the mad monk bowed his head.

Things Are What They Are

These discarded Christmas trees do not pine after happiness.

On this icy clear night, 
the stars do not claim to be brilliant.

The leaves do not remind us of their fallen condition.

Immense rocks are reflected in the clear pond;
they don't expect our admiration.

The Correct Way
One man measures out his life in coffee spoons.

Another carries spoonfuls of melted snow
down from a mountainside to a drought-stricken valley.

Another pushes a rock up a hill,
only to watch it tumble back,
again and again.

Another pushes an eraser across a page,
trying to erase every mistake, every lie, ever written.

Which is the correct way?

Driving down Rt. 295 to Providence this morning:
the snow is white, the sky blue.

First Noble Truth
("All existence is suffering": Sakyamuni Buddha)
Curled up like a fetus in a questionmark,
her life goes on endlessly trying to explain itself.
She remembers all her dreams, and files them carefully away
in her notebook, with appropriate cross references.
She is full of interesting plans. She sometimes suspects 
that an unusual destiny has eluded her. She has inklings
of past lives. She almost believes in clairvoyance.
She senses that, much of the time, she moves in a gray, wet fog
of words. She has experienced the despair
of knowing more than can be expressed. She knows that living
is not a life sentence. She knows that knowing
doesn't help. She has found, and lost, love
many times. She has a son who is almost grown. 
She does not want to be born again.  
When she is singing, she forgets she is unhappy.

My Little Pink Buddha
My little pink buddha
was carved by a woman
who wished to be wise
and retreated to the woods
to fast and pray.

I, too, wished to be wise
so I purchased you,
little buddha of compassion. 
I sat you down upon my altar
at the Zen center, 
and meditated on you each day. 
Then one morning I left you unattended
and a kid knocked you over.

Bang! Just like that!
Your head went rolling across
the floor like a marble.
His mother came to me hysterically
"My son didn't mean to do it..."
Being wise for once, I said, 
"Don't worry. Be happy. This is the buddha
of compassion."

Now you sit upon my windowsill
seemingly secure
thanks to a bit of superglue
and each day I bow in your direction
grateful that I finally know what to do
when enlightened ones
lose their heads. 

Buddhists believe that in every profession, even the one reputedly the world's oldest, there is a bodhisattva--- an enlightened being who compassionately refuses to enter the state of nirvana until all other beings are enlightened. Among prostitutes, there is a bodhisattva called Passamillion.  According to a Korean Buddhist legend, she has slept with one million men, each of whom became enlightened. This poem explains how.
In her arms in the pre-dawn,
he felt inutterably satisfied.
Her lips had kissed him
everywhere; she made love all night
in every way he'd ever wanted,
and in ways he'd never dreamed of.
He felt a radiance
filling his heart, filling the room.
Turning to her in wonder, he whispered,
'What's your secret?'

She explained without bitterness
all the pain one must endure
to make the pale lotus of love bloom
out of the muck and darkness.
Her words were like a mountain stream
overheard at night, and he felt
the truth of them, and almost wept.
But there was still a tiny stone in his heart,
a sharp-edged scruple:
"If you're so wise," he said,
"How come you're a hooker?"

As he spoke, he felt a great change
come over him, and her.
Her body grew hard and muscled,
hair bristled on her chest and above her lip,
between her legs a penis dangled,
pressing against his hip.
Meanwhile, his body softened, his hair grew long,
his breasts enlarged, and between his legs
there was nothing but an opening,
a doorway into an unknown place.

Rising without a word, Passamillion
left the room and took
his face and body with her.
As he lay spread-eagled on her bed,
he realized that his work would not be finished
for many nights,
many lifetimes.

The Bisexual Blues
Oh, it's hard to be a man these days,
gettin' harder all the time. (repeat)
The woman that I love
couldn't hardly make up her mind.

On Monday she would love me,
oooo, she couldn't get enough. (repeat)
But on Tuesday she loved women,
and she couldn't stand my stuff.

On Wednesday she'd come back to me,
she'd be as sweet as pie. (repeat)
But on Thursday she'd be off somewhere,
wouldn't tell me where or why.

On Friday she made love to me,
and then she said goodbye. (repeat)
By Sunday, Lord, I hurt so much
I thought I'd surely die.

It's hard to be a man these days,
getting harder all the time. (repeat)
The woman that I love ran off
with the wife of a friend of mine.

Victory Gardens, 1988
On my parents' mantelpiece
a strange red idol squatted--
a Victory bell with brazen faces,
Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin.

Made of metal from a plane shot down
above my mother's native ground,
it sounded dull, off-key and strange.
When I dared ring it,
I couldn't hear the sounds of peace,
only the echoes of war:
the sound of Joe McCarthy's voice,
the sound of sirens in my school
that sent us scurrying to the basement
in terror of The Bomb and Reds.
The heavy sound of silence
as we cowered, heads between our legs.
The sound of dark laughter
when someone whispered:
"Kiss your ass goodbye."

Such were the echoes that I heard
whenever someone spoke of Victory.

But now I see a different Victory sign--
a flower a Russian peasant made 
of shrapnel.

The only victory 
is to make such flowers grow.

Leningrad, 1989
City of white nights and dark days,
city of unquenchable art,
city of siege and Pishkarevkoe's mass graves,
I walk along the windswept Nevsky Prospect
in my threadbare army surplus overcoat,
a goggle-eyed American.

I want to learn your secret,
how to make the Beautiful
rise up out of swamps,
how to dance on rubble,
how to feast on dreams.

At my naive words you smile
like an ancient grande dame
recalling the earnest young men of her youth.

I stand on the Neva's banks
and gaze at the golden hypodermic
of Pavopetrovski prison and cathedral,
a chill in my bones, but not in my heart.
Someone has placed carnations
on the fractured ice at the river's edge,
someone who, like me, dreams of a thaw.

Mother Russia, 1990
In the catacomb below the former church
there is no cross, no candles--
only boxes and furtive faces
lit by a naked bulb.

People are waiting outside in the rain.
The place where we are waiting
reeks of the grave.
Fingers clutch at boxes, eyes gleam like kopecks.

The sky is falling--
Chicken Littles cry out everywhere.

In truth, the sky is turning gray
as a dirty dollar bill.

Outside the hotel, black marketeers
buzz like mosquitoes. 
"Damned Jews," they mutter to passersby
who ignore their wares,
watches and icons and military gear.

Tears are oozing from the eyes
of the Blessed Virgin.
But no one cares.

No one wants a miracle, or a bright future.
"All I want is a normal life," a woman sobs.
As if anything could be normal here
in the land of Gogol, Stalin, Pasternak.

The walls are falling all over Russia,
crumbling like the walls of this tenement
where saplings grow out of cracked plaster.

Now I can taste the pepper vodka of Visotsky:
my heart is a cracked bell,
a bell without a clapper.

Then, in the darkness near some birches,
a warm, living hand reaches out.
Bony and wrinkled, and incredibly strong,
it yanks me to my feet, 
and suddenly we're dancing, reeling wildly,
and nothing can stop us. Nothing.

(After a Dutch work by Gerrit von Hornthorst--1590-1656)
The scene is splendidly clear:
the widow raises to her lips the ruby chalice
wherein her husband's ashes have been mixed with wine.
Drinking it down, she sighs and murmurs through veiled tears:
"Now I'm your living tomb, my beloved."

In the wings the bearded courtiers gape theatrically,
raising their hands as if to say, `What a paragon.'
Of her attendants, one young woman with golden hair
seems most impressed by this strange new cocktail.

All this the Dutch master caught brilliantly,
nor could he forget to add, in the shadows of the curtains,
a crone with withered tits who can barely suppress a sneer.

It's said that commoners came in droves
to gape at this prodigy, the king's shapely urn.....

Night falls; the widow aches. Her dreams
are like red curtains tossing in the wind.

Her straying hand has a will of its own,
and it touches, it touches.

Blood comes when she sobs and bites her lip
trying to imagine her husband's face,
that golden goblet....

But she can only see darkly
two small red eyes like a rat's,
a sad mouth twisted into a sneer,
and an ancient woman's face
peering out of her lookingglass.

The Fairie Queene Revisited

Once the perfect woman
eyed the long votive candles
and dreamed of Christ's perfect body
and of her father locked away in a castle
and her perfect knight came pricking on the plain
with his hand-me-down shield and fought
valiantly outside the cave of error
where ink and toads and beasties
spewed up like menstrual blood
thrust, she says, thrust
and with his vorpal blade in hand
he does, he does

and after long nights and battles and trials
he wins the victory and naturally
leaves the perfect woman alone
with her father
that "olde" story

but now the cave is lit up
tour guides conduct visitors there
everyone is a little nervous at first, but
soon becomes accustomed to a world of darkness
a world of artificial light
how beautiful, how glittering everything seems
a little water trickling among Eliotic rocks
light shows
and now there is an explanation for everything
and no one has to be afraid
there are of course flash floods and mud slides
cave-ins and insurance claims
but now women are entitled to sing
arias to cock
the right to bear swords and shields 
is guaranteed by their constitution
and men, once lost in cathedrals of cunt,
build higher and higher, dig deeper and deeper
there is no stopping us
the cave is lit up
the votive candles extinguished
the rockets are ready

--- Princeton, 1982

Walking Towards the Cave's Mouth
(for Kathleen)
Walking in the darkness
towards the cave's mouth,
I'm glad you're here beside me
listening as I speak, and speaking from your heart,
not like that silent dream of a woman,
not like Eurydice,
ready to fade if I so much as look back. . .

But then I'm no Orpheus.
I can't make trees dance,
or stones weep, or the Lord of Death vow
rash promises. . .

I can say only what I know,
words that I too need to hear.

And if my words catch fire,
if I sing at times of things
we wouldn't dare to speak of down below
where people cling to customary shadows
and images cast on crumbling walls,
it is because of the hidden fire in your breast,
the hidden fire that keeps me going
step by step in the darkness,
groping towards. . . I don't know what,
a light perhaps or a love or a world
that even Plato never dreamed of.

---Philadelphia, 1987

Contemplating the Renaissance on the Freeway

Leonardo could have painted the scene
I see on the freeway this afternoon
as I sit here in gridlock:
the sky's pure cobalt and the cloud's pure cream
about to metamorphose into cherubim.
The Technicolor wonder of the Renaissance
unreels before my eyes.
I think of Leonardo's notebooks
with the swoop, the soar of human ingenuity
as I watch the traffic flow, like a glacier,
through giant autoducts
beyond the wildest dreams of neo-classic engineers.

But where?
And why? says old Francisco,
the mad monk.

Who cares? says Leonardo.
Technique is all,
production values rule.

Icons are history, man,
and like these hills, they're old.

A Christmas Visitant
A Santa Ana (wind from hell) was blowing,
and suddenly the door chimes rang like sirens.
Panic, confusion. Then the voice of reason.
"See who it is, dear."--"But it's midnight.
Who could it be at this ungodly hour?"
But you don't question chimes, or wives. You get up.
Unlock the door. See who or what it is.
And there he was, much as you feared, a stranger
with long hair, torn clothes and a hang-dog look,
asking for help so pitifully you wince.
"My truck is broken, all's I need
is twenty bucks for a new carburetor.
Please. I ain't go no place else to go.
The cops won't help me. All's I need...." You listen
to his ramblings as the cold winds blow
across the lawn, and something grips your chest.
What should you do? Give money, take him in,
or call the cops? You go back to the bedroom,
confer, and then return. He's still at the door
shivering like some stray dog. But you
say firmly as you can: "Come back tomorrow."
Come back tomorrow. What else can you say?
And yet the words ring hollow as you speak
and haunt you as you try in vain to sleep.
"Did you hear something, dear?"-- You rise,
put on your robe and slippers, go to check.
There's nothing out there but the icy wind.
He's disappeared. And yet the questions won't.
Was he an angel, devil, or a guy
in trouble? Who, but God, can know for sure?
Tomorrow comes, the color of old wet
newspapers. He has not returned. You listen.
The birds are chattering, children laughing,
and you wrap gifts to soothe a troubled heart.

Fall in the Southland

Here fall's a long, drawn-out disease,
not a sudden blaze of fever.
Winds come and go, shake loose the leaves.
Then comes remission--summer weather.

But unlike summer's haze, these skies
are blue and curiously serene,
much like the bright and hopeful eyes
of those I know whose minds are keen

despite old age and all its ills.
Fall is the time when you can see
at last the mountains and the hills
that once seemed vague and shadowy.

Now rocks and shrubs and fire trails
are visible and clear.
You marvel at the sheer detail.
The distant mountains seem so near

you feel like reaching out to hold
them in your hand like precious stones.
It's easy to forget how cold
winds soon will chill us to the bone.

Here fall's a long, drawn-out disease.
The pastel clouds and clear blue sky
put us deceptively at ease,
and whisper, "You will never die."

First Snow on Old Grayback
How distinguished you suddenly look
with your silver hair
gleaming in the sun
like an old judge,
and how chilling the verdict
you blow down to us.

Our mulberry tree dropped
all its stubborn leaves
in a single night,
and now the lawn is littered
with legal briefs
for a case that's closed.

You belong to another age.
The modern one will come
when spring appeals,
and summer turns you grey
and makes you fade
into yellow haze
like a best seller's pages.

Your winter text is ancient,
white as parchment,
clear as mountain air.
"I am that I am"
is written everywhere.

This Must Be The Place

Some say it's like coming to a city at night
after a tedious drive through winding country roads
and you glance over a ridge and see a valley filled with stars
and you can't wait to get there
and finally encounter the place you've heard so much about.
And some say it's like leaving a city
you've lived in all your life
and driving down a long, dark road
with an overcast sky, and no signposts,
and no way back.

Some say you get a one-way ticket
with no refunds,
and others say it's like a revolving door,
you don't know whether you're coming or going.

Some say they've been there,
met the inhabitants, learned the geography,
and now can act as travel agents.
Others say they've been there, but there are no guidebooks,
just as blaze of light that puts in the shade
everything you've ever wanted or thought important here.

Some say there's no use talking of a place no one has ever seen,
it's like speculating about the dark side of Pluto.
Others say this place is the only one worth speculating about,
given the state this planet's in,
so keep your house in order and your suitcase packed.

Some say we're already there and don't even know it.

Some say to take one step at a time
and to watch out for loose rocks and
sudden turns in the road.
Miner Bees
"Glory be to God for dappled things.."
-- Gerard Manley Hopkins

Bustling bands of miner bees
buzz back and forth, in and out,
zigzagging through this long spring day.

Their dizzying dance of life distracts.
Where do they get their energy?
With furious flutterings of wings
they burrow down and lay their burdens
deep in the darkness we can't see....

Thank God for buzzing, bustling things,
for turmoil in our lives, for thoughts
that swerve and swarm and sting,
for deep down burrowing
for everything that's underground
waiting to take wing.

My Clothes
Last night I heard a noise in the street
and went outside.
A crowd had gathered.
Pushing my way to the front,
I saw my clothes perform amazing feats,
dancing, juggling, even reciting verse.

It was not done well,
but that it was done at all
astonished me and the gaping crowd.

When the performance ended,
I joined in the applause,
but didn't stay
to ask for an autograph.

Instead, I went inside
to the inner light of my life,
whose kisses are sweeter than words can say.
My naked self, without rhyme or reason,
suits her just fine.

Lost and Found Poem
Throw away this poem.
The wind, blowing across the city,
filled these lungs that fueled this brain
that penned these words
that settled, like dust, on this page.

If you read this
looking for a marble column to lean against,
or a monument's shadow to recline in,
forget it. This poem is meant to be thrown away.

Wrap something tasty with it,
and go to the poor and miserable,
and get yourself laughed at.

Or go where all lost poems go, or
where there are no poems yet.

Forget everything you've been told.
And for God's sake, friend, get lost.

Forgetting Ourselves

When all our favorite programs have been switched off
and the silence is like a cool drink on a hot day,
let's sit together
and not say a word more or less
than is necessary.

There'll be no need to talk
of all the oceans of light and darkness
we had to swim through to get here.

It is enough just to be together
and to have forgotten the words, you and I...

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