"All the Time In the WorldAnd 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.
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.Exiles
(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?
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.Nighthawk
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, 1985In 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 1992The 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-- Listen!
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 apologizing, "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
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.
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...