Barley wine poems

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Yesterday afternoon and early evening I permitted myself to get a little deep into my cups for the first time since July 2, and just as I did then, I took a notebook out on the porch with me. This time I was drinking a spiced barley wine that I bottled way back in December 2002, after a year and a half in the cask (actually a glass carboy). I hadn’t been too impressed with it on previous tastings, but perhaps it just hadn’t aged enough.

I found myself jotting down short poems, or the notes for poems, with the kind of fury I can otherwise only manage first thing in the morning. Some of them don’t seem too bad. With some, I’m not sure now exactly what I had in mind. But maybe that’s all right.

UPDATE: Still revising as of Friday morning. It IS all in the editing!

A gnat falls into my wine.
I sip around him.
After a while the pin-
prick flotsam washes
against the side
& sticks fast.
Crawls all
the way up to
the rim. Inspired,
I down the rest of the wine
in two big gulps.

That gnat must not have been
a poet, to survive such
a baptism in wine. I raise
the glass it escaped from
in solemn tribute,
resolve to keep drinking
until the moon comes up.

Cicada drone. A flicker’s
namesake call. Carolina
wren’s insistent zipper.
Crickets, crickets, crickets.
The first desultory katydid.

It’s not just in my head,
this hum,
this buzz.

Drinking on the porch with
my feet propped up,
I forget myself.
What beautiful arches
you have,
I murmur.
And the toes – what fine
fat targets.
bleary half-moons
glimmer back.

Six o’clock, but
no chipmunks chipping
as they almost always do
this time of year, standing at
the mouths of their burrows.
I wonder what’s
in the news?

A breeze: red
maple leaves turn
their backs.
Aspen goes wild.
White pine whistles
through its teeth.

The bull thistle’s clock
has three faces:
stubbled green; florid
purple; white hair
falling out in clumps.
At the peak of flowering, half
of every bush is already dead.
My eye follows
a spicebush swallowtail
making its unrepeatable way
into the treetops.

In the end, the light
goes mute, retreats
one cricket at a time.
Deep in the grass, the faint
spots where glowworms
fade in, fade out.

What am I missing
by writing? What
would escape me if
I didn’t write? Wait
until it’s too dark
to write anything,
listen as the katydids
start up: first this side
then the other, night
after night.

Another glass of wine,
another drowned gnat.
God or evolution,
it’s all in the editing.

This whole
made world
is nothing but a conspiracy
between a rock and
a hard place, says
the all-night rain.

A reminder to the willful, to be the quest you seek

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It wasn’t a treasure hunt we were on, you said after reading my account.

It seems the apparent quarry was incidental, a trick of my imagination – and of my poor memory for dialogue.

What were we looking for then? I asked.

Whatever happened to be there, you said.

And anyway, what we found, those flowers – I already knew they were there.

But. Now I’m no longer positive about my identification. I just don’t know whether they fall within the acceptable bounds of variation for the species.

So, no hunt!

Myotis lucifugus

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

The portico light had been left on, and after a while I noticed that bats had begun swooping in to catch the insects that swarmed around it. Eva and I went to the door to watch. Just as we got there, a bat flew in above us and didn’t go back out. I opened the door and looked up. He had climbed into the crack between the end of the roof and the side of the house, and had begun grooming himself. With the aid of a flashlight, this turned into quite an engrossing spectacle.

The bat – a little brown myotis, presumably a solitary male – kept his face turned mostly away from us, so that what we saw most often looked like a big-eared mouse chewing on a tiny umbrella. Only when he worked on the surface of an open wing did we get a look at his face, dimly visible through the thin membrane of skin.

The contrast between the smooth wing and the deeply wrinkled, pushed-in face seemed to suggest some elemental truth about the night, and about the sort of consciousness one must evolve to fully inhabit it. I mean, one can easily follow custom and read into a bat’s face the stamp of evil, or an eldritch wisdom. But nothing of that sort came to mind; only now, in retrospect, do judgements like these suggest themselves. We felt, I think, only a simple awe.

We watched so long, Eva started to complain of neck cramps, and both my arms got tired from holding the flashlight in turn. He spent most of his time on the wings, with only a few nibbles at his abdomen. Is this something that bats have to do every few hours to remain flight-worthy? Bat Conservation International’s website says only that

In addition to day roosts in tree cavities and crevices, little brown myotis seem quite dependent upon roosts which provide safe havens from predators that are close to foraging grounds.

So possibly the screech owl that we heard calling intermittently had been too close for comfort.

When the bat finished grooming, he turned his listening face full on me for a few seconds, then, rather than flying out the way he came, scuttled up feet first through a crack in the tiles and disappeared. It was only then that I thought to wonder if the flashlight had hurt his eyes.

The world doesn’t end

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

We were so poor I had to take the place of the bait in the mousetrap.

Charles Simic, The World Doesn’t End

The Queen of Noisy Things says she misses the quiet. Everyone clamors agreement. Well, almost everyone.

The president of a small company whose one plant is far from the action says, We can only compete by focusing on quality. That’s the burden this isolated location has visited on us. In return, our workers get quality of life, close to the land. The plant sits a few miles from the exact center of the country. What could be more convenient? If you stand facing north, the sound of the ocean is just about the same in either ear.

The queen muses. It can crush you, that quiet. Hanging from a rope inside a crevasse in a glacier, out of the howling wind, hearing a sudden creak from deep in the ice: an extra shiver. Or in the silence after love, with the pounding of the blood slowly diminishing in the ears. So much tenderness, a single word could ruin everything.

The plant burned to the ground. The next day, everyone showed up as usual. The president, himself a line-worker then, remembers how the workers had to first draw up their own templates. In the temporary absence of everything but faith, without the clamor of machines to come between them, they pulled together. Production resumed within a month. The fire lived on in the workers’ bellies.

Comparative religion: a brief exercise

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Jesus wept.
Sarah laughed.
Gautama touched the ground.

The Messiah came, and is expected to return.
The Messiah will come when all hearts are ready, when all minds have turned.
The future Buddha is still a bodhisattva, but you can visualize him as a Buddha in the present if it helps.

With God, all things are possible.
With God, all things are possible except the forgiveness that only the person you have wronged can give.
With bodhi-mind, all things are as they are: impossible.


holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Some responses to a poem of Kurt’s over at Coffee Sutras put me in mind of the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch. Unfortunately, the only translation I have is pretty clunky, but it’s part of a thick volume of sutras, published in Taiwan back in 1962, that contains classical Chinese and English on facing pages. I remember just enough Chinese from college to be able to figure out how to improve on the English (which I otherwise use as a crutch).

Please note that I am not a Zen Buddhist, however; I welcome suggestions on how to improve the translation and commentary that follow.

The Platform Sutra is in my opinion a classic of world literature on the level of St. Augustine’s Confessions. Like that work, it does get rather dull in parts. But the opening section contains an autobiography that is remarkable for the author’s insights into the mental condition of his would-be adversary Shenxiu, the head monk at the Chan (Zen) monastery where an illiterate Huineng – the future Sixth Patriarch – is stuck in the kitchen, put on rice-hulling duty.

The central drama concerns the contest over dharma transmission, a perennial, defining feature of hierarchical politics within the Chan sect. Like the aging Isaac in the Bible, who to the utter perplexity of most modern readers has but a single blessing to dispense to one of his two children, Chan masters apparently could only transmit the mystical essence of their teaching (dharma) to one pupil. Such transmission can only occur if the pupil has attained some form of enlightenment. That’s the theory, anyway.

So one day the reigning patriarch announces what amounts to a poetry contest for the monastic succession. After a protracted argument with himself about what to do, Shenxiu sneaks out after dark to graffito his submission anonymously on the side of a wall:

The body is like the bodhi-tree,
The mind, a bright mirror.
Hour by hour one wipes it clean.
Dust never gets a chance to settle!

The sutra describes Shenxiu returning to his room and lying awake until dawn, plagued with doubts. “In the quiet of his room he pondered: ‘When the Patriarch sees my stanza tomorrow, if he likes it, it will show that I am ready for the dharma. But if he disapproves, it will mean I’m unworthy, owing no doubt to misdeeds in previous lives, karmic accumulations thoroughly beclouding my mind. What will he say about it? It’s so hard to predict!'”

Huineng doesn’t say how he gained this omniscient narrator’s perspective; perhaps the pious reader is supposed to take it as a sign of his unique attainment. But I wonder if this might not also hint at some otherwise secret rapprochement between adversaries, whose respective followers would maintain a strong rivalry for centuries.

At any rate, the next day when the Master comes across the verse, he diplomatically orders incense to be burned before it, declaring that anyone who follows its teachings would gain great merit. The monks lose no time in figuring out its author, and many of them quickly commit it to memory. That’s the other great thing about this sutra: its wholly convincing portrayal of monastic politics. Noble intentions and genuine insights mix with insecurity, arrogance and obsequiousness. The master himself, we soon learn, isn’t exactly a free agent, and fears violence and general insurrection if he passes over the head monk in choosing his successor. He sends for Shenxiu the following night, imparts some gentle words of instruction, and urges him to keep trying.

Huineng, engrossed in his kitchen duties, remains blissfully unaware of this swirl of political events. But one day, an acolyte passes by the kitchen loudly reciting Shenxiu’s verse.

“What poem is that?” I asked the lad. “You dumb hick! How could you not know about it? The Master told all his followers that, since the question of rebirth was so difficult, those who wish to inherit his robe and teaching should write him a verse, and whoever managed to express the true nature of the mind would become the Sixth Patriarch. Elder Shenxiu wrote this free verse stanza on the wall of the south corridor and the Master told us to recite it. He also said that those who put its teachings into practice would benefit tremendously and be saved from rebirth in the Hell realms.”

I told him I wanted to learn it too, so I might have the benefit of it in the future. Even though I’d been at the monastery for eight months hulling rice, I’d never had occasion to go to the meditation hall, so I asked the boy to show me where the poem was written so I could pay my respects.

He led me to the spot. Since I was illiterate, I asked him to read it to me. A petty officer of the Canton district named Zhang Zhiyong happened to be passing by, and he stopped and read it out clearly for me. [This presumably means he translated it into the vernacular.] Then I told him that I too had composed a poem, and asked if he could write it there for me.

“How extraordinary!” he exclaimed. “Can someone like you really compose a poem?”

“Even if it’s the highest form of enlightenment you’re after, you shouldn’t look down on a beginner,” I replied.

“Please recite your stanza, then,” he said. “I’ll write it down. But if you should succeed and win the dharma, don’t forget to bring me along!”

My stanza read as follows:

Bodhi has nothing to do with a tree;
Bright and reflective, the mind is nothing like a mirror.
Without so much as a single attribute,
How could there be any place for dust to collect?”

Later on, attracted by the gathering crowd, the Master came over and erased the poem with his shoe to prevent anyone from getting envious and beating me up. When they saw this, the monks assumed it meant that the poem’s author had not yet realized the essence of the mind.

The next day, the Patriarch came secretly to the room where rice was milled. Seeing me at work with the stone pestle, he said, “A seeker of the path risks his life for the dharma. Is this proper?” Then he asked, “Is the rice ready?” “Ready long ago,” I replied. “It’s just waiting for the sieve.” He knocked the mortar three times with his stick and went away.

Guessing what the signal meant, in the third watch of the night I went to his room. Using his robe as a screen so that no one would see us, he expounded the Diamond Sutra to me. When he came to the line, “One should use one’s mind in such a way that it will be free from attachment,” I suddenly became thoroughly enlightened and realized that the mind’s true nature can’t be differentiated from the world at large.

On re-reading this, I’m struck by the reverence for the text displayed throughout the Platform Sutra. Though the story of Huineng gaining enlightenment without the benefit of literacy would play a role in the development of anti-intellectual tendencies in some later versions of Zen, in his own teachings the recitation of texts occupies a central place. Silent reading won’t do; one must hear, take to heart/mind and speak. But as the example of Shenxiu demonstrates, words themselves, however worthy of respect, can be of little use to the mind that still sees itself as apart from its words and images, the “ten thousand things” that accumulate seemingly of their own accord, like dust.

It’s no wonder, then, that the portrait of Shenxiu is so sympathetic and psychologically realistic: we are meant to hear ourselves in his agonized self-doubt.