Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Stopping By Woods \ Cold Night Old Friend

Alan:  My seventh grade English teacher declared that I would be “my generation’s Robert Frost” because of some doggerel or other I’d handed in.  It was an off forecast, but perhaps the following is a long-delayed response to that burdensome prediction.  “Plow,” by the way, means a snowplow.

Stopping By Woods

Meeting Ryokan on a back road
late, one glum afternoon
(he was staring into the trees,
their clotted flanks,
snow flecking his cloak like dandruff;
the grind of a plow approaching from the distance,
and more forecast),
he looked at me, grinned:
“No promises.
Nowhere to go.
No interest in sleep whatsoever.”

Nancy: So little difference – a hut in the mountains, a cabin by the sea – and the quiet that is filled by a thought, a smile, the snick of an ember.

Cold Night Old Friend

Before I had the door open
Ryokan was talking . . . and I
was tired of the cold and went
down to the city but oh
the flapping of paper . . . bells
on every corner . . . something
awful, the little drummer boy . . .

He sighed and pulled a bottle of wine
out of his robes.  We didn’t need
to talk, just put another log on the fire,
it blazed up, just you, me, Ryokan, and
now and then the tkk of a falling coal,
waiting out the longest night.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ryokan's Night Journey \ Yaqui Well

Alan: We are blessed with our night sky – one of the last places along the east coast of the U.S. where you can still see stars by the thousands - although light pollution now smears the horizon here and there.   How many stars, how many constellations, must Ryokan have seen!

Ryokan’s Night Journey
                 “If someone asks my abode I reply: the east edge of the Milky Way.”

Over his hut the stars.
What did he name them? how shape his sky?
Night after night, winter, summer, watching:
dip, turn, rise, vanish.
Were there beasts, hunters?
Rice paddles, plows?
Or were they stones, way-marks?
On a night this cold
did Ryokan take his stick
and ascend through snowy woods?
Those bright ones, hanging there –
were they a question? or a path?

Nancy: The “well” was nothing more than a pit deepened every night by coyotes.  To the coyotes we owed the small grove of trees, the chattering flock of birds, the broken shards of pottery that showed us the past.

Yaqui Well

From here you can see the waterhole.
No one comes but the birds,
no one laughs,
no one kindles the fire,
no one pours from the dripping jug.
It is broken.
They killed the pots,
killed the tools,
tore down the shelters of brush
and burned everything.
Everything was gone,
the coyote songs, grandfather songs,
the first man and first woman,
the beginnings
and slow steps on the sacred ways.
The circle was broken.
The only path left led to the end of things.
They killed the pots,
and took the path of unsanctified bones.

The water is a sweet secret in the ground.
Coyotes come in the dark, and dig.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ryokan Under The Great Circle Route \ the animals

Alan: Ryokan has come into our poetry in many different guises.  For me, he often leaps unexpectedly through time and space, hopscotching “normal” existence, a sort of Zen poet Dr. Who.

Ryokan Under The Great Circle Route

Ryokan watches the contrails
spread across the stars
under the moon above Mt. Kugami.
Portents of a future
glowing and fading in the dark.
Too content to sleep,
he takes his brush, writes: “In the void of no-being,
all things are.”  With five quick strokes
draws moon,
mountain, three lines across the sky.

Nancy: I wrote this after hearing a news item about the siege on National Public Radio. 

the animals
                                          Sarajevo, 1993

zoo under siege
keepers at first
ran the gauntlet

bent double
food for the beasts
dodging bullets

the beasts
were old friends
had no nationality

but war is insatiable
war ate the food
war ate the keepers

the beasts ate the trees
even the bark and roots
even the dirt

one another
ate even their young
even their mates

the great bear
died of starvation

except for the mortars
the zoo is quiet
unless you happen to hear

or wind
in the rubble

a voice saying
leave this planet
while there is time

Friday, December 6, 2013

Driving Route 127 \ Always Seeking The Growing Tip

Alan: David Kresh once wrote a poem that quoted, as an epigraph, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s wonderful “Bright moments, bright moments, bright moments, right now."   Here’s a “bright moments” poem from the road.

Driving Route 127

Occasionally there are moments
traveling a perfectly ordinary stretch of road
topping a perfectly ordinary low rise
to glimpse between the upraised arms of trees
a perfectly ordinary small hill
floating above an implied but unspecified
minor valley

the heart spasms itself so happily tight
you could die now, and should,
making of this a final vision
and grace.

Why then must we keep going over
and down the once again
imperfectly dull miles
knowing our real death waits
patient and banal
to flag us as we round some future
unremarkable blind curve?

Is it we so desire
just another such moment and another,
or suppose that to pause in one
will trip this coherence instantly to decay,
or fear that our minds will hurry forward regardless
leaving our bodies stupidly for all to see
forever dumbstruck and agawk?

Nancy: If you suppose that the following hints at some argument with certain small magazines that mistake the merely fashionable for the truly creative, you’d be right.

Always Seeking The Growing Tip

Hidden behind a cushion
of epidermal tissue, behind tough
expendable cuticle, the active
meristematic cells do their thing.

Which is: to penetrate, to pierce,
to pry, to make a way through grit,
to thrust through rubble, to crack stone;
to suck, to sip, to eke.

All this in the dark, even
rejecting light, tropic,
these cells, this growing tip,
to gravity and elemental stuff.

Elsewhere, coteries form and dissolve
around umbels, around corymbs; much
is made of this panicle or that,
even of ephemera, that have one
– only one – day in the sun.

In the dark, the growing tip is always pushing,
always ready to differentiate; if you are seeking
the growing tip, never look where it was yesterday.
It will have gone, on;
always look in new ground.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Unattainable Coppery-tailed Trogon \ The Narrow Road

Nancy: This bird, now even less attainable, having had its name changed to Elegant Trogon, lives on in my mind, half real, half myth, always beyond reach.

The Unattainable Coppery-tailed Trogon

Sometimes it’s just a matter of altitude.
Or luck.  Worn out by Onion Pass, camping too high,
not knowing that Spring was straight down
where the snow melted and fell into Cave Creek.

Sometimes it’s a matter of attitude,
of settling for easy bookish beasts and lame archetypes,
or of never being in the right place
to catch the Ravens in their Spring.
Black birds seen in the looking glass
are less real than my Trogon,

which I have called unattainable,
but which is truly there, calling from tree to tree
in a canyon which I could find, given luck
and another Spring.

Alan: I offer homage to Basho, after reading The Narrow Road To The Interior (aka The Narrow Road To The Deep North) in translation.

The Narrow Road

Anxious before each Barrier,
at Shitomae Basho finds delay,
the guards “suspicious, slow
and thorough.”  A three-day
pounding storm: refuge
a guard-shack with its lice
and fleas: “Now the horse
beside my pillow pees,” an amber
torrent, soaking stinking
            No wonder “the old
infirmities return”: fever,
weakness, and the fear of death
on that narrow, interior path.
And at each stage a thousand
years whisper to you, or moan,
in grass, under water, or in stone,
and a country as if made by gods calls forth
these poems wherein we watch you
pause at that gateless gate
then step through,
into light.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bewildered Orion \ Into The Deep

Nancy:  Walking in to the house on a dark night with no form ... and there, half-seen above, old Orion, equally lost.

Bewildered Orion

Where have your dogs gone, Hunter?
One step wrong, and one, and one,
and the dogs gone, and the familiar
landmarks  .  .  .  Orion, this is wilderness –
a light? – no, wait – no – fog –
in all corners of the night, fog.
This is not a night to be hunting
or wandering; Orion, how came you here
in the fog, alone?

Alan: Nagas, serpent- or dragon-deities in Buddhist mythology, inhabit the depths of the ocean, and of the mind.

Into The Deep

Somewhere below, the Nagas
are stirring.

I have been told by others
that they are armored in jewels,
in crystal.  I have not seen them.

They dwell in the 
deepest waters, far
beyond where the last light
reaches from above.

I am told they guard treasures,
yet may on occasion welcome us.

Therefore I dive,
being but one diver
in the ocean shared by all.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Sky Speaks To Ryokan \ After

Nancy:  The Zen poet and monk Ryokan (1758-1831) came into our lives one year and has reappeared occasionally ever since.  He has been cheerful at times, even uproarious, but here he is taking his leave.

The Sky Speaks to Ryokan

Old monk, you are shivering
your bed quilt is thin.
Your rice basket is empty.

      Ryokan nods,
      what the sky says is true
      and the mornings are dark,
      and the tea is thin as well.

Ryokan says, Sky,
teach me to do as I must
even as you –
you who bring ice and snow
on this rough home,
who bring the sadness of leaving
to my heart.

      It seems that silence may be a teaching.
      The sky is watching
      as Ryokan takes the path.

      Watching as he leaves the first poem
      of the journey tied to a twig.

Alan: A few words about a place beyond words or the need for words.


After the last words have been spoken,
after the last endearments have died away,
the last, whispered I-and-Thou’s,
after we have exhausted our meagre vocabularies
and our paltry imaginations,

love, impalpable as gravity, holds us
in this hollow of space-time we have made for ourselves,
and to the pillow we rest our heads upon.

I hold you now, asleep in the slow-breathing room;
you, a world clothed in darkness,
and me, your ever-watchful moon,
looking down.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bookham Grange Hotel \ The Fuck Poet

Nancy:  Step back in time – cold showers, cold toast, cold drafts in leaky windows – would today’s website be a mirage?

Bookham Grange Hotel

Whether from some bizarre sense of humor,
or a last fumbling grasp at elegance,
the room was full of mirrors.
Above the tap.  On the 
dresser, over the mantel, fronting
the wardrobe.
They reflected one another,
and repeated the peeling paint,
the patched  bedspread,
the mended rug.  They multiplied
the tiny cheap print hung crooked
high on the wall.
I stripped and stood there,
and asked my ghosts
(the only company I had,
gifts of the mirrored room)
what in God’s name I was doing there.

Who slept in these beds?
Did they read the Bible;
did they fill the chipped nightstand
with travel alarms, contraceptives,
cheap novels, store teeth,
sleeping pills?
I slept alone.
On the other bed I made neat piles of clothing.

What in God’s name am I doing here?
The triptych of mirrors on the dresser
winks at the shabby room.  I have given it
a stone from the sea, and flowers;
they repeat endlessly.
At night I become a company of pilgrims
burning candles.  My mind turns to thoughts of atonement
and the sin of pride.
          Ah love, will I wait at the door with a begging bowl?
          With a little imagination can I see myself
          as a dog at your back gate, gnawing grudged bones?
“I will come when I can,” you say, and you do.

You come and you go.
Much as I want them to,
the mirrors refuse to hold your image –
but neither do they mock me.
The bed, under its tidy piles of folded shirts,
no longer reproaches me with its emptiness.
Here I am.
I am one hand seeking another, water seeking thirst,
darkness in search of a flame.

Perhaps when I leave,
the mirrors will speak to one another, saying,
“While she was here, the room echoed with flowers.”

Alan:  I suppose stories like the following are all too common at writers’ retreats (Totleigh Barton is one such, in Devon), but given how this one turned out, I still remember almost 40 years later.

The Fuck Poet
                                    For Cérès

At Totleigh Barton
the Fuck Poet
came late to breakfast,
haggard, worn,
as did several of the
female participants,
the younger ones anyway,
but not you,
who sat, past midnight,
on the stairs, a little above us,
so we had to look away,
seeing you with nothing on
under your nightgown,
weeping in shame
and disappointment
because, when you’d appeared
at the appointed hour
at the Fuck Poet’s door
in the converted stable
another like you
had emerged and scuttled
sideways into the shadows.
Two years later
I saw you, pale
and bloated, high
on God knows what,
reeling along the Embankment,
your terrified boyfriend
futilely trying to
guide you home;
a few months after,
you were dead;
but that night,
although cast down,
you were rightfully
above us, and
so beautiful,
naked under your
unwanted skin.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Whitman And Wilderness \ Gulls For Congregation

Alan: At some point, Whitman became for me an avatar of the social and ecological awakening America needs, a sort of constructive Paul Bunyan, ever available to our imaginations, alive in some archetypal realm.

Whitman And Wilderness

Walt Whitman strode to the top of the rise and flopped down
     on the grass heavy with care.
He looked West to where the wheeltracks swayed toward the horizon,
     to the thin pall of smoke of the far-away burning.
“They need me there” he thought, “where the wilderness begins.”
And Whitman looked South to where the hard sun hammered the
     earth and the people were drying like uncut corn.
“They need me there” he said, “where the wilderness begins.”
He turned North where the snowclouds smothered the hearts of men
     and the animals crept into themselves and wept.
“They need me there” he roared, “where the wilderness begins.”
And he gazed back East where the city covered the ground and men
     and all things coughed and groaned and stumbled blindly.
“They need me there!” he sang, “where the wilderness begins!”

Walt Whitman had gone up that hill to die, but when he looked
     around him he saw, and swore, and flung his straw hat in the air
where the wild birds caught it and tore it and took it to
     every direction of the circle of earth.
And he started out after to mend it and set it aright upon his head
and he never stopped once,
mending and singing,
where the wilderness

Nancy:  Out of sorrow and pain comes unexpected strength.

Gulls For Congregation

gulls for congregation
     he died so quick
body churched still
     sixty six
traps to haul

engine catching a rough psalm
     he left a strong daughter
she was his boatman
     tied the dinghy to the mooring
left the harbor

water for benediction
     his life counted
sixty six sixty five sixty four
     good years bad years
and the water sighs and heals itself

a ledge a cleft a leaning spruce
     he will rest now
mist in the trees light on the water
     last rites
for a lobster fisherman

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Struck Tree \ Black Salve

Alan: Getting to know each local tree and boulder is one of the satisfactions of living a long time in the same place.

The Struck Tree

“Take it down,” you said,
seeing the wild corkscrew wound
running to the roots, and the blasted top.

We had held on, that previous day,
through a storm so loud it was within us,
flashes and cracking faster than our frantic hearts,
and one sizzling jolt so close
we thought the house must smoke.

Now we looked and found,
down the slope a hundred feet, near the well,
one hackmatack among the scattered many,
wrecked.  “Take it down, it won’t live anyway.”

But other chores insisted, and a small
reluctance to cut a tree not yet a hazard,
so it stood.  And has stood this quarter century or more,

shorter now, and missing limbs;
the white, bleached scar forever resisting,
the scabbed seams forever reaching out
as if seeking some way back
to some prelapsarian wholeness:

this tortured, favored tree,
made newly green each spring, furred with fresh growth,
and in the fall green-gold and gold before the snows.

Still here, I say in passing, still here,
alive to every breeze and all the strokes of earth and heaven.
Still here, old friend, still here.

Note: This poem replaces “Crash Course,” which was originally posted on July 27, 2011 and posted a second time in error.

Nancy:  In the Depression, families were responsible for their own health care, even if that meant horse liniment and home-made ointments.  Like our family’s black salve, I expect most of these medicines came with stories, personal folklore, and enough mystery to make the process – ritual, really – unforgettable.

Black Salve

Like all good medicine, ours
was passed on; it was told and retold;
it had its roots in mystery and shadowy healers,
and it came to us as a gift.

Like all good medicine, ours
had a keeper; my grandmother was the one
who gathered together the mystery,
and this is mostly her story, this medicine story.

Granny called me to begin the ritual.  Getting
clean jars and lining them up in rows
was my part of the ritual.  Folding and unfolding
papers, aromatic mysteries, was my part of the ritual.

Granny stoked the fire.  Granny emptied
the sweet, pungent, oily, powdered
contents of her bottles, cans, papers, jars
into the kettle.  Granny cut the stirring stick.

Granny stirred.  This part of the medicine was more homely
than mystery; all the women of my life knew stirring
and testing.  I knew jam before I knew multiplication,
the pull of it in the pot, the slide of it on the spoon.

Granny talked.  She talked me back to the wilderness.
She built my family out of a clearing in the woods;
her grandfather was a child, she was a child, I was a child,
and all the while she talked, steam rose, steam with the sting of turpentine.

Granny’s story ended.  I should be, now, the keeper of the mystery.
I should tell the story of the falling tree, the broken bone;
I should mime the gratitude, the gift, the silent melting away
into the forest.  I should cut my own stick, and stir, and stir.

Black salve is my story now.  Even as everything changes, I remember
my part, the essence of my part: to take a gift, to pass it on.