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The Journey to the West

Though we journey to the West We pray to the East More or less that's the way Each day begins and ends It’s a tale everyone ...

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ode to Nothing (III)

Or a short note to Harold Bloom

A poet may chase
Self-importance the way
A snake swallows its tail
But let me presume to say
That being a weak poet 
Is neither simple nor easy
Yet a sound choice as well

Why revel in insecurity
Why such sturm und drang
Why not let the metaphors
Fall as they may and
Embrace the null set
In all its glory since
Soon enough Self
Consumes all contingency
When the jumbling tower topples 
We settle into vacuity instead

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Waiting for the Peonies

Among the many benefits of living outside the city, I've come to see first hand that spring is no simple thing.  It's almost like a year unto itself, with its own beginning, middle and end, and other distinctive vantage points along the way.  It stretches from winter's drab doorstep to the sun drenched days of June when the backyard is fully given over to birdsong and vibrant color.  

Each step along the way is marked by its own telltale signs of change, some subtle others quite dramatic.  It begins underfoot, when the turf first returns to life and the hardiest shoots emerge; then crocus and violet set the stage, as the sap begins to rise, buds take shape and the race gets underway with the baton passing from forsythia, to daffodil to lilac. 

This week on Long Island we reached a vernal climax of sorts.  The entire world seemed to change overnight, as suddenly full leaf predominates up and down the block.  Here we are, still a month before the equinox, and already summer is holding sway; and perhaps the best indication of how matters presently stand is that the peonies are simply no longer able to contain themselves. 

Waiting for the Peonies

Now it’s almost June
And the peonies can't open
A moment too soon
Those mighty vessels of spring
With their all but bursting buds
Long compacted by the
Parade of ant across the globe
  Ready to explode in color

As the Golden Wheel
Finishes one turn and
Prepares for another
We stand on the threshold
Of this lush green carpet
Sign of our unflagging disposition
Thrilled at summer's imminence
Even though it's already
Rolled out beneath our feet 

Photo by M. Bridge

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Afternoon Meditation in the Backyard

To be aware
Of life beyond the self
Mind stretches as far as it can
The way a cat yawns 
On a summer's afternoon
And then licks its paws
Surveying the back yard
Terrain all the while
The neighbor's radio blares
Peace and heavy metal intermixed
Come drifting slowly as 
The alto stratus layer disperses
To the four corners of the earth
Each layer of reality's onion
Has its own distinctive smell 
As well as color and sound

* * * * *

Photo by Marissa Bridge

We spent the weekend on the road and came home late this afternoon just in time to enjoy the clouds stretching out to the horizon in the backyard. Marissa and I sat and sipped a glass of wine together and then when she went upstairs to get a sweater I had a chance to write this poem.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Middle Aged Changeling

In my sixtieth year
And already like an old man 
I'm continually pulling up my pants
Not just because quite suddenly
My clothes have become ill fitting 
But each morning I wake to discover
That overnight my body
Once again has assumed 
An entirely new form

*  *  *  *  *

Having gotten in the habit of selecting an image to appear with each poem I write, I started out at a loss for what picture should accompany this new poem.  The immediate prompt for this poem was my birthday last Monday and all the attendant overeating and pondering on mortality it occasioned. So I suppose a cupcake with a candle would have been one option to consider.  Then I thought of posting a photo of Walt Whitman as an old man to convey the idea of a wizened old bard (which at least is the way I picture my self some days) but I was afraid some readers might interpret that as a tad bit presumptuous.  So finally I decided to use this medieval depiction of St. Stephen as a changeling, not to suggest that I've suddenly fallen into a demon's clutches but simply as a metaphor to describe how I'm feeling now - not exactly switched in the crib but nonetheless indelibly different from the person I used to be, not so long ago; in the course of a night or two somehow I'm inexplicably transformed. 


Monday, May 16, 2016

The Year of the Yielding Ear (Tang Spirit News #100)

The Yielding Ear

The title for this issue of the Tang Spirit newsletter comes from beyond my usual sources of influence – The Analects of Confucius.  For the most part I think of Confucius as representing the more hidebound elements of the classical Chinese tradition – the reverence for the state, the unquestioning devotion to custom and ritual – which, important as they have been for the preservation of Chinese culture, don’t typically provide an important inspiration for me, poetic or otherwise.  But this phrase – the Yielding Ear – comes from a wonderful passage in the Great Sage’s autobiography and it captures something very central to my current thinking.

In his autobiography the Great Sage divides life into 3 main epochs.  In the first stage, which runs from birth through the first three decades, the main task is to become educated and establish one’s place in the world.  In the second stage, which extends through your 40’s and 50’s, the task is to refine your understanding and overcome all doubt. In the third stage, attained when you reach your 60’s and 70’s, the goal shifts to achieve peace with the world and internal freedom.

This past weekend I celebrated my birthday.  By the Chinese way reckoning, I’ve just turned 60, which in the classical Chinese tradition represents something of a climacteric.  This is the point in life that Confucius refers to as the Year of the Yielding Ear.  It’s a curious phrase.  The characters in Chinese are 耳顺年, which may be rendered literally as ear obedient year.  Alternatively I’ve seen it translated as the time in life when no sound should be irritating.  Difficult though this phrase is to convey properly in English, at this point in my life I’m pretty sure I understand exactly what it is the Great Sage is talking about.  It’s a point in life when a poet learns to listen instead of insistently warbling on all the time.

Here’s my translation of a poem by Bai Juyi, written on the occasion of a friend’s sixtieth birthday, which further elucidates the Confucian ideal.  

  *  *  *  *  *

On Turning Sixty
From thirty to forty
By five lusts enthralled
From seventy to eighty
By much illness palled
Yet from fifty to sixty
No such evil besets us
And in quiet content
The heart peacefully rests

Love’s tumults already passed and
 Beyond the allure of financial gain
While frailty and dotage still far
In the future remain
Sturdy in limb
Traversing hills and streams
With a heart fully possessed
By the flute’s sweet refrain

So let’s open a fresh bottle of wine
And savor a few tasty cups
Until we’re all good and tipsy
 Reciting old poems together
But none more affectionate than
This poem for my friend Meng De
Urging him to keep his heart open
Without suspicion or fear now
That the time has come
For the Yielding Ear


三十四十五欲牵    七十八十百病缠
五十六十却不恶    恬淡清净心安然

已过爱贪声利后    犹在病羸昏耄前
未无筋力寻山水    尚有心情听管弦

闲开新酒尝数盏    醉忆旧诗吟一篇
敦诗梦得且相劝    不用嫌他耳顺年

*  *  *  *  *

Our western culture worships and idealizes youth.  This is evident in our high and low culture alike, from pop music to Hollywood movies to fine literature.  We don’t age gladly.   Awards and stipends go to the younger poets and, as no lesser a poet than W.B. Yeats lamented, “a poet, when he is growing old, will ask himself if he cannot keep his mask and his vision, without new bitterness, new disappointment.”

But under the tutelage of Confucius and Lao Tzu, I have learned there are other ways to think about growing old.  In fact, a poet may aspire to set mask and vision aside altogether, along with the face cream and other surgical options to consider.  If so, it turns out there are some truly wonderful advantages in ageing out of the demo, at least if you’re lucky enough to still enjoy good health.  This is the time of life when the ear finally learns to yield and lo and behold it leads to the discovery that birdsong everywhere abounds.  In the end, the finest poems we are capable of may be those that require less of a compelling voice and more of a yielding ear.

In that spirit, I’d like to share with you my own birthday poem written in anticipation of my 60th year.

*  *  *  *  *

Birthday Georgic

Now a younger poet
May very well read
Virgil or Thoreau and
Conclude that is all they
Need to know about
Furrowing the earth

But for me
It took nearly 60 years
To finally realize there
Is no finer posture
Than to find oneself
Supine and supplicant
In the garden

Enhancing the yield
Preferably with gloves
And a spade in order
To spare the manicure
When applying manure

And also with notebook
Nearby so as to make
A more complete record
Of such perennial bounty
And reward

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Birthday Georgic (on approaching my 60th year)

Now a younger poet
May very well read
Virgil or Thoreau and
Conclude that is all they
Need to know about
Furrowing the earth

But for me 
It took nearly 60 years 
To finally realize there
Is no finer posture 
Than to find oneself
Supine and supplicant
In the garden

Preferably with gloves
And a spade in order
To spare the manicure
When applying the manure
And obtain better return

And also with a notebook
Nearby so as to make
A more complete record
Of such perennial bounty 
And reward

* * * *

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Ode to Nothing (II)

provides a spark
quite like Nothing

The nimbus within
that glows in repose

Close your eyes to
see it more clearly

There it hovers
just beyond
 the tip of
your nose

*  *  *  *

This is part of a series of poems each of which I've composed while meditating.  By necessity they are short, since my memory is shoddy and I simply can't retain more than a stanza or two at most.  It also seems out of keeping with the spirit of meditation to get bogged down in wordiness.

You can read an earlier meditation poem of the same name here, and you can read the first meditation poem in the series here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The Brahmanda (updated for the 21st Century)

Once again
Today the world lies
Before us like a cosmic egg
On the verge of cracking open
Separating before and after 

But as the fissure widens
The hatchling lies nestled in
A vessel overly warm and
We can’t help but wonder
Who among us will remain  
To mourn the new world
If it turns out to be
Still born

With many thanks to  for providing the inspiration for the shape of this poem with one of this morning's tweets.