YOU ARE CORDIALLY INVITED

I received the invitation today, but I won’t be attending. I’m not inclined to RSVP, for that will only drive home the fact that I couldn’t afford to attend. They have to know this, and if they don’t, well… That really is their problem. My mother said you should always RSVP, yes or no, but she’s been dead two years, never said she’d attend anything again. And anyway I still believe the rule doesn’t apply to any invitation addressed to Current Resident

GAME, SET, MATCH

As a child, a Jewish child no less,
December was always a bit difficult.
We had Channukah, which no Jew
would dare claim grew solely to compete
with Christmas, although we all knew
that was precisely what had happened.

The problem was Christmas, but had
nothing to do with Jesus, or the church
or even its historical teachings about
the supposed role we Jews played
in that story, a role for which we
had been paying for two millennia.

The problem was far more basic,
and all you needed to do was drive
down virtually any street in any city
and it would be at once apparent.
Christmas-celebrating homes were decked
out in all colors of lights, while
Jewish homes, those few who competed,
were left with a palate of white
and blue, or up to nine candles,
and that was a guaranteed for sure
last place finish in the December game.

LIVES

I have lived many lives,
too many to count, and I
remember bits and pieces
of each, but not necessarily
to which life this bit
or that bit should attach.

It is why I run them
together, view them
as a singularity, easier
to cope even when I
know it is a nice delusion.

I do wonder, at the moment
of death if each life will
flash by in turn, countless
short films, or if the gods
will go along with my
delusion, or maybe just
say time’s up, lights off.

I WANT

I want the sky to be that certain crimson
tinged with burnt sienna and cinnabar,
but today winter is holding sway
and the sun sneaks off behind
the gray wall from which it only peeked,
and left the day one of grayscale
where intensity replaced beauty
and even the cardinal opted to stay
high in the spruce, offering
only an occasional glint of red.
We come to expect this, it is a season
of colorlessness, and the only question
is whether we can hold out
until spring returns the full pallette
and nature takes up brush again.

IDEOGRAPHING MIND 鐵笛倒吹 四十六

If you will mark your gate
what word will you use,
what for the door, what
for the window?
The gate knows quite well
what it is, as to door and window
and need no marking.

Even the fool knows
through each you
may enter the house,
but even the wise man
cannot tell you
how the house may enter you.

A reflection on case 46 of the Iron Flute Koans

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

We are, he is convinced,
devolving into verbal neanderthals,
losing are ability to recognize
the linguistic tools that once
set us apart from other species,
or at least so we assured ourselves.
She knows that what truly sets us
apart from other species is the arcane
skill we have at being able
to convince ourselves that
delusion, firmly held, is fact.
Still, she cannot disagree with him,
simplicity is a too close cousin
to inanity, and nuance is the first
relative to be cast out. And so
with ever fewer words, we seem
to have ever more to say,
and speaking endlessly, say ever less.

CAT (PSYCH)OLOGY

It wasn’t until I hit
middle age, which on my scale
will allow me to live past 100,
that I discovered that cats
are Celtic deep in their hearts.
Our cat, she who adopted me
and forced her then owner
to marry me, like it or not,
was in love with the tin whistle
and the uilleann pipes playing
had her in my lap, unmoving.
But she had her Buddhist side
as well, sitting zazen for hours,
longer if accompanied by
shakuhachi flutes. She said
that cats were discerning,
were connoisseurs of music
loved cello, viola and violin
but barely tolerated the bass.
It was why, she said, all
the great composers wrote
for the higher strings.
And, she would add,
as for dogs, well they
loved country music most,
reason enough for pity.

ROCK AND HARD PLACE

The hardest age by far
is the one where you are stuck
in the middle, children below,
parents above, and utterly no
hope of escape from the vise.
Things your mother could do effortlessly
now seem impossible for her, and those
things now need doing immediately.
Your children, ever wise at creating
novel approaches to anything they want
in life regardless of your opinion,
suddenly cannot perform the simple tasks
they once could, more so if the task
takes them away from whatever
is their pleasure of the moment.
It is this middle period where
you cease to live, at least
to live fully, taken with tasks
above and below, and only
in the rare spare moment
can you contemplate the tasks
you will no longer be able to do
as soon as your children cease
to be a burden and can be one

SUNDAY NIGHT

It is almost midnight.
If this was Seoul, the Hilton,
I could walk down the hill
to Namdaeman Market
and wander around the shops
the smell of the city, of pigs heads
simmering in giant caldrons,
fish lying on beds of melting ice
and look at silk and stainless
flatware, watches and celendon
casting its faint green glow
in the fluorescent night,
but it is Virginia and there is
only a 7-Eleven four miles
down the road where I can
pick up a Diet Pepsi
and Hostess Blueberry pie
and stand at the counter
where the County Sheriff
stands talking to the owner
while browsing the Penthouse
magazine kept behind the counter
for long spring nights when
there is little traffic along route 7.

First published in The Iconoclast, Vol. 47 (1998)

NAME IT

Aunt Tzipporah hated her name,
detested it really, came closer to the truth.
“What the hell were my parents thinking?”
she said, “like being Jewish in West Virginia
isn’t going to be hard enough.
On a good day I got away with being Zippy,
but you try spending your Junior year in high school
hearing “Hey Zipper” or having some jerk
come up to you, cigarette dangling
from his lip and saying, “hey, Zippo,
got a light?” and you can guess
why getting out of state to college,
any college, was something I wanted so badly.”
I told my aunt I fully understood,
and she smiled, “I guess you do.
It couldn’t be a party going through
life with the name Shadrach Shamnansky.

THE FUTURE HOLDS

It should be more of a surprise,
on this day that you turn ninety
but the mirror, as you see it,
has you looking as you did twenty
two years earlier, and twenty
before that, unchanging in any
meaningful way, yet those
around you laugh when you
tell them what you believe.

Not a day over sixty-eight
you say, and time to go off
and write for an hour, then
the three mile walk, a shower,
some physical therapy for . . .
well one of the joints which
has osteoarthritis, and a salad,
heavy on the greens for lunch.

Nothing much has changed
in your mind, and when
you awaken from the dream,
see your sixty-eight year old
face in the mirror, you only
wish you could see the younger
face that only dreams allow,
but time outside of dreams is
always, unfortunately, unforgiving.

ISAN’S SUMMONS 鐵笛倒吹 三十一

When the master
calls for a novice
do you answer?
When the inkin
bell is struck
do you begin
or end zazen?
As you follow your breath
when do you leave
your body, and who
returns when you next inhale?

Search instead
for an answer
that has no question.
Who is the novice now?

A reflection on case 31 of the Iron Flute Koans

THE CLUB

It’s jazz, it’s a club,
but there what once was
is no more, there are
no ashtrays on the table,
overflowing early into
the second set, no cloud
of cigarette smoke descending
from the too dark ceiling.
There is no recognizable odor
of a freshly lit Gaulloise,
in the trembling fingers of
a young man trying to look cool,
trying not to cough on each
inhalation, in the calm fingers
of a young woman who
you know speaks the fluent
French of her homeland.
It is none of those things
but it is jazz, it is a club
and in this city, now, it must suffice.