WOODEN PILLOW 鐵笛倒吹 六十

If, sitting at your meal
you hear the song of a bird,
what do you do?
You may tap your chopstick rest,
and perhaps he will answer
and repeat his sweet song.
If you tap a second time
and there is only silence
is the bird rejecting you
or offering his song to another,
flown from your window.

Perhaps you should tap again
and hear the sweeter song
of silence that echoes
over the garden and zendo.
On a distant limb
the small songbird smiles.

A reflection on Case 60 of the Iron Flute Koans.

HARLAN

You came, Harlan, to Rochester
somewhere in an endless winter,
“Ellison in Tundraland” you said.
We all chuckled approvingly.

You said a short prayer
climbing into the rusting Opel,
sliding on the edge
of oblivion, and
the approaching snowplow.

You stood, hoarse, smelling
of Borkum Riff and English Leather,
a tweed jacket over a polo shirt
and thinning jeans
and told us of the insanity
of television, a medium
pandering to idiots.
We nodded, hoping
you would finish before
the Star Trek rerun.

We sat in Pat and Sandy’s
as you consumed two orders
of fries, and a dwindling
bowl of ketchup. Later
we sat in the Rat, staring
at the empty bottles
of Boone’s Farm until
you took pity and ordered
two pitchers. You were
our patron saint.

Solzynitsyn was exiled
to a cabin in Vermont,
staring as the leaves greened
and fell under winter.
You served your banishment
in the land of lost souls,
miles from any reality.

First published in The South Carolina Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (2000)

MAY DAY

We marched for hours, going
nowhere really, but nowhere was
the point of the marching so we
achieved the goal the Air Force set.
We didn’t even think it odd
that they made us shave our heads,
so we’d all look like fools,
there was a war on and we
were in the military, so we
had already proven that point.
We were the smarter ones,
as it turned out, enlistees
who’d spend our time on bases
getting the pilots ready to fly
into the danger we knew
we had so carefully avoided,
and for us the greatest risk
appeared daily in the mess hall.

First published in As You Were, the Military Review, Vol. 13, 2020

NEATNESS COUNTS

Ice, he said, is clearly an invention
of Satan, the ice cube a scaled down
version of that corner of hell of which
no one ever speaks, so little known.

And stop and think, we got by well
for eons without a cube of ice, unless
with blade we chipped it from
a nearby glacier or left water out
in the dead of winter, which never
worked all that well in much of the world.

Whiskey, that was one of our best
innovations, one of which we are
rightfully proud, one which we
have practiced for untold generations.
We’ve been sipping it and drinking it
from the word go, and each culture
has come up with its own version,
and it is only recently that the devil
gave us the means of denigrating
one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

God, mother told us, prefers things
neat, as they were intended, so clearly
ice is the Devil’s work. Turn away!

ARE YOU CRAZY?

The birds look at us as though we had two heads. They cannot, they say, comprehend how we can stand to live in boxes, to travel in metal containers, to be stuck forever to the ground. They say that food should be picked then eaten instantly, not packaged and half thrown away. They say they cannot see how we are supposedly more evolved than they, for they have the sort of freedom about which we only talk endlessly. But most of all, and saddest of all, we know they pity us as we pity ourselves.

PAYMENT IN FULL

On this day I will give the cat a bath.
this involves an elaborate ceremony,
as befits an almost unique occasion.

I awaken at the usual hour, perform
my usual bathroom ritual, to the mirth
of the cat who curls up on the dirty
laundry in the basket in the closet.

I dice the pear, slice the banana,
pluck and carefully rinse the grapes,
then slather on the plain Greek yogurt,
and a large tablespoon of granola.

I carefully peanut butter one and a half
slices of multigrain toast, each with a dollop
of No Sugar Added strawberry jam
and make my cortado, on the foamy side.

It is time, now, for the main event,
and I fill the tub with warm water, pick up
the cat, and soon bandage my bloody arms.

MINDFUL(L)

The Buddha said that any task you do
if done mindfully is a sort of meditation.
We assume he said it, we’ve been told
he did, but no one I know was anywhere
near that bodhi tree, so we take it on faith.
When it comes to things like chopping
large quantities of onions, or roasting
coffee beans I totally get it, it does
seem like meditation, and deep at that.
Walking the dog makes the list, and
perhaps convincing the cat to do anything
she didn’t think of by out waiting her.
I can even accept washing the car
or the dishes, but washing the dog
is only so on rare occasions and only
if I medicate her first, and the cat, forget it.
But even Buddha would have to concede
that no matter how totally mindful
you are, driving anywhere in either
Broward or Miami-Dade counties is
as far from meditative as opting
to commit sepuku with a butter knife.

JE SAIS QUOI

I admit I am an odd duck, odder for not being a duck at all. But the expression has a certain je ne sais quoi to it, as does that expression and I am all about language. All that is a long round about way of acknowledging that I have always wanted to use the word antiphonal in my writing. I’m not terribly religious, and what faith I had has long been shaken by a world gone mad. Or at least a country gone mad. And even when I had some faith, I subscribed to the syllogism that religions music was to music, as military food was to food. We won’t even mention military music, that is an abject oxymoron.

WIEN

We were walking around Vienna, Wien,
the river cruise boat arriving early,
dropped off into the city center, told
we had precisely two hours to wander,
or we’d make our own way back,
and risk missing lunch and the formal tour.

We wandered, following instructions,
looking in vain for a café where we
could get an Austrian cappuccino, and perhaps
a pastry for which the city was famous,
even though we swore off deserts, but
before noon it could be still breakfast
and well within our supposed rules.

After several wrong turns we ended up
the Schauflergasse, still searching when
we heard the rhythmic clopping of hooves
and stepped quickly from the path
of the regal white stallions, as they
proudly pranced by back to their stables.

We asked the rider in the last rank where
we might find a café and pastry,
and he shouted back at us, “After
seeing us, Vienna has nothing more to offer.

We did find a café shortly after
and sharing an order of powidltascherl
and sipping our melange, we begged
to differ with the Lipizzaner rider.

SATURDAY, OF COURSE

On a quiet Sunday morning, my cappuccino
in equal measures gone and cooling, I
paused to consider the mug on the table
adjacent to mine, alone, uncared about.

It stared back at me, from its perch
on the coaster pedestal on which it
had been placed so carefully, a bevy
of faces holding my eye trying to tell me what?

It was hard to read their moods, each
much the same as the others, a calm
perhaps, a hint of simple joy, almost
a childishness that begged my attention.

I wanted to ask why the red bows
in their hair, but I knew I’d get no answer,
for they were inscrutable, and that was
how they liked it, lost in a perpetual tease.

They did cause me to muse on why this day
they appeared in an unlikely place, and I
paused to wonder what Ode Keats might
have written in 1819 on this Hello Kitty mug