The wisest of men
when asked at what time
it is best to pursue the Way
will answer when a thousand stars
have made their presence known.
The wisest student will say
when cleaning myself
by bathing in the mud.
This will become clear
when the frog
consumes the dragon.
A reflection on Case 38 of Dogen’s Shobogenzo
He always paid passing attention to the coconut palms.
It wasn’t that they were so attractive as to merit attention.
Quite the contrary, they were remarkable ordinary as palms go.
But he knew that if the drivers here didn’t get him,
a ill-timed coconut leaping from a palm
would be pleased to do the job.
And that was just too horrid a way to go.
He could see the obit: “Killed by an angry coconut
whose natural gravitational journey
he had the temerity to interrupt.”
He often comes to me in dreams.
In most he is faceless, but intently present,
speaking in a voice I instantly know,
nothing like mine and totally mine.
On occasion his face appears, blurred,
as if seen through a scrim, back-lit,
vague, an actor in some film I have seen,
but yet not that person, that character.
For a while I saw my own face, but I knew
that was just my wishful mind filling in a gap
which has yet to be filled, knowing
that it likely never will.
This morning absolutely nothing happened. The newswires were silent, or repeated old stories. The sports wires had nothing of note to say, save repeating yesterday’s scores. Even the gossip news was absent, as though a Saturday night passed without embarrassment. I did not mind the quiet, the almost silence, able to listen to the Mockingbird’s song. But I did wonder how the wrecking ball in Washington so badly overslept.
We sat at the table,
sucking the last of the djej
from the bones piled
along the edge of the platter.
“I played for seven years”
he said, “under Tilson-Thomas
and later Rudel, bad years those,
I sat two rows back
second from the stage edge.”
He was unremarkable,
forgettable until he nestled
the violin under his chin.
Balding even then
the fringe of hair clownish,
lacking only a red nose.
At the old metal desk
he struggled over applications
for insurance policies,
forever asking if he had
the premiums calculated right,
stumbling over the pitch,
dreading the word death,
preferring to talk of his bow
dancing across the strings.
He sold just enough policies
to make his monthly draw
and generate an override commission
to help pay our mortgage
but he would, my father said,
never make much
of a career in insurance.
When I sat in the office
on the old leather sofa
he asked me to marvel
that an old man, bitter
and stone deaf, could hear
so clearly, alone in a small room.
I listened politely, waiting
until he might be distracted
and I could return to neatly
arranging the pink sheet
between the whites
feeding it carefully through
the rollers, and slowly peeling
it back to reveal
the dark sepia copy.
He sits on the metal bed
fingers bent into talons
and cringes at the screech
of the walker
dragging along the hall.
He wrestles with the radio knob
and hears the strains of the concerto
as a tear runs down his cheek
and he waits for the nurse
to change his incontinence pad.
First Appeared in Licking River Review, Issue 28, Winter-Spring 1996-1997.
Only the ducks remain,
and they aren’t saying.
Ask a Muscovy where
all the ibis have gone
and he will say, “good riddance,
they’re ugly and get in the way.”
Ask of the pelicans
and they will remind you
that now there are more fish,
and they’ll be back eventually,
but things are much calmer
in their absence.
Anyway, they say,
the moorhens are still here,
but thank heavens the coots
have gotten a room
to do their mating this year.
And for a moment, in this senior
community, we think
they are speaking of us.
She is a small woman
dressed in white, save for black
platform slingback pumps
and cherry red eyeglass frames.
She hunches forward in her seat
seeming as though she might collapse,
pouring over tables and graphs –
biochemical research papers.
You measure the depth of her attention
by the frequency with which she pulls
single strands of hair from her banded ponytail,
strokes them gently, then, as if noticing they
have gone astray, tries to tuck them back in.
She pauses this ritual only to annotate
the paper’s margins in mechanical pencil
in a small, cramped hand, barely legible.
You know she has reached the paper’s conclusion
when she strokes that soft space
between those in upper lip
as though a teenage boy hoping
one day soon to grow a mustache.