A LESSON TO TEACH

This is what 
I would tell my sons:
“You came from 
an ancient people,
a heritage of poets
and tailors, or thieves
and blasphemers,
of callous men
and slaughtered children.
I would give you these books,
written by God, some have said,
although I am doubtful
but driven by Erato, without doubt.”

This is what 
I would tell my sons:
“I didn’t go to war —
there were so many options
and I chose one where
my feet would touch
only Texas mud,
where the only bullets
were quickly fired
on the rifle range.
I wasn’t one of the 56,000.
I didn’t come home
in a body bag.
But I do stop at the Wall
each time I visit D.C.
and say farewell
to those who did.”

This is what
I would tell my sons:
“You have never known
the hunger for a scrap of bread
pulled from a dumpster,
you have never
spent a night on a steam grate
hiding under yesterday’s
newspapers from
the rapidly falling snow.
You never stood
nervously at the waiting room
of a dingy clinic
waiting for a young,
uncaring doctor to announce
that antibiotics would likely
clear up the infection
but you should avoid
any form of sex
for a couple of weeks.”

This is what
I would tell my sons:
“You come from 
a heritage of poets.”

First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press 2008

BLUE ON BLUE

The sun is shining brightly today,
and the sky, with only the odd
passing cloud, is that certain blue.

Do not ask me to describe that certain
blue, but be assured it is not exactly
the blue that you are imagining right now.

Even if I would describe it, in some
infinite detail, your vision of it
would at best be a near approximation.

The gull that swooped in and stole
the crust of bread I overtoasted
this morning knew exactly what the blue was.

Birds generally, and gulls in particular
have deep understanding of blue
that you, my friends, cannot even imagine.

WHAT DID YOU DO

When they asked him
what did you do during the war
he said “I just stood guard.”
When they asked him where
he said “A station, just
a station, like most others,
I just stood guard.”
When they asked him
did you see the trains
carrying the bodies crammed
into cattle cars
he said “I saw many trains,
it was just a station, but mostly
I looked at the sky, wishing
for the sun, but mostly it was gray
and there was smoke
from the chimneys.”
When they asked him
why did you wear
the lightening bolts
he said “I was a ski instructor
but I broke my leg
so I stood at the station,
just a station like most others.”
When they asked him
did he know of the ovens
he said “They made bread
which we ate each night
when there were no potatoes.”
When they asked him
about the Jews
he said “I knew no Jews;
there were none in the town
where I stood guard
at a station, just
a station like most others.”
When they asked him
what he did after the war
he said “I prayed, just
prayed for my sins,
sins like those
of so many others.”

UNLOCKING

There are two keys to it, really
the first, and easier, is to make a well
with your hands, that would need be
not all that deep, just enough
to hold your thoughts as you work.
The second is to add just
the right amount, too little and
it is dry and doesn’t hold
together, too much and it will
refuse to obey your command.
Dust it well, and constantly
as you work, that is
the third key, but we don’t call it
a key, for there should
only be two keys to everything.
And finally, no matter how long
you think it will take, it will
never take that long,
always longer or shorter,
never that long, but
when you are done, you
must savor it while looking
for those thoughts you left
in the now transmuted well
of the making of your hands.

AT THE EDGE

He says we are getting to the point
where we can see almost to the edge
of the universe, see the moment
when all that we know was created,
see gravitational waves cast off
by the collision of neutron stars.
She says that is all well and good,
but why can’t he see that he was
supposed to pick up milk and bread
on the way home, and that they
have to be at the school this night
at seven to meet the teachers.
And, she adds, you do realize
that you neutron stars collided
when the first flowering plants
were appearing on Earth, so
in all likelihood, you can’t
even blame the snake for it all.

JOSHU’S DWELLING 鐵笛倒吹 七十

 

If a poor man offers you
the finest diamond
do you take it, and what
of the gift of a crust of bread
from the wealthy man.
Each gift, in its way,
is worthy of rejection.

Once I grasped at great thoughts –
now I can forget my own name
and wonder whose face it is
that I see in the mirror.


A reflection on Case 70 of The Iron Flute (Tetteki tōsui).