The sun peers through the skylight, sneaks catlike up the comforter. He strokes her cheek, they are drawn together, lips touch, toes twine, hips press, fingers trace, the mattress a world of infinite gravity. Downstairs the cat paces angrily, the coffeemaker thirsts for beans.
First Published in the 2005 Scars Publications Poetry Wall Calendar
Lie back, I said to her, just stare up that way stare into the sky without any clear focus. Do you see him now, the hunter with his bow outstretched, the belt cinched about his waist locked in his eternal search for the prey that would free him from his nightly quest. And there, I pointed can you see the great bear gamboling with her child or there a goddess reclining on her heavenly throne. Now she said, that’s not it at all, not even close, look over there, don’t you see a small child crying out for her mother, and there, two lovers locked in an eternal embrace, their lips barely touching, hips pressed together reclining as one, and there, clear as day a cat lying curled as though sleeping in the warmth of a hearth.
The meeting drags on. Time is frozen. The space between a smile and a grimace is the edge of a fine blade and the width of a canyon. And you maintain the smile hoping it is not seen as the rictus you feel. Politeness requires a smile, your heart requires a fast escape. So you stay and tweak all of the little facial muscles to maintain the semblance of a smile. You don’t watch the clock on the wall, for it is only a source of frustration. When you leave for home, your face feels almost sore around the lips.
When the master takes his seat what do you expect of him? Do you watch his posture or how his hands are set. Do you stare at his lips and what do you hear when they move, but no sound comes from his throat. Listen carefully, for here the dharma unfolds like the first chrysanthemum.
A reflection on Case 79 of the Shobogenzo (Dogen’s True Dharma Eye)
I stooped and spoke to a stone, asking the question. I was here before you arrived and I will be her long after you leave. I held the sand in my hand warm from the sun, asking the question. I came after your arrived and I will leave long before you are gone. I held the winter wind on the tip of a finger, asking the question. I am not here now and I have never been here. I touched the waters to my lips, asking the question. I was above you when you came and I will be below you when you go. I saw the flames dance before me, asking the question. You were ashes once and you shall be ashes again. I stood mired in the clay clinging to my legs, asking the question. It is of me you were formed and it is to me you will return. I sat at the foot of God blinding light, asking the question. You cried to me at birth and you will cry to me at death.
It is hard, looking back, to recall just how many hours I spent searching with a fair amount of diligence for just the right song to express my love. Most often I would find it, but only after that love had been replaced by another, demanding a new song — you cannot use the same song for two different loves, that crosses well over into tacky. I have to admit I’ve given up totally on that quest, even as the number of available songs has grown exponentially, or so the various streaming services suggest. I have only a single lover now, have for twenty years, and as her hearing has slipped away it is her lips that read mine, and that is all the song we need.
He had planned the exercise for weeks, certain this one would allow them to break through the wall that had imprisoned the metaphors within them. It was simple, and that was its beauty, too many attempts had become bogged down, mired in the fear that words could do the greatest harm. The exercise is simple, he said, and they put pens to paper. Later, toward the end of class, “would one of you be kind enough to read to the class your description of a young woman’s lips?” One boy meekly rose and through half clenched teeth said, “Her lips were precisely shaped to barely cover her teeth.”
First appeared in The Right to Depart, Plainview Press, (2008).
You say you appreciate occasional gifts of symbols of love. You expect me to bring you a rose it’s satin petals gently curling back at the edges, always threatening to suddenly unfold, alluring, drawing in the eye promising warmth and release. I bring you an onion, wrapped tightly, it’s papered skin, the luminescence threatening to break out but always just one more layer down. I help you peel back a layer, it comes off reluctantly, as if letting go of this secret could be painful or exposing. We, both of us, shed tears and I wipe yours with the edge of my thumb, you watch mine roll down my cheek and hang perilously on the edge of my jaw. I bring you an onion and peel it slowly, I lift the bit to your lips. It is sweeter than you anticipated but still it has a fierceness that borders on passion, and it will cling to your lips long after this moment has faded into memory.
Two nights gone and sleep has come fitfully, and I stir each time I reach across the bed and you aren’t there, and there is only the faintest smell of bleach and cleaning solvent. I want very much to dream of you, to trace your cheek with dream fingers, to taste your lips on mine, to hear the placid rhythm of your breath, but there is only a stack of unused pillows and the sound of the heater battling to life. I dream of you by day, by night your absence pulls me from the precipice of deep sleep and dreams.