WASHING OUT

I wrote down the biggest
mistakes I made in life
on the backs of newly fallen
maple leaves, and carried them,
a fair number, to the river.

I cast them onto the water,
some quickly swept up,
a few lingering on a fallen
tree partially damming
the flow, waiting for this.

Most disappeared as
the water approached
the falls, cascaded over
on its way to the waiting lake
and then to a place unknown.

This was an act of catharsis,
for the maple, if not for me,
a freedom, not to bear
the burden of impending winter,
frozen still with regrets.

RENTAL

The mountain reaches
up grasping clouds.
The river no longer runs
red down its flanks
now traversed
by a black ribbon
twisting upward.
The Hertz rental
has a warning
taped on the glove box
driving above 5,000 feet
is prohibited, and
at the driver’s risk.
The Minolta sits
in the trunk
as I deny
the siren’s call.

FirstAppeared in Raconteur, Issue 3, January 1996.

SEOUL

The Han river, gray to green
hinting at mud, but roiled
this day, is a keloid scar
across the torso of Seoul,
its suture bridges struggling
to hold the halves together.

Soon it will be dark, the Han
then a no-man’s land, separating
the two Seouls, each certain
it is its own whole, neither
looking north to an always
foreboding step-sibling.

CHŌSHA’S RETURNING TO MOUNTAINS

When you see a mountain
why must you climb it
with your eyes.
When you hear
a mighty river why
must you ford it
with your ears,
when you feel the earth
why must you touch
it with your feet?
Are you
not the mountain
does the river run
through you, as you
run through it, are
you not the earth?

A reflection on Case 16 of the Shobogenzo (Dogen’s True Dharma Eye) koans.

BUCKET LIST

Crossing the Rubicon,
or any other European River
for that matter.

Skiing the backcountry
or Black Diamond at Taos Mountain
or Aspen or Vail.

Hiking to the basecamp
of Everest, or walking some portion
or all of the Appalachian Trail.

Standing shoulder to shoulder
with hundreds of others
at the jazz festival.

Hugging my sons or
kissing my grandchildren
on their birthdays.

Forgetting all that we have
lost and that we have
so far survived this damned pandemic.

NEVER TWICE

Buddhism teaches that you can never step into the same river twice. I have not stepped in a river since I was eleven. That day I stepped, my foot found a momentary purchase on a mossy rock. The outcome was predictable. I slipped, cut my thighs, broke my tibia, bruised my elbow. I did heal, but ever so slowly, and the cast on my leg did get me sympathy. Despite those upsides, I have looked askance at rivers ever since. Ponds are no problem, and I go into my favorite one with regularity. So I will have to take the Buddhist teachers on faith, for if you don’t step in a river the first time, there’s no chance of a repeat performance.

DUST AND ASHES

Between Scylla and Charybdis
they cower amidst the ruins
fearful to look skyward
lest they encourage
the rains of hell.

Now and then they visit
the corpses, hastily buried
grief drowned by the sound
of the laugh of the gunner
peering down from the hills.
It is always night for the soul
and lookout must be kept
for Charon, who rides
silently along the rivers of blood,
that flow through her streets.

In the great halls,
far removed from the horror,
self-professed wise men
exchange maps
lines randomly drawn,
scythes slicing a people.
They trade in lives as chattel,
reaping a bitter harvest,
praying there may only be
but seven lean years.

They offer a sop to Cerberus,
three villages straddling the river,
but the army of the hills
knows they will take that and more
and waits patiently for the winter
when the odor of sanctity
no longer arises out of the city
to assail their nostrils
and Shadrach is
no more than a ghost.

First Appeared in Living Poets (UK), Vol. 2, No. 1, 2000.

STEPPING

I know I should find a river
and just sit on its banks
and stare at the water flowing

I don’t have to step in it once
to know I couldn’t step in twice
if I wanted, so that problem’s solved.

And with dry feet, I can walk
along its banks with a bit more
jaunt in my step, which should

please the river, for I know that
it has long been watching me
as I frequently visit, and I would

like to think we are old friends,
at least that is what the lake
said during my last visit there.

BLUES

He is for it or he is
against it, and if you could
predict the vacillations you
could develop the means
of measuring the flux of sanity.

You could as easily grasp
the water flowing downriver
and by asking select questions
determine the next heavy rain,

but the odds are good
you will be outside when
the deluge begins, and
only its ultimate weight
and duration remain to be felt.

It all comes down to the same
thing, if you could paint the sky
blue, precisely which shade
of blue would you use and why
that one for heaven’s sake

THIRST

A man stands on the peak of a hill,
staring down into the valley below him,
but it is not clear what he is staring at.

Standing in the valley, by the bank
of a slowly flowing river, I stare
up the tall hill to its peak, and see

the clouds gather around the man
as if soon to swallow him, and I wonder
what it is like to be eaten by a cloud.

The river flows slowly by, ignoring
the hill, with the man standing atop
its peak, ignoring me standing

on its bank, and ignoring the man
atop the ignored hill, staring at
the clouds, awaiting a hearty meal.