LATTE

At the coffee shop they chatter as if in some foreign tongue, conversations overlaid one on another on another, until all I can strain are snippets of words, stray syllables. This is true everywhere I have visited, and it promises good coffee, for I have found that when I can easily eavesdrop on others at nearby tables, it is because the espresso maker has gone silent too long, there are few present, and I will regret the coffee shortly after drinking it.

ECHU EXPELS A DISCIPLE 鐵笛倒吹 語十三

If you come upon Echu napping
do not disturb him
but retreat to the zendo
or walk in the small garden
where enlightenment may be found.

If the search is successful
leave quickly, tell no one,
for it is very fragile
and the tongue
is sharper than the sword
and infinitely more deadly.


A reflection on case 53 of the Iron Flute Koans

KAFKA

June 13, 1896, Prague
a warm day, old stone schul
you stood before the minyon
wearing the skullcap
repeating ancient words
that lay on paper, rehearsed
sounding false on a tongue
swollen in anxiety.
Your tallit, white
woven with blue threads
hung at your knees
fringe fingered, rolled
and unrolled, twisted
until touched to skin
words inscribed, etched
into collective memory.
Seventeen years later
sitting with Buber
did words come back
and stick on your tongue
and later still
when you studied
under Bentovim, did words
take form, shape, dredging
up a past kept suppressed
walking in desert heat
knowing salvation was
down a hill, entry forbidden.
Lying in your bed
in Hoffman’s Sanitorium,
the trees of Kierling blooming
did you recite Kaddish
as endless night engulfed you.


First published in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008) and reprinted in Legal Studies Forum Vol. 32, No. 1 (2008)

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A COMMON TONGUE

It has been said, wisely,
that all children speak
a common language,
regardless of what adults
believe they are hearing.

The proof of that proposition
is simple enough, pause
and watch a parent make
demands of a child
in the presence
of other children, see
the reluctant child glance
at his foreign peers and gain
silent and instant affirmation
of adult unreasonableness.

When do we cease
being able to communicate
without words, in that
language of childhood
that is at once universal
and capable of silence.


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LE CINÉMA

Watching French movies
you know why Hollywood
seems less real than
the giant letters stuck
like pushpins into a hillside.
Even in translation
laughter remains universal
but you begin to think
in word pictures that have
utterly no meaning
le neige gris
la belle chat
la lumiere fantastique
and you imagine
dreaming in a tongue
you have never spoken.

SEARCH

forty-three years
I’ve searched
for my voice
a whisper
cracked
hoarse
one moment
fluid
another
then
silent.
I shape
words
which fall
off my tongue
and lie
in puddles
on the floor.
I step
in them
slipping
regaining
perilous toehold.
I scream
strangled thoughts
dreams are
forgotten
the night
laughs, she
touches my forehead
with her lips
I welcome
the silence
of sleep.


First appeared in RE:AL The Journal of Liberal Arts 23:2, 1998

A Mistake in Speaking 無門關 三十九

When you speak the words
of the Buddha you are lost.
Light is everywhere in silence
but the tongue must hide
in the dark of the mouth.

Buddha’s words are flowers
unfolding in the dawn
by the side of the still pond,
the eyes hear the song
and respond in silent chorus.


A reflection on Case 39 of the Mumonkan (the Gateless Gate Koans)

ALMOST PASSOVER

It is almost Pesach, early this year
so I will get a birthday cake
not the rubbery sponge cake
of matzoh meal, eggs and
ginger ale, covered in fruit.
We are peeling the applies
and chopping them for
the charoset for the communal seder
most to be thrown away
along with the paper plates
and chicken bones, and shards
of matzoh, dry as the winds
of the desert, the memory
we drag out each year
as the last snow fades slowly
from the streets and trees.
My friend enters the church
as he does each holy week
and stops at each station
of the cross, imagining
what it must have been like
to carry the great cross up
the hill, knowing that atop
the centurions stood with spikes
in hand waiting to pierce his wrists
and ankles, ready to watch him
droop against the wood as
the heat licked between his toes.
I imagine what it was like
pushing the stones up the ramp
the taste of sand and the whip
burning my tongue.
In ten days we can again
eat sweet and sour pork
and shrimp in lobster sauce
and wait another year
for the bits of horseradish,
and he will imagine the fires
of hell as he slips the five
into the waistband of her G-string.


First Appeared in Kimera, Vol. 3, No.2, Winter, 1998. Reprinted in Legal Studies Forum, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2005

DAIJI’S INNER CULTURE

Eyes can look within
and discover a boundless universe
but the tongue alone
can speak only sounds
that go false
as they dance away unseen.

The silence of zazen
speaks the dharma,
the teisho is offered mutely.

The space between
eye and tongue
is but three inches
or an unbridgeable void.


A reflection on Case 15 of the Iron Flute Koans.