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Beginner's Heart

Beginner's Heart

what poetry gives us

courtesy Google

courtesy Google

Today’s poem is actually a three-fer. I’ve been writing to prompts from NaPoWriMo, one of the national sites for National Poetry Writing Month. The poem today is written from yesterday’s prompt, which asked writers to do a riff on a poem (Black Stone Lying On A White Stone) by César Vallejo. To show those writers who might wonder how the heck you write from/ to another’s poem, NaPoWriMo offered a 2nd poem by Stephen Burt (A Nickel on Top of a Penny).

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All of this is by way of remarking: poetry is another kind of web. Like Buddhism (you KNEW I was going to say that), like life. If all that I’ve learned from reading & writing poetry could be measured and sold? I’d be so rich! Oh wait ~ that’s the whole point of poetry…

Seriously? To look so closely at anything — poetry, a bee, the surface of a cup of hot tea — is to learn. Just seeing the moment clearly is, as all meditation teaches (in any faith tradition) a form of reverence for life.

So here is my poem today, a tribute to both poets, as well as my own childhood, and the differences that were obvious very early.

Lam Son Park, Saigon in 1960s, with Saigon Opera House in background Courtesy Google

Lam Son Park, Saigon in 1960s, with Saigon Opera House in background
Courtesy Google

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Dust On a Tropical Breeze

after César Vallejo

 

Old Saigon will claim me

after I fold my wings, after decades of flight.

Probably on Monday moonday, Lundi, at the grande marché

I will collapse in feathery dust beside the leper at the gate.

 

I knew this even as a child, watching the leper’s outstretched hands

knew I was already half-erased, only a dusty ghost

like the hungry bụi đời[1] who float upon the wind.

I am half Saigon still.

 

‘She is gone,’ they will murmur, in breathy whispers.

My words will unravel like the silk of cocoons

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and they will weave a sieve to catch the wind.

 

‘We didn’t mean to hurt her,’ they will say.

‘Who knew she would fall to dust?

She seemed so much more solid…’


[1] The Vietnamese term bụi đời means”dust of life”; it has come to refer to refugees vagrants, as well as Amerasian children left behind after the Việt Nam war.

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in praise of short poems

haiga by Buson

courtesy Wikipedia

I grew up on haiku. It’s popular in school classrooms now — fast, and relatively easy to teach — but I don’t remember there being a lot of my friends who learned it as children.

My familiarity with it — and subsequent fondness for it — may be due to my father, an inveterate reader and lover of poetry. I inherited his collection of Kipling, Shakespeare (one of my earliest books was a child’s Shakespeare that my father gave me), and other poets.

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Then, when I began to study poetry, haiku seemed so (deceptively) easy. Seventeen syllables, 5-7-5, how hard is that?

VERY hard. haiga IssaTo create an evocative image — bridge the gap between writer & reader — in SEVENTEEN SYLLABLES??

Actually, I adore short poems — haiku, tanka, limericks, and recently the lune. The lune is an attempt to make English conform more nearly to the spirit of haiku. It’s a 3-5-3 setup, and also very hard.

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Today’s poem is really multi-cultural. It’s a lune — my own — in the haiga tradition. Haiga are drawings (usually by the haiku author) accompanying a haiku. But that makes them seem more independent of each other than they are. Think of graphic novels, how the text & illustration are inseparable. That’s more the way of haiga, I suspect.

They’re a wonderful reminder (for me) of how Buddhism often works in the arts. One not more important than the other; each enhancing the other. And the idea of essence: that you can somehow see/ touch the heart of an object/ feeling with these few words…

My attempt is a contemporary riff: a lune w/ a photo. Let me know what you think.

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photo the author's

photo the author’s

lune for Pascal  ~

the dog barks

hungry for my hands

heart hungry

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beginner’s heart haiku

haiku road

courtesy Google

Haiku is the archetypal Buddhist poetry, at least to most Americans. And certainly the compressed form, the emphasis on experience and now, are very much in keeping with Buddhism. As are many of the early practitioners: Buson, Issa, Bashō.

So I thought today it would be good to visit with at least one of the masters. Take a short trip down Haiku Road, as it were (I couldn’t resist).

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Here’s one of my very favourites, by Issa. It says ‘contemporary Buddhist’ better than anything since his time, the 18th century.

Issa

Issa’s portrait, Muramatsu Shunpo

   All the time I pray to Buddha

I keep on 

   killing mosquitoes.

The conflict between what I know about Buddhism — do no harm, cherish all life — and everyday life is nowhere clearer. And that, to me, is the best part of poetry: it reminds you what you already know.

Which is a premise at the heart of Buddhism: you already are a Buddha. You just have to remember…

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quilt pieces and a poem for beginner’s heart

poet stamps

courtesy US Postal Service

It wasn’t that long ago that I realised how many of the poets I love best are Buddhist. They don’t make a big deal about it (most Buddhists don’t — I’m kind of an anomaly, blogging from a Buddhist/ Unitarian/ poetic platform), but it influences them in ways that resonate deeply. At least with me. :)

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One of my favourites — and many other people’s, as well — is the poet Mary Oliver. Her profound respect for (and deep insight into) the natural world comfort, heal, and most of all, remind me that everything changes/ passes/ dies. Life — and time to appreciate it — are finite.

This poem — her poem “The Summer Day” — carries within it my mantra: what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life? There is no better, more beginner’s heart, line in poetry, in my none-too-humble (but amply educated!) opinion.

quilt fat quarters

courtesy Google

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Our lives are ours to craft, no matter our circumstances. My grandmother, an old-time Baptist with strongly progressive leanings, used to try to reconcile free will and ‘what the Good Lord gives us.’ It came out a bit like this: you get a pile of quilt pieces (quilting’s big in my family — we love textiles!) that are the pieces of your life ahead. Some folks make beautiful, richly structured double wedding ring quilts, and linear log cabin quilts. And a few do the meandering drunkard’s path, while others haphazardly make sloppy crazy quilts. And some end up as they started: with pieces.

I love that metaphor. I’ve known it as long as I can remember, Grandma’s voice repeating it, and Aunt Bonnie nodding in agreement. I was probably sitting on the bed in Grandma’s bedroom, the one Uncle Charlie made from the old sleeping porch, watching Grandma sew on her treadle. Probably Aunt Bonnie was on the way outside to work in the yard or garden (the ‘yard’ had flowers; the ‘garden’ all edibles :) ). Two old widow women with blue hair, making do with very limited income.

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double wedding ring quilt

courtesy Google

But their quilts? Far more beautiful than velvet, silk, or lace — intricately pieced from endurance and strength and creativity and generousity. Stitched with love and artistry, and filled with the feather-soft memories of the lives that came before and after.

Their  lives still serve me as patterns, as I work to fit together the pieces of my life. Trying to figure out the pieces of a beginner’s heart, and what I will do with my own ‘wild and precious life.’

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Here’s Oliver’s poem “That Summer Day”:

That Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

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