While alive, be a dead person, thoroughly dead.
Then do what you will, all will be well.
–Shido Bunan (1603-1676)
Dead to the world, my mother used to say,
Seeing my shoulders droop, my torso sag,
My gait diminish to a listless stumble.
Dead to the world I was, if what was meant
Was nothing more than visible fatigue,
The weathered fruit of worry and exertion.
What cared I for blooming lilac trees
Or children playing in a fragrant park?
Dead to the world I was, and little wonder.
How startling, then, to come upon an ancient
Admonition urging us to die
While still alive, as though it were a virtue
To meet the world without covert resistance
Or clamorous desire. And now what joy
To notice without prejudice or comment,
This newly fallen snow on sills and railings,
As though it were the office of a dead man
To silence thought and see things as they are.
(Shenandoah, Winter 2010)
ONE TIME, ONE MEETING
Picking up the phone to call my son,
I entertain the thought that every act,
No matter how familiar or banal,
Might be construed as unrepeatable
And all of life as ceremonial.
What could be less formal than the feel
Of yet another handset in the hand
Or, beneath my fingertips, the cool
Resistance to the punching-in of numbers?
And what could be more normal than hello,
Spoken by a voice I couldn’t fail
To recognize, despite the poor connection,
The fading in and out across the miles?
And yet to entertain that counter-thought,
To see each action and its consequence
As marvelous and not to be repeated,
Suffices to enlarge this conversation
Beyond the casual or circumstantial,
The morning’s headlines and the evening’s news,
As though just now the truth of things had spoken.
(from Leaf, Sunlight, Asphalt)
Today I write from Meg’s Uptown Café
On Castle Street, where someone’s scarred guitar
Keeps company with someone’s violin,
The two of them suspended from their pegs
On plaster that could use a coat of paint.
Who built those instruments and who performed
Sonatas and partitas, gigues and fugues,
Or, more likely, reels and Kerry slides,
Are matters for a morning’s contemplation.
Even as I sip my bitter tea
And make the best of under-scrambled eggs,
I’m thinking of an air by Paganini,
In which the pure, impassioned violin
Ascends above the chords of the guitar
And occupies an atmosphere of longing
But in the end, as if to gratify
The need of all things light to live on earth,
Comes down in one reverberant cadenza.
It’s raining now, as often in Tralee.
And as those anxious walkers on the pavement
Bow their heads to meet the brutal weather,
I’m hearing yet again that high cadenza
As though it were a trace in these environs,
A relic no more visible than want
Or memory, desire or speculation,
But nonetheless as present as the stench
Of cigarettes, those odors from the kitchen,
These bits of bacon cooling on my plate.
(from Dark Pool)