In 2015, I sat down with a library copy of The Roaring Stream, an anthology of Chan/Zen writings from China and Japan, and began scribbling short poems in response to the ancient Buddhist masters. Key word, response. As in call-and-response, as in singing. The idea wasn’t to explicate texts that for centuries have challenged readers around the globe, or even to clearly understand the meaning of my own lines. Really, there was just this sudden urge, this spontaneous desire to put my language into dialogue with the timeless language of the old ones, zero strings attached.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger, riffing on the poet Friedrich Holderlin, once summed the situation up like this: “We are a conversation.” All these years later, I’m still scribbling back-of-the-bookmark poems, off-the-cuff poems, call-and-response poems. Everything has changed and yet, somehow, nothing whatsoever has changed. The library’s cluttered shelves continue to keep me busy. The wise voices from long ago and far away continue to excite and inspire my humble little voice. Something durable — something fundamental — is at work here. And at play, too!

Tricycle—online and in the magazine—has run batches of my poems in the past, and now, in honor of National Poetry Month, you can find a new collection below. (The title of each poem is the name of the Buddhist sage to whom I’m responding.) Of course, for some of us, every month deserves the title, not merely April. Ask Hui-neng, Basho, and hundreds of others from the Chan/Zen literary tradition—I suspect they’ll tell you the same. 

Hui-neng (638-713)

Separate yourself from views.

Meaning stand apart from your own thoughts.
Meaning stand up as a part of some older thought.

Granite ridges,
twisty little pines.

The earth is thinking.

Meaning stand at the edge
of this cliff and take in, 

become, 

the big view.

Lin-chi (d. 867?)

Become the host
you already are
on the spot
where you stand.

Become the house,
the hearth,
the chair,
the cup of tea.

Welcome the stranger
with the mean face
who looks like nothing
so much as flames.

You know this guest.
Where have we met before?

Never mind.
Please come in.
Rest your weary legs.

Basho (1644-1694)

Dying, he writes no deathbed poem.
Every poem since age forty, he says,
was that hello-goodbye.

The woodpecker,
the muddy road,
the pissing horse,
the pine.

Rice-planting songs,
imperial dreams,
prostitute and priest.

Perfect inutility, he says,
utterly useless.

An old pond jumps
into an old pond.

Sound

of rattling breath.

Takuan (1573-1645) 

The lake frozen,
bathing becomes difficult.

One might otter about, 
sliding on belly and back, 
but the hard surface 
hardly cleans hair, hands,
buttocks, toes. 

With rock or knife 
one might chip ice 
from the shoreline, 
melt clear shards 
over fireplace or in mouth, 
but this is laborious and slow.

Best way to go, perhaps, 
is wait for spring, 
the inevitable melting, 
the sure thing 
we call bottom falling out
and fish call return of sky.

Read more poems in this series:

What’s There to Do?
Ten Minutes Alone in Thickets
Waking from a Crazy Dream
Sleeping in an Old Friend’s Room

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