(from Traffic and Murder)
I think I was three years old
when my mother punched me in the face
so hard I rolled across the floor
and under a chair, and knocked
the chair over.
I don’t know
if that was the first time
she did it, or only
the first time
my memory held on to it.
She hated me, always.
She told me with her words,
her fists and her feet.
She was fat,
had a mouth full of brown teeth
and she smelled of piss,
sweat and cigarettes.
She has been dead for years,
turned to ashes
and given to the wind.
A wind blows this afternoon,
and it smells of grass and rain.
I make an offering of incense,
and I bow to her memory.
The dead outside my window
dance in the breeze. The web
that enshrouds them catches
the sunlight. The spider is small,
thick and brown. I look at it
from the other side of the glass,
my own web, my kitchen, where
a fresh kill roasts in the oven.
Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?
Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?
So many particulars.
So many questions.
the hours of contemplation -
thoughts, exhausted, fall
to the floor of the mind
When asked to recommend “Zen books,” my friend Deb Saint Sensei says, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or any other D.H. Lawrence book.”
I agree with her. I think people in the West have a tendency to get confused between Zen and an Asian fetish, and so to overlook the rich Zen tradition in Western literature. Here are a few other great Zen books:
Hombre by Elmore Leonard
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Savage Night by Jim Thompson
Cast in Doubt by Lynne Tillman
Dalva by Jim Harrison
The Gifts of the Body by Rebecca Brown
Drive and Driven, by James Sallis
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Fish, Soap and Bonds by Larry Fondation
Blues for Cannibals by Charles Bowden
The Burglar by David Goodis
I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond
Love and Rockets by the Hernandez brothers
Three to Kill by Jean-Patrick Manchette
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins
Also, the poetry of Burns (who wrote in both Scots and English), Stevenson, Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, Philip Levine, Czeslaw Milosz, Norman MacCaig, Wendell Berry and James Tate.
I had to interrupt the novel I was working on to write one that came up and pushed it aside, demanding to be written. I’m deep into it now, and it should be finished in a few weeks. It contains this poem, written in the 18th Century by an Irish monk whose name is long forgotten:
I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.
Better far than praise of men
‘Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.
‘Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.
Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur’s way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.
‘Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
‘Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.
When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!
So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.
Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.
A friend asked me:
what should i read by TS Eliot? I’ve read ‘J Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘the Wasteland’ but sort of unimpressed by their… i don’t know, obtuseness?
but i think the reason i never really read him was Ezra Pound liked him, kind of dumb.
anyway, try not to say, “everything.” where should i start?
Start with the poems “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” “Sweeney Erect” and “The Hippopotamus.” The language is amazing, and the poems are funny as hell. Then read the section of The Four Quartets called “East Coker,” which is an antidote to the abstract posturing of The Waste Land.A book of Eliot’s that I somehow overlooked until receiving it as a present this Christmas just past is his early collection of essays The Sacred Wood, in which he declares Hamlet “an artistic failure,” and Matthew Arnold “rather a propagandist for criticism than a critic.” Agree with him, disagree with him, or think he’s hanging off the edge of sanity, it’s an exhilarating read.
“Ash Wednesday” and “Preludes” are great poems too.
I love to speak with Leonard.
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd.
He’s a lazy bastard
living in a suit.
Show me the place where you want your slave to go.
Show me the place I’ve forgotten I don’t know.
Show me the place where my head is bent and low.
Show me the place where you want your slave to go.
Show me the place. Help me roll away the stone.
Show me the place. I can’t move this thing alone.
Show me the place where the word became a man.
Show me the place where the suffering began.
To study the way of enlightenment is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.