Browsing Category "Poems"
10 May
Posted in: Poems
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Banging Away

No Things
by Billy Collins

This love for everyday things,
part natural from the wide eye of infancy,
part a literary calculation,

this attention to the morning flower
and later to a fly strolling
along the rim of a wineglass–

are we just avoiding our one true destiny
when we do that, averting our glance
from Philip Larkin who waits for us in an undertaker’s coat?

The leafless branches against the sky
will not save anyone from the void ahead,
nor will the sugar bowl or the sugar spoon on the table.

So why bother with the checkered lighthouse?
Why waste time on the sparrow,
or the wildflowers along the roadside

when we all should be alone in our rooms
throwing ourselves at the wall of life
and the opposite wall of death,

the door locked behind us
as we hurl rocks at the question of meaning
and the enigma of our origins?

What good is the firefly,
the droplet running along the green leaf,
or even the bar of soap sliding around the bathtub

when we are really meant to be
banging away on the mystery
as hard as we can and to hell with the neighbors?

banging away on nothingness itself,
some with their foreheads,
others with the maul of sense, the raised jawbone of poetry.


And some, I would add, with their hands in their laps, attending to their breath.

2 May
Posted in: Books, Poems
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Soon Enough

One of the benefits of having to lie flat on my back for most of the day, which is my tried-and-true method for relieving my back (along with stretching exercises and anti-inflammatory meds), is that I can listen to lots of different kinds of on-line dharma, including this Tricycle podcast of an interview with Andrew Ostaseski about his new book, The Five Invitations: What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, in which he recites (by heart) this end-of-life poem written by one of his hospice patients, Suno:

Don’t just stand there with your hair turning gray.
Soon enough the seas will sink your little island,
So while there is still the illusion of time,
Set out for some other shore.
No sense packing a bag.
You won’t be able to lift it into your boat.
So give away all of your collections.
Take only new seeds and an old stick.
Send out some prayers on the wind before you sail.
Don’t be afraid,
Someone knows you are coming.
An extra fish has been salted. 

19 Apr
Posted in: Poems
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How to Stand

So OK, now I’m back from the 2-month retreat, getting ready to go off again to graduate from the CDL program, and meanwhile part of my front porch needs rebuilding because it got knocked over when the new steps were being put in (the cost of which will be almost half the cost of the new steps) and my 90-year-old father (who has always had a very hard time taking in what was being said to him, even back when he didn’t need a hearing aid) is insisting that I not go with him to the doctor (even though the last time he didn’t understand what she’d said to him about getting a CAT scan) and beyond that, the new administration is dropping giant bombs on Syria and pretending to send warships to the Korean Peninsula, plus I’m still having trouble getting in and out of my car because my left knee absolutely will not bend the way it used to. Etc. Etc.

So what is there to do, but to learn how to stand in the middle of it.

by Mark Nepo

The Mystery needs
authentic souls to bear
witness to it, the way
matter needs atoms to
hold it together, the way
blood needs cells to keep
it alive. So I no longer ask
why but how. Not the
mechanical how. But how
to stand on nothing like
an atom in the center
that is everywhere.

12 Apr
Posted in: Poems, Retreats, Talks
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Live in the Layers

Another one of the talks from the retreat that I’ve been re-listening to (and will probably listen to again and again) is this one by Phillip Moffitt, mostly dealing with the topic of “not-self” (anatta), which as Phillip says, is one of those understandings that are non-conceptual, that have to come to us through direct experience, that for a long time just don’t make any sense because it’s something “we just don’t know — until we do.”

So it’s one of the teachings that we have to talk about by talking around. Which is where poetry comes in. Here’s the poem Phillip quotes, by Poet Laureate Stantley Kunitz, who wrote it when he was 89:

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angles
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to it’s feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In the darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes. 

5 Apr
Posted in: Poems, Retreats
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What I Learned on Retreat

People want to know what I learned on retreat. I want to tell them, but it’s hard. How do I say it — that I learned there is love in the world….that the world IS love….without sounding sappy? Or sentimental? Or just plain stupid?

I can’t.

So I turn to the poets.

Aimless Love
by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval  battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door–
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor–
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But the heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone. 

26 Jan
Posted in: Poems
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Now That The Walls

For today, this poem by Mark Nepo:

Now That I Feel

how little time there is, I’m
falling in love with everything:
the stranger whose name I’ll
never know, and the crow
pecking at the half bagel
she left for him.

Now that the walls I didn’t
know were walls have come

down, I want to care for
everything. And the sun
warming in all directions
without preference is
showing me how.

Today my heart aches,
not because something is
lacking, but because the love
I’ve carried all along is bursting
through all the gates of choice.

24 Jan
Posted in: Poems
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Given the Illusion

I leave early Saturday morning for my 2-month retreat. I haven’t started the actual packing just yet (first I have to wash everything I own — in case I decide, at the last minute, there’s something I hadn’t thought of that now I can’t live without), but I’m definitely in departure mode.

So for today, I offer:

American Airlines #371
by Billy Collins

Pardon my benevolence,
but given the illusion that my fellow passengers and I
are now on our way to glory,
rising over this kingdom of clouds
(airy citadels! unnamable goings-on within!)
and at well over 500 miles per hour,
which would get you to work in under one second,

I wish to forgive the man next to me
who so annoyed me before the wine started arriving
by turning each page of his newspaper
with a kind of crisp, military snap,
and the same goes for that howling infant,
and for the child in the row begin me
who persisted in hitting that F above high C
that all of her kind know perfectly how to hit
while rhythmically kicking the back of my seat.

Yes, I have softened and been rendered
even grateful by the ministrations of Eva,
uniformed wine bearer in the sky,
and if we are not exactly being conveyed to Paradise,
at least we are vectoring across the continent
to Los Angeles–orange tree in the backyard,
girl on a motorcycle roaring down Venice Boulevard.

And eventually we will begin our final descent
(final descent! I want to shout to Eva)
into the city of a million angels,
where the world might terminate or begin afresh again,
which is how I tend to feel almost every day–

life’s end just around another corner or two,
yet out of the morning window
the thrust of a new blossom from that bush
whose colorful name I can never remember.

18 Jan
Posted in: Poems
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And This Was Called History

(Note: I wasn’t able to post yesterday because I was overcome by a particularly noxious bout of food poisoning. Ah, but now that has passed. Sometimes impermanence is your friend!)

For today, I offer:

The Future
by Billy Collins

When I finally arrive there–
and it will take many days and nights–
I would like to believe others will be waiting
and might even want to know how it was.

So I will reminisce about a particular sky
or a woman in a white bathrobe
or the time I visited a narrow strait
where a famous naval battle had taken place.

Then I will spread out on a table
a large map of my world
and explain to the people of the future
in their pale garments what it was like–

how mountains rose between the valleys
and this was called geography,
how boats loaded with cargo plied the rivers
and this was known as commerce,

how the people from this pink area
crossed over into this light-green area
and set fires and killed whoever they found
and this was called history–

and they will listen, mild-eyed and silent,
as  more of them arrive to join the circle,
like ripples moving toward,
not away from, a stone tossed into a pond.

16 Jan
Posted in: Poems
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Seek an End to Bondage

In honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — the man and the day — I offer this poem from Appalachian Elegy, by bell hooks:


stained black
Kentucky oak
plank fences
mark boundaries
ghost riders
where the dead live
on the edge of time
slaves worked here
long ago
caressing horse flesh

breathing shared dreams
cared for them
when witnessing
the breaking of yet
another animal spirit
born to be wild and free
a bond forged
whisper to forgotten souls
run run
go as fast as you can
run run
seek an end to bondage


(image: casket of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during funeral procession in King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia)

6 Jan
Posted in: Poems
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Put Out A Sign

An Open Hand
by Mark Nepo

The mind is not a storeroom
with mirrors where we retreat
to convince ourselves
that we exist.

The mind is a livingroom with
windows and more than one chair,
so friends can come and look out
and discuss what they see.

Not a fortress where we frisk and
strip others of what they believe
in order to share our secrets.

More a porch with birdfeeders
and coffee or tea where before
hello, you have to share a story.

Pull the curtains! Open the
windows! Brew the coffee!
Put out a sign: Other Views