A Second Wind

The haiku seems fit for the use I have in mind. A sort of catalogue of moments of presence here in this new place, the Pacific  North West. I have come to this region after many years on the East Coast, where I was closer to Europe than Asia, and yet my last series of poems, written in Portsmouth New Hampshire, was based on ancient Chinese poems and their Zenist orientation. So now I am at the Western end of the continent and exploring it through haiku. American landscapes have always been metaphysical places, starting with the Native Americans, then the Puritans, then the Romantics with their sense of apocalypse. This eschatological sense of place has political aspects, especially with Evangelical Christians. White Nationalists camp in Eastern Oregon.  Oregon is historically the end of the way West. Eschatology and apocalypse mix with rather dramatic rivers and mountains, so I may get a second wind of the energies flowing through the pond songs. The complex psychology of certain schools of Zen seem almost native to the place thanks to Gary Snyder and respond strongly to the disfiguring of the landscape by apocalyptic schemes.  Czeslaw Milosz with his profound engagement in European religious ideas was certainly affected by these facets of the local reality.  Potent stuff.


Between immanence

and divine transcendence this

day of cool bright mist

Looking back and forward: Pond Song 31 August 2013

In the midst of planning a new sequence –drawing on my experiences in Northern California in the 70s and 80s and now in Oregon — I look back at my Pond Songs http://metaxysongs.com  THOSE poems were written every Sunday for a number of years on a walk around South Mill Pond in Portsmouth NH. The texts I was mediating then included Emerson and Thoreau (and Cavell of course); the primary formal invention was rooted in my research in the classical Chinese poem and the philosophical texts relevant thereto, especially the Zhuangzi.  The epigraphs were all taken from William Desmond’s work, usually God and the Between. I think they repay rereading. Now reading Milosz’s The Land of Ulro I understand a little more about the impulse behind the pond songs: a hinterland other to Ulro. He writes: “Ultimately, only a time measured by sacral standards, and not mechanical clock-time, can sanction a belief in the reality of things” (122). The mysterious connection between “sacral standards” and “the reality of things” is always already the point of writing a poem for me, as I look back and look ahead. Rereading Milosz and Levertov has proved very rewarding so far.

Pond Song 3.63

“We distract ourselves with ‘meaning.’” G&B 29

nature’s copia nature’s baroque__still hot air of August

smudge of the morning moon__just enough clarity to lust

after more but nothing doing__the pond offers a few numbers

4 cormorants 2 egrets 1 heron__the count changes of course

driftwood gray satin stalker__did you croak just now

a glint a still wet beak__a cormorant’s under his shadow

this is that no longer holds__a still there dragonfly flows

over the tall dry grasses__three bees roll in one rose

The Cabbage White and the Between


IMG_3876Between earth and sun

O intermediary

moth I rest in you

The erratic zig-zag of the cabbage white moth is hard to follow. Like one’s mind, perhaps, in its daily wanderings. In its worm stage, this particular moth is a pest; as its name suggests, it feasts on cabbage, and also broccoli and Brussels sprouts. But in its winged state, it has left the bad behind, or so the story goes. So as it rests in the heat of a summer afternoon, it seems to connect earth and sun as it is still for a minute if that. The between or “metaxy” is a state of consciousness recognized by Plato and poets everywhere (strange bedfellows, but that’s another story). With clear consciousness/conscience, we may enjoy our short lifespans,  flitting around in the luminous between, conscious of dimensions and directions beyond our kin. So I address the common moth as a fellow traveler in the between. The echo of Augustine’s question about existential rest — until I rest in Thee– should produce that verbal shock that provides the judgment within the judgment, as Hill would say, and also the slight shudder of the haiku twist with its comic or high/low touch. Interesting to me how much cultural work the haiku form is capable of.

Aging Lovers

I had a cancellation today so reviewed some materials ahead of schedule for another client– some Merton and R.S. Thomas. Doing so gave me a rare sense of relief from the demands of my schedule. A relaxation and opening of time. A poem popped:


What makes this moment

a way is the smile between

those aging lovers



A Song in Passing

A sudden coolness

of ambiguous bright clouds

passes overhead


a chill interrupts

my breathing have I been here

too long I mean here


too long the light’s red

I’ve not left the curb I have

time to spare again


in the August sun

at the corner of Ivy

and N. Vancouver



on a hill near home

a hill of burnt grass the salt

wind off the ocean


more home than my house

behind the hill I go there

to begin again


the wind in the pines

my father planted the house

his retreat my point


of departure now

the wind off the Pacific

endows the late hour

Haiku Attention and the Sacred in Everything

As a haiku poet I start with the Chinese poets studied by Basho, Ch’an or Zen poets for whom the discipline of attention was a key part of their poetic. Attention was a process leading the poet to a perception of an impersonal universal condition.

From the Heights

by Li Shang-yin (813-858) translated by Sam Hamill, Crossing the Yellow River: Three Hundred Poems from the Chinese, Tiger Bark Press, 2013.

I drag my heavy heart

up to these dazzling heights,


this beautiful, beautiful sunset!

And then the onrushing night.

This trope of a view from the mountain top was ancient even in the 9th century. It is not cozy, perhaps a little frightening. To base one’s practice of haiku on these models means dispensing with much of the modern “tradition” of haiku.

I find support for this kind of “attention” in the writings of Simone Weil, who called it “an impersonal form of attention.” Such an act of attention is not the province  solely of the intellectual or the mystic; manual or physical labor may give access to it, she argues.

I’m reminded of Basho’s many haiku about tea farmers and fishers and washerwomen — and who cannot think of the essential nobility of many of Degas’s working class subjects?

In her essay “What is Sacred in Every Human Being?” she writes:

Passage into the impersonal only comes about by attention of rare quality, and is only possible in solitude. Not only actual solitude, but moral solitude. It is never accomplished by those who think themselves members of a collective, as part of an ‘us.’ 

(translated by Eric O. Springsted in Simone Weil: Late Philosophical Writings (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015,108)

The language of “impersonality” may offend our democratic sensibility, but it should not. Impersonal attention is not limited to artists, as we’ve noted.  It is at the root of “what is sacred in every human being.”

The solitude Weil speaks of reminds me of Basho’s distinction between solitude and loneliness. To adapt her categories:  Actual solitude is lonely, moral solitude is creative and self-sustaining. Moral solitude embraces one’s fellow human being whoever and wherever they might be; it even embraces the dead in the universal sacred family.

And it may embrace everything that is: say, the mourning dove.

Exploring this word “impersonal” helped me make it among the “key words” in my haiku word bag.

summer distances

the impersonal wording

of the mourning dove





Haiku Poetics: Hyperbole

Hyperbole. From the Greek: Hyper: over; bole, throw. A figure of speech intended to overthrow the mind of the complacent audience?


Surplus energy. I use the lazer toy to give Kitty Ceci a thrill. She chases the red dot down the hall and leaps up the wall to touch it and spins around to return to where we started. Play. “Hyper” kitty.

According to one of my favorite haiku books:  Hyperbole (and oxymoron) is important as haiku figure of speech. Touches the bored reader. Koji Kawamoto: the excessive emphasis through exaggeration or repetition (The Poetics of Japanese Verse 75). He mentions (79) the grammatical marker “mo”– “even”: even on a lengthly spring day, / there is more singing to be done — skylarks.

I studied Kawamoto for many months with a student years ago. It sunk in. Must reading for serious haiku-poets.

Today I quickly wrote:

even the hedge trimmed

within an inch of  its life

erupts in birdsong

The hyperbole is double: “even” and “within an inch of its life.” Is double exaggeration too much? I plead the interest of the idiom: “within an inch of”!

There’s also a cool tune here on the short “i” that I like.

Finally, if haiku is a form suited to disclosing hyperbolic play in ordinary life– as I believe it is — we can think along the lines of William Desmond’s hyperboles of being. In our time of nihilism and activist apocalyptic terror, haiku can help refresh our sense of primal goodness. Perhaps haiku models the agapeic other to acts of terror.

“Think seer as you would sayer”– Geoffrey Hill


As a poetry reviewer in the 1980’s and 90’s I was frequently asked to review books by Geoffrey Hill. Reviewers are not asked to actually read and understand what they review, their task is to write good copy for the column inches reserved by some managing editor. But I also sought out assignments involving Hill, in prose and verse; for me, there was no one more fascinating at large.

At large — indeed. When I finally saw Hill’s very large Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952-2012, words from Basil Bunting on Ezra Pound’s cantos came to mind: Hill’s big book is a mountain of a book and may serve to orient me and so it has. It has many faces, many weathers, several eco-systems, and will never be mastered.

In his Gifford Lectures, Rowan Williams connects freedom and difficulty. “To struggle, to test and reject and revise, is to experience language as a project requiring intelligent discernment, choice and action: language cannot be left to the realm of fixed and predictable responses to the environment. It creates a world, and so entails a constant losing and rediscovering of what is encountered. The connectedness of language to what is not language is a shifting pattern of correlation, not an index-like relation of cause and effect” (The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (Bloomsbury, 2014, p 59-60).

Hill gradually mastered the art of being difficult in poems that have always attracted the epithet “difficult” — so Williams’ argument helps situate his oeuvre in a landscape provided by language itself as understood today. Too often “difficult” had a personal usage, but Hill enjoyed, if that’s the word, being difficult. Style is the man, I suppose.

But there is something essential and indeed “universal” about Hill’s being difficult.

Williams’s words — “a constant losing and rediscovering of what is encountered” — well describes the unfolding of Hill’s lifework as well as many of his poems. To submit oneself to the dialectical contraries and the turbulent eddyings of Hill’s poetry is paradoxically one of the chief pleasures of our time. As a young man I would sometimes bodysurf in the Pacific off the Southern California coast: the disorienting tumbling I took and the momentary achievements of lucidity and bodily ecstasy is something I cherish and will continue to expose myself to by reading Hill as this most unremarkable death sinks in, which it will never ever do.

Think seer as you would sayer. Even

thinking at all earns points; but if this

is the home-straight, where is my fixed home?

City of God unlikely. Then in medias 

res, interactive with inertia? Or

something fazed mentors call the lyric cry?

You can cross frontiers in suspended

animation, homing onto the inner voice.

Lyric cry lyric cry lyric cry, I’ll

give them lyric cry!

Whose is the voice, faint, injured, and ghostly,

trapped in this cell phone, if it is not mine?

Some voices ride easily the current. Some

lives get away with murder any road.

How slowly — without discord — all hurls to oblivion. 

–The Orchards of Syon XXX

%d bloggers like this: