Zen Poems for Humanity and Against Spiritual Neoliberalism
by Troy Skeels
They tell me that ETS! doesn't publish poetry. "Under no circumstances"
said Maria once, not exactly breathing fire, but you could almost see her
neck turning blue beneath the necklace of skulls.
Well, I'm going to try it, sort of, under the guise of a book review. This
transparent ruse goes under the cover of Triumph of the Sparrow, Zen
Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi, recently reprinted by Grove Press.
What does Zen poetry have to do with eating the state, you might wonder?
Burning Oneself to Death
That was the best moment of the monk's life.
Firm on a pile of firewood
With nothing more to say, hear, see,
Smoke wrapped him, his folded hands blazed...
Suddenly a whirling mushroom cloud rose
Before his singed eyes, and he was a mass
Of flame. Globes, one after another, rolled out.
The delighted sparrows flew around like fire balls.
Takahashi, an acclaimed Zen Master and poet, began his literary career as a
Dadaist, one of the first in Japan. At age 22, in 1923, he published
Poems of Dadaist Takahashi, to some acclaim.
Strangely, he was always getting into trouble, with the authorities, with
his own life. A series of encounters with the Zen master Shizan Ashikaga of
Shogenji Temple, shattered Takahashi's world and brought him to Zen
training, and a series of satoris.
I'd catch, skewer, broil you,
but my every shot misses: you're impossible.
All at once, there's the sound
Of breaking glass, and houses begin
To crumple. Rising quickly
An atomic submarine nudges past your belly.
Given his Dadaist preference for situation, combined with the free and easy
anarchism of Zen artistry, Takahashi never strays into lofty metaphysics.
The hard boot of reality is always one kick behind. He never loses sight of
the everyday world, nor of what is beyond. This is not the Zen Poetry of
calendars and cheesy inspirational booklets.
Feet pulled in, sparrow dead
under a pall of snow...
Wood's so quiet. I cover my ears--
how slowly the universe crumbles.
In the eternal battle against dehumanization, the ongoing decay,
Takahashi's poems are like a tonic, a strong jolt of, not black humor, but
blindingly incandescent humor, cutting insight, cleaving through the root
of our predicament. Corporate reality got you down? Just an ebb tide in a
Sun splits the sea
one half's already bottled...
Legs spread on the beach,
a woman feels the crab of memory
crawl up her thigh.
Somewhere her lover drowns.
the young leap against each other.
As the American poet Robert Bly once said, Takahashi writes "the poetry of
the future." Not the stylistic future perhaps, but the future that happens
every day, when a child sees some old thing for the first time.
He glanced back and saw a ship
Moving towards the past. In one hand
He gripped the sail of eternity,
And stuffed the universe into his eyes.
Triumph of the Sparrow; Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi, translated
by Lucien Stryk, Grove Press, $13.00, is available from your favorite