Volume 5, #11 January 31, 2001 POLITICS WITH BITE! CONTACT HELP previous BACK ISSUES next

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 ceaseless ocean.

Sun splits the sea in two-- 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.

Sand-smeared, bathing in dreams, 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 independent bookseller.

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