Thursday, April 23, 2009

the cruelest month review series #10

yesterday on the way home from work i made a quick stop at a local indie bookstore, time-tested books, which is open fairly late and recently moved to more spacious digs. i was in a hurry so i didn't have time to fully browse. i had stopped to glance at their poetry section and find a pulp novel by horror novelist richard laymon. didn't find the laymon but i did leave with a collection of poems and a volume of reviews of splatter movies.

it's been a long while since i stretched out and read a book of poems from beginning to end. i was exhausted last night, the previous night i'd managed only two hours of sleep, and after watching a scooby-doo film -- i'm trying to figure out how to include the mystery inc. gang in my poems because i'm watching so many of their movies -- with nicholas, i stretched out with my new collection of poetry and read it all before my eyes shut and i blissed out for the night.

crow with no mouth [copper canyon press, 2000] is a collection of translations by stephen berg of the poems by the 15th century zen monk and eccentric ikkyu. i am in the habit of reading buddhist texts but that habit goes in cycles. i am deeply respectful of buddhism and tho i am not a buddhist and only have a very minimal grasp of its tenets there are some things of zen buddhism i try to practice as i live my life: mindfulness and loving-kindness. there are a few contemporary buddhist poets whom i adore, such as the estonian poet jaan kaplinski and joanne kyger. but the deep reading of buddhist texts, as i just said, goes in cycles for reasons i'm simply not sure.

at any rate, ikkyu was a man who lived a deeply passionate life. he loved sake and women and as berg mentions in his forward, '[i]f one avoids giving pain, if one abides by what is Buddhism's golden rule, to live inoffensively, why not live passionately.' that passion was not limited to the sensual pleasures. he also couldn't stand snobbery, elitism and high airs that were often the domain of his fellow peers. ikkyu even famously burned the writ given to him by his master certifying the poet attained satori and thus had become a master himself.

yet ikkyu was serious about and a seriously devout zen buddhist. he also lived a long life and fell deeply in love with a young, blind girl when the poet was already an old man. here is a poem detailing his love:

how is my hand like Mori's?
it's her freedom I love when I'm sick she makes me hard
fingers lips rove everywhere brings my followers joy

see there, in this text, is ikkyu's deep sexual hunger as it meets the solid joy of the love of a particular woman. according to berg ikkyu wrote his poems using four lines. berg approximates ikkyu's technique by writing in free verse a very loose, nearly prosaic clump of language. some i think are not too successful. i can only judge these translations as i can't read 15th century chinese. however, as the above-poem illustrates berg can and does sometimes recreate the majesty and fire of ikkyu.

here's another poem that i like as it reminds me a bit of the sensuality found in that great ancient roman catullus:

I still worry about how I look my dry white hair oh
age wanting to fuck but I'll sing no matter how things are

i find the desire to fuck, even in old age, very appealing. the desire to write too relates to bodily desires as well. textuality and sexuality are not new in poetry. we just need to be reminded of it every now and again.

i enjoyed berg's translations and lucien stryk's preface which was a brief history of ikkyu. the book is solid enough even if i think some of the texts read like a session of awkward sex. that has its pleasures too but in the end it feels as if the partners were just not the right fit. but then, who knows, i liked the book well enough that i know i'll be reading it again. the texts that i do like i like a lot. perhaps when i read berg's versions again i'll fall deeply in love like how old ikkyu had fallen in love with his blind mori.


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