Wednesday, January 2, 2019

No One's at the Cash Register: Poem in American Journal of Poetry

A 10-part, 
poem of mine,

No One's at the Cash Register

is currently in the new issue 

The poem can be found

It is from a new manuscript
Absence: Presence

The poems in the manuscript
were influenced by
Classical Chinese Poetry
(mostly of the T'ang Period):

Cold Mountain

Tu Fu, Li Po, Wang Wei, Chia Tao, Cold Mountain (Han Shan),
Po Chu-I, Tu Mu, Meng Hao-Jan…

Han Shan (right) and friend Shih-Te
This particular poem was written
in imitation of the poetry of 

Han Shan was a hermit reported to have lived in the mountains near the Kuo-ch'ing Temple in Southeast China. He sometimes worked in the temple kitchen and wrote his poems on rocks, trees and the walls of farmer's homes. Ever irreverent (in the true Ch'an or Zen spirit), he constantly poked fun at institutional spirituality and traditional cultural conventions. He took his poet-name from the place where he lived (Han Shan translates as Cold Mountain).

His poems were eventually collected after his disappearance (he is reportedly to have gone into a cave at Cold Cliff, after being hassled too many times by Temple officials, and pulled it shut behind him, disappearing forever).         

Han Shan's collection is known as The Cold Mountain Poems or Poems from Cold Mountain. There are many translations into English that I like (most notably the famous ones by Gary Snyder - found in his book Riprap & Cold Mountain Poems), but my favorite are the playful, exuberant ones by J.P. Seaton, published by Shambhala Publications. They have a goofy, trickster quality that I love.

Here's one:


People ask about the Cold Mountain way:
plain roads don't get through to Cold Mountain.
Middle of summer, and the ice still hasn't melted.
Sunrise, and the mist would blind a hidden dragon.
So, how could a man like me get here?
My heart is not the same as yours, dear sir
If your heart were like mine,
You'd be here already.


Cold Mountain is a state of mind, or,
more deeply,
a way of being in the world.

For my own poem, I imagined someone like Han Shan
standing at a cash register in a grocery store 
(an alternative food store, probably)
day after day, year after year.

I have a series of poems in the new manuscript that are written
in the persona of "No One."

Someone a bit like Han Shan...

Han Shan and Shih-Te

Here's a Seaton translation 
of another Cold Mountain poem:


If you're looking for a peaceful place,
Cold Mountain's always a refuge.
A little breeze, breath of the shaded pines,
And if you listen close, the music's even better.
Under the pines a graying man,
soft, soothingly, reading aloud from Lao Tzu.


my poem takes place in the service industry,
a world of humiliation and pitiful wages
(40% of workers in the US are in the service industry)

and so my poem begins like this:

No One's at the Cash Register

If you're looking for a
peaceful place, this is not it.
I work this register night
after night. "Clean up on
aisle six." Olive oil and glass
and some blood. Red drops.
Chrysanthemum petals. A
woman holds her finger
in a wad of paper towels.
"Did you find everything okay?"
Words here mean nothing. No
use for words on Cold Mountain.
So, why come down? The moon
asked me to pick up some
bananas for her. And cash. I
needed the cash.


Middle of the summer
and the frozen vegetables
are still frozen; ice cream,
too. Tourists want a cold
drink, someone to humiliate…

You can read the rest at

Other Notable Translations:

Red Pine's Collected Songs of Cold Mountain

and Burton Watson's Cold Mountain

Friday, December 21, 2018

Winter Solstice 2018: Hope, Courage, Mercy

At this time of the rolling year, I usually post a solstice poem - or something seasonal. I wrote the poem below a few days ago when the snow was still on the ground. We've had at least three significant snows this year, after years of "unseasonably" warm winters. Unfortunately, the unseasonable-ness has become the norm. 

The reason I bring this up is because I've been witness to and have been experiencing something that now pervades the culture, the world - what has been termed "eco-grief." That all-pervading anxiety and sorrow at the back of the mind, dwelling in the heart; the knowledge that things have gone too far, that we are now living (for those of us that are older) on a different planet from the one on which we were born. It is overwhelming - too big for the small human brain to take in - and it can lead to numbness, dissociation, and mental paralysis.   

During the winter solstice, when we begin the transformation from the darkest day towards spring and more light, I think of the word "hope." Hope in the dark. There is an optimistic strain in the American psyche that always holds out hope in the dark. Sometimes this is helpful. But I think hope is the wrong way of approaching our situation (mass extinction) now. The world has already changed and we must change with it. 

What I feel is required is courage. Courage to face the situation, look the terror in the face and acknowledge it for what it is. Courage to participate in trying to keep the world from total collapse. Courage to have compassion for those who are frozen by fear and deny that it is happening. 

I say all this with the knowledge that I'm not a particularly courageous person. My courageous moments have happened because I was in community with other people who shared the same energy: a communal spirit.  

In the poem there is a reference to a streetlight near where I live - it is always on. About a year ago I started calling it "Our Lady of Perpetual On-Ness." In my mind, it alternates between symbolizing an excessive and useless waste of energy and an eerie yet merciful, blueish-aqua light in the darkness. 

There is also a reference to "shadow people" that are seen by those who suffer from schizophrenia...the figures, for the most part, when drawn, usually look the same...

Winter Solstice: Mercy

What's been lost follows me up
            the mountain. A lone crow

somewhere on the trail ahead. His
            voice, all gravel and rags.

A slight ripple across the reflection
            of a piñon branch in a

sandstone pool. The same vibration
            that moves through

the hollows inside my chest (looking
            for a way out, finding

none). I long for sleep, the right
            dream. Human sleep and

juniper roots, twins in the same dark
            amniotic sac, knowing

the other is near, so close - What is
            this shape? Is it part

of me? Shadows form at twilight
            among bare trees, the same

shapes drawn by those who suffer
            from schizophrenia -  this,

they look like this: a head, shoulders,
            great-coat, dissolution at

the feet…a Pygmy Owl turns its head,
            scans the ground. Near home,

I see a man beneath the streetlight
            that never shuts off

(the one I call Our Lady of Perpetual
            On-Ness), arms spread,

looking up. Begging for mercy. When
            I'm close, he dissolves up into

the light, a weave of bare branches
            against the first few stars. 

 Find the beauty in the dark.

Where transformation resides.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Poem in Gingerbread House

I have a new poem
in the current issue of

A journal dedicated 
to publishing poetry & fiction 
a magical element.

The poem arose from the sensation - 
while hiking during the extreme part 
of the last drought -
that there were small, stone-like 
human-shaped spirits 
crouching beside the trail, 

Who were they?

What did they want?

The poem can be found

Monday, November 26, 2018

Snow Poems & Robert Bly

This last weekend I pulled a book off the shelf that I hadn't looked through in a while. A collection of poems by Robert Bly, published by White Pine Press: Like the New Moon, I will Live My Life. In it, I read through the poems that were originally included in This Tree Will Be Here for a Thousand Years.

Tree was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought. Even I was stunned that I was spending actual hard cash for poetry. Wha? I was in a bookstore in Philadelphia, looking for Bly's The Light Around the Body (surreal poems centered around the Vietnam War). I couldn't find it - but I did find Tree. I bought it, brought it home, and became entranced by all the "snow" poems (Bly lives in Minnesota, so it's natural there's a lot of snow in his poems).

I was fascinated by how Bly wove together the classical Chinese poetic tradition (of presenting "what is," attempting to close the gap in the duality between "I" and "Other") and the strange little imaginative leaps that resembled the subtle surrealism of modern Scandinavian poets like Tomas Tranströmer (Swedish) and Rolf Jacobsen (Norwegian).

No matter where I've lived, snow has always been spell-binding, hypnotic, to me. I can spend hours watching it come down, cover the earth, and mute the world. Bly's poems that include snow always seem to capture how I feel when I watch the snow fall at the beginning of winter. It's close to the feeling I get when driving across the continent and I see a lone streetlight in the far-off distance, casting a pool of blue light on an empty dirt road…

There is also the sadness involved knowing that, because of climate change, snow will gradually (and in some places, very quickly) become "nostalgia," become memory, slip into myth.

Here's what Bly said in the introduction to This Tree:

Many ancient Greek poems, on the other hand, suggest that human beings and the ‘green world’ share a consciousness. Each of the poems that follow contains an instant sometimes twenty seconds long, sometimes longer, when I was aware of two separate energies: my own consciousness, which is insecure, anxious, massive, earthbound, persistent, cunning, hopeful; and a second consciousness which is none of these things. The second consciousness has a melancholy tone, the tear inside the stone, what Lucretius calls ‘the tears of things,’ an energy circling downward, felt often in autumn or moving slowly around apple trees or stars.

Night of First Snow

Night of first snow.
I stand, my back against a board fence.
The fir trees are black at the trunk, white out on the edges.
The earth balances all around my feet.

The apple trunk joins the white ground with what is above.
Fir branches balance the snow.
I too am a dark shape vertical to the earth.
All over the sky, the gray color that pleases the snow mother.

A woman wades out toward the wicker basket, floating,
Rocking in darkening reeds.
The child and the light are half asleep.
What is human lies in the way the basket is rocking.

Black and white end in the gray color of the sky.
What is human lies in the three hairs, caught,
The rabbit left behind
As he scooted under the granary joist.

Here's a prose poem from This Tree:
Solitude of the Two Day Snowstorm

   Supper time…I open the door and go out…something blowing among the tree trunks…our own frail impulses go to shelter behind thin trees, or sail with the wind -
   It is night…this is the time when after long hours alone, I sit with my family, and feel them near…at what I want to do I fail fifty times a day, and am confused…at last I got to bed.
   At five I wake, strong wind around the north bedroom windows, I get up and go out, there is dust of snow on yesterday's ice. The snow grows gradually, the winds do not stop.
   By afternoon, I lie listening to the wind…still going on…rising and wailing, sometimes with a sudden sweep, a woman's skirt pulled swiftly along the floor…at other times it gives a steady growl without anger, like the word "Enoch"…I stand up and look out.
   The crow's head I found by the bridge this summer, and brought home, sits on the window sash, the one black thing before all that white. The head looks intense, swift, decided, the beak partly open, the eyes sunk. Among that soft white, the head looks like a warship…snow-blankets suddenly fall off the window screen behind him…

Other great snow-oriented poems can also be found
in Bly's first book:

Here's one from that book:

Snowfall in the Afternoon

The grass is half-covered with snow.
It was the sort of snowfall that starts in late afternoon,
And now the little houses of the grass are growing dark.

If I could reach down, near the earth,
I could take handfuls of darkness!
A darkness that was always there, which we never noticed.

As the snow grows heavier, the cornstalks fade farther away,
And the barn moves nearer to the house.
The barn moves all alone in the growing storm.

The barn is full of corn, and moving toward us now,
Like a hulk blown toward us in a storm at sea;
All the sailors on deck have been blind for many years.