Chestnuts from Germany

Good Morning, Germany
―For Stefan and Mimi

On our walk along the Rhein that first day
Before Lee and I left for Frankfort,
I picked up three chestnuts.
The chestnuts lit up good memories
For Lee and her New Jersey growing up.
Anyway, I smuggled the chestnuts home
From Germany inside my pants pocket,
Walked right through the sensors
And past all the men and women with guns.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with them.
Couldn’t throw them away. 
Anyway, I put them at the feet of Hotei,
That Happy Chinaman who sits with
Great joy in my bathroom window.
Why I did it, I don’t know.
Except Hotei is a wise saint,
The patron of children and the feeble,
Who doesn’t need words to speak.


Taking a bath with Mr. Rumi

Self Portrait in the NYC bathtub of my good friends,
Sylvia and John Gardner (May 2010)

My good friends Doshin Diana Johnson and Keisei Amelia Furrow reminded me recently of this wonderful poem by the great Sufi poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, aka جلال‌الدین محمد رومی. The poem reminds me of this photograph, a self-portrait, that I took way back in 2010 in the tiny and wonderfully intimate bathroom belonging to our good friends Sylvia and John Gardner. The "Story Water" poem and the photograph seem like the perfect way to say Happy New Year, vowing to practice peace in the days ahead. Mr. Rumi would have it no other way. 


A story is like water 
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire 
and your skin. It lets them meet, 
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down 
in the middle of the fire itself 
like a salamander or Abraham. 
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes, 
but usually it takes some bread 
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us, 
but usually we need to be walking 
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen 
to shield and partially reveal 
to light that's blazing 
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body, 
all the things we do, are mediums 
that hide and show what's hidden.

Study them, 
and enjoy this being washed 
with a secret we sometimes know, 
and then not.

Translation from Barks, Coleman.The Essential Rumi. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994.


My Reading at the Dia: Chelsea, NYC, September 15th 2015


The Dia: Chelsea posted the audio of my reading from September 15, 2015, along with Todd Colby's, and I wanted an accessible place to link to it other than Facebook or Dia. Hence, this blog entry. The reading is 25 minutes long, and it was preceded by a delightful introduction by Vincent Katz which I am pasting below. I hope you enjoy the reading. Doing this reminds me that I do enjoy posting blogs and hope to get to more of it in the New Year.

And here's Vincent Katz' Introduction. Vincent does thoughtful, fun introductions, after reading as much of the poet as possible. Speaks well of him, huh? He is the Curator of the Chelsea Reading Series. He's a good poet and a good guy, one of those poets who do a lot for the poetry scene, collaborating with poets and artists, putting together readings, cobbling together a living.



On June 1, I came back to El Paso after three weeks in New York City. Driving up to the house, I saw that the agave plant by the front steps had sprouted, its woody stalk reaching up 20 feet into the blue sky. My gosh, how miraculous, I thought. When I left, there was no stalk at all, and now this enormous growth sprung up from the heart of the plant! Fifteen years ago at least I planted that agave. It’s one of my favorite plants. And, yes, I understand it will die. Agave plants die after they have bloomed. Still, I enjoy that luxurious and unexpected sprouting of the desert. So do the bees. They cluster around the little flowers that the stalk carries toward the blue sky. Truly, living in the desert, we get to enjoy such miracles.

But mockingbirds don’t believe in miracles. They do enjoy sitting atop the stalk high above the yard and screaming at the cats. Cats don’t believe in miracles either. Black cat Ernie and Clovis, the younger grey tabby cat, are asleep, one on the lawn, the other on a shady cool place on the sidewalk. Like they’re not paying any attention. It’s just pretense. They are hunting mockingbirds. Specifically, they are hunting the bird atop the agave stalk. Just waiting for the dive-bombing to begin. Sooner or later, the mockingbird will dart down from the top of the stalk and swoop over one or the other, squawking the whole time. The cat will wave its tail like he’s bored with the bird. That pisses the mockingbird off. She comes screaming down on another run. The cat wags his tail again and raises his head slightly. He yawns.

Every summer the same thing, the parable of the mockingbird and the cat. It’s their game. Sure, maybe the mockingbird is worried about its nest, but I don’t think so. It’s June, all the eggs have hatched, and the little mockingbirds are going about their lives as adolescents. No, I think it’s simply what mockingbirds and cats do. It’s wired into the genetics of who they are. Usually during the summer, one or two mockingbirds will lose the game.

Like this morning, I had to scoop up a dead mockingbird in a plastic bag and tossed it in the garbage. Ernie or Clovis—I don’t know which—had been successful in his hunt. He had killed the bird and eaten off its head, scooped out some organs from the belly, but left the rest of the body alone. It made me sad. I said a little prayer for the mockingbird and for the cats. Everything, Pat Enkyo O’Hara says, must be included in what we see and understand. Nothing must be left out. Not the mockingbirds, not the cats, not the bees, not the agave, not ourselves. When I drove off to work, another mockingbird was sitting atop the agave stalk squawking at the cats. Ernie was lying in the grass, and Clovis was stretched out on the sidewalk in the shade of the desert willow.


The Sickness Suite, a little big book of poems by Tim Staley

I’m a sucker for handmade poetry books and magazines. Cheap little things with words on them. Gimme books. Libritos made with a special kind of love. It’s an addiction from growing up into the poetry world in the 1950s and 1960s. In the mid-60s Paul Malanga and I made six issues of a little magazine, FROM A WINDOW using mimeographed pages, whitener, manual typewriters. The results were always miraculous. So I get juiced when something like poet Tim Staley’s The Sickness Suite shows up in the mailbox. It’s 3-3/8ths by 5”. Goofy drawings on the cover and inside. The publisher is Grandma Moses Press. I’d never heard of them. Goes with being an old man. So I googled them. Happily, Grandma Moses Press is googlable. They specialize in little books like Tim’s which are guaranteed not to make money. Hot damn!

But Tim’s little book is not a breezy little book written to make us happy. It’s wonderfully crafted poetry—in a haphazard way—that documents chronologically when Sylvia, the Staley baby, got terribly sick. Her liver was shutting down. Suzanne and Tim were terrified. Their baby little girl would die if she did not get a liver transplant. Period.  

Here’s a little poem from the book (most are longer). The setting is El Paso (eventually, they went to Houston). Tim had chased the ambulance down from Las Cruces where they live. Suzanne must have been in the ambulance. The time of this poem is when the waiting begins and the questions start spinning in the brain. All sorts of questions about life and death, morality, yes and no, sorrow, modern life and medicine, the gut questions of parenthood—


At Kinley’s House Coffee & Tea,
a girl in flirty flats slides in next to me,
her liver functioning perfectly, her blood
clotting like batter in a waffle iron. A family
strolls in, mom and three kids, their
gallbladders all draining, filling and tipping
bile as they should except dad forgot his
wallet. Has to walk all the way back to the
Hummer, the capillaries in his liver robust,
nothing like my daughter’s liver, a jellyfish
skewered on a cactus spine. She’s with my
wife nearby wrestling infection in the
nosocomial claw of the hospital, where my
baby’s veins are gateways to super germs
who’ve united, who’ve built up resistance
to antibacterial disinfectants and I wish
I had that gall, that crass resilience.

Suzanne, Sylvia & Tim
What, 2 years later?


Unpaid Advertisement for Cactus Mary's Hand-Crafted Soaps

Don’t float. When I was a kid the white
Rectangular bar of Ivory soap floated. 
It didn’t slither down reptilian between 

My legs where I needed to go scavenging 
For the soap in the dirty water among 
The filthy (some would say “unholy”)

Body parts. Soap that floated was surely 
A white middle-class conspiracy 
Designed to hide the sacred mysteries of life, 

Taught to me at last by the good Reverend, 
Little Richard and others of his denomination.
How good kids have it in the 21st Century, 

Diving into the Tao of all there is, learning 
About himself or herself simply because 
A bar of Cactus Mary’s Hand-Crafted Soap

Doesn’t float.  


Good Friends


They like two-ply. 
We like one-ply.

So, I need to get more into my blogging again. I get distracted. Business. Family. The Zen practice group (Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community) that sits zazen in the little office in the back of our house. All good and necessary stuff, but I miss my writing and my poetry. Not to say that I'm not writing. I do my journal, I fiddle with new stuff (I can get lost for hours), but nothing ever comes out that goes public. It's Spring again, and I need to change that.

Right now I'm putting together my new poetry manuscript--Talking to My Wife While She's Away at Church. (That's a tentative title. Another possibility is The Roshi Makes Shitty Coffee.) Lucky me: friend and poet Connie Voisine was kind enough to read the whole manuscript and make suggestions and give new ideas. She's a great poetry editor, and she knows my work well. These are poems written over the last several years, and I've chosen them because, in one way or another, they pull together all the diverse facets of my life that do all the distracting mentioned above (except business--I don't write business poems). And they are written through the lens of my Zen practice. Or, what I'd rather call, like Stephen Batchelor, my dharma practice. "Zen" is becoming such a useless word. Ice cream is zen, restaurants are zen, back scratchers are zen. Etcetera. Anyway, I thought I'd use some of the poems in the book as a way to play with poetry and some of my ideas. I'll start slowly. Like this little poem about toilet paper which I love so much.

The book, by the way, won't be published until March of next year. Cinco Puntos is publishing it. Yippee! It's a great Indie press. I know Lee the president intimately. In the meantime we'll be fiddling with a book cover. Johnny Byrd (the CPP CFO and PR wonk, also a wonderfully close good friend) says that needs to be done in the next several months. Our friend J.B. Bryan of La Alameda Press in Albuquerque will be the designer. J.B. did that incredible design for Beauty is a Verb, the New Poetry of Disability which got so much great attention and is still selling. Besides, like me, he's a poet, a book publisher (semi-retired), he sits zazen everyday and he's one of the principle organizers of the Three Stones Zen Group. We have plenty to talk about. Here's a self-portrait I did of J.B. and me. He had just finished building his adobe tea house in Placitas where his studio is. He invited me for his rendition of a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. It was fun.

Being a poet is fun. Being a publisher is fun.


How to Say Hello & How to Say Goodbye

Self-Portrait ,July 2012

I always have envied black men saying hello to each other. Complete strangers. They nod their heads, Hey brother. Walking down the street, in a public place, on a bus, even driving down the street. It didn't matter. Their saludos to each other became more pronounced when they're in a white place--white men, white women, the Man in charge. A nod and a hello. It was an honorable response to life. An honorable response to that ancient history that stretched back through bigotry and slavery all the way to Africa. Mother Africa. I wanted to understand but I always knew that I could not. I could only be a witness to that unspoken bond.

As a young man I wished for that between me and others.

Now I’m 70 and in the last few years I've discovered that old men do the same thing. Ethnicity and race doesn’t seem to matter. White. Black. Chicano. Whatever. Especially in gyms or in places over-populated by middle-aged and young people. A nod and a hello. The guy might be a Republican, a homeless guy, a Christian, a fool; me a democrat, a Buddhist, that idiot with the goofy hat, it doesn't matter. How ya doing? Have a good day. And this morning I realized this bond between old men is about vulnerability. Bodies knowing each other’s secret. I am him, and he is me. Knowing each other's history. Knowing what is our shared future—the universe opens up and I am no longer here. What is this? What is this thing I call “me?” That is our question. Man to man. An osmosis. A biologic memory and transference. A sense of compassion for one another.

I'm so delighted that this happens.

And I remembered, as I wrote this, my mother at the hospital, a few days before she died. I had lifted her into a wheelchair and pushed her outside into a little garden. We both knew she didn't have long to live. Her heart was leaking blood. Congenital heart disease. We passed another woman--equally old, equally feeble. My mother raised her frail hand and waved to the other woman, her boney fingers riffing a quiet tune like a piano player.

A final blessing, a final celebration.

Hello. Goodbye. Goodbye.


Book Review of the Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

Book Review of The Collected Writings of Joe Brainard

Joe Brainard was our Rimbaud.
Except he did it differently.
He was a painter too.
That’s what he said he was.
A painter.
He didn’t say he was a writer.
But he wrote a lot.
And I love what he wrote.
I take my poetry too seriously.
Shit like that.
That why I’m writing this.
Joe was a nice guy, it seems like.
And he was from Tulsa.


Too bad Verlaine and all those other dudes
Didn’t know that Rimbaud was their Joe Brainard.
It would have lightened things up for them.
Like it lightened things up for me.
But what is “it”?
Like Rimbaud wouldn’t have gone to Africa.
He could have stayed home.
He could have taken up painting.
But that’s how history is.
It never tells the whole truth. 


New York City, #7: In Memory of Anthony Horton

[Note: I've been back from NYC for more than a month now, but I want to finish putting up my bits and pieces of writing that I was working on while I was there. bb]

Photo of Anthony © Nura Qureshi

New York City is people. A cornucopia of people. Body types. Flesh color. Voices and accents. Languages. The streets and the buildings are full of these people. But it’s in the subways and busses that we get to know each other. We silently negotiate for seats. The give and the take. The rules of the game. Even the young tough men and women, they have their rules. Old people. Young people. Kids. The in-betweeners.  Everybody looks, even if we don’t look. We listen closely. We jostle. We touch.

And the imagination begins to open up.


There, in the darkness of a tunnel, is the ghost of AnthonyHorton. Since his death in March he’s been waiting for me to come back down into the subways. I knew Tony because of Youme Landowne. She collaborated with him to do the wonderful graphic novel, PitchBlack, Don’t Be Skerd. It’s the story of a black homeless man (an artist, a writer) who meets the Youme Landowne (children’s book writer and illustrator), a very white woman, in the subways one day. It’s a story about suffering, a story about compassion and understanding as two-way streets. Anthony and Youme journeyed on the subway together, and when I’m riding the subway, especially when I see a black homeless man, I cannot help but think of Anthony. I wrote this little riff to honor his memory.

I’m in the tunnels going downtown on the #1 train between 103rd and 96th. I hear something. A grumbling. I look out the window. Rising up out of the earth is another train. A ghost snake burrowing up from a deeper tunnel. The windows lit up. Men and women gathered together in a box of light. The #2 Express. It could be us. But it’s them. What’s the difference? Tony Horton would tell you the difference. Except he would tell you there is no difference. Us and them. Them and us. Tony could tell you because he was an artist and a poet. And he used to live down in these tunnels. The tunnels were his home. His city. He pledged his allegiance to the darkness. And to the country for which it stands in darkness. Tony was a citizen of this darkness. He could feel himself in the walls. This is where his friends lived. People like him. Men and women. Neighbors. He had the dark maps in his head. He knew where his people lived, he knew the secrets of the tunnels. This is where he found his strength and his wisdom. The palm of his hand. That’s why he felt safer down here. He hated the city streets. The people up there didn’t understand. They lived in the daylight. How could they understand? Sunlight does not translate into earth-dark. It’s a different language altogether. Tony was our pioneer into the world that will come. That’s what he said. These tunnels. Down here he was meant to find himself. Here in the dark he battled against his drinking. Here in the dark he battled against his gods. Here he battled against his memories. No mother to find. No father to find. He looked around and could not find himself. Maybe he himself was not there. Maybe we aren’t here. Maybe that is the secret. He refused to live inside the light. He said everything he needed he could find in the garbage that he dragged into the darkness.

Tony found an empty room in the tunnels. The room would become his home. But first he needed to camp out in that room. The room was black. Don’t be skerd, he said. Don’t be skerd. The room is warm. Tony waited for the rain. And soon it rained in the world up above. Tony’s room didn’t fill up with rain water. It didn’t even leak. He felt like he was home. He found an old mattress and a hotplate and a lamp. He brought cardboard for the floor, he found an old blanket. He moved in. He stole electricity from the subway wiring. He had made himself a home. He had found his own kind of light. Stolen light. Borrowed light. Light to live by in the earth dark. He had a place to sleep. It was all free. He wondered what the word “free” meant. He went up into the streets and into that other light to beg for money and to beg for food. To see a few friends. But he always came back to his home. He was safe down there. And warm.

And one night a spark from the hot plate set his world afire. Tony died down in these tunnels. A terrible screaming death. You can read about it in the New York Times.

─in Memory of Anthony Horton                   
With blessings to Youme Landowne and her family


New York City, #6

Poet Eileen Myles amid the cat food on 9th Street, NYC

Last Saturday: Great dinner with poet and novelist Eileen Myles, Ernie the Cat’s mother (see below), at the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place off 2nd Ave. Many great topics of conversation, but also she retold me the story of Ernie the Black Cat, how he came straggling up to her place in San Diego, black baby cat, big globs of gunk dripping from his eyes. Eileen babied little Ernie, gave him a name when the vet wouldn’t treat him without a name. So Ernie was named and familied and mothered up. Rosie, Eileen’s (friend, partner in the old sense, travel companion, also pet) pit bull was still alive, so Ernie lived in the garage, made friends with the family and became an indoor/outdoor cat. But on his own terms. Ernie always insists on his own terms. Even Rosie liked him. Then Rosie died. Poor Rosie. Poor Eileen. Ernie took over some of Eileen’s heart. She has a big heart. Lots of space to move around in. But they moved to New York and Ernie hated being an indoor city cat. Also he didn’t get along with Eileen’s new partner. Probably a little jealous, knowing Ernie. So Ernie got to come live the Byrds on Louisville in El Paso. It was okay with Ernie. He had stopped by to visit once and spent the night. Eileen and her partner now happily have two dogs and two cats. And Ernie and the Byrds are happy with each other. Life is good.

So Eileen gives me her new book, which is really two books, one book Snow Flake: New Poems, and turn it over and, lo, it’s a second book Different Streets: Newer Poems (Wave Books). Here’s a poem from Snow Flake where Ernie gets to talk—


yes, Ernie
why can you
have junk
food & I
cannot. Why can
you have a
giant plate
and I can
no longer have
my crunchy
treats. Why
am I served up
a cold fish
you’re not
so thin
I know.  

Ernie the Cat at Home in El Paso: Yes, sure, he misses Eileen.


New York City #5

The Tub in John & Sylvia Downstairs Bathroom: Puro New York City

Sitting on the pot this morning 
And reading dead Joe Brainard poems
(I miss Joe Brainard and didn’t even know him)
I overcooked the steel-cut oatmeal.
It still tasted delicious.
Spring strawberries.
Dried and sweetened cranberries.
Maple syrup.
Oatmeal is full of forgiveness.


New York City, #4

When I’m in New York I visit the Village Zendo and the StillMind Zen zendo to sit zazen and attend services. They are both nice places. The sanghas are open-hearted and warm. It’s always nice to hear the bell ring and sit zazen with others.  Recently Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Roshi at the VZ, conducted a workshop—getting ready for death. There are forms to be filled out, wills to be update, end-of-life options to be considered, decisions to be made and important discussions to be had with loved ones. I didn’t go. New York is different than Texas. But I read her comments online. Enkyo O’Hara said that she’s always surprised how many people have not done this important task. Lee and I have never done this. Well, we’ve done it sort of half ass. I suppose we should. Even mentioning this here, Lee will get us ready to work on the project. She’s like that. I’m not. I’m a last minute kind of guy. Ha!

Anyway, Enkyo said that it’s a custom for dharma practitioners, especially teachers, to write a Death Poem every year. It’s one more way to remind ourselves that death is inevitable, although (strangely) it never seems that way as we go about our everyday chores making plans from one day to the next. Doing the poem is one more way to remind us not to squander our lives. Well, I got on a Death Poem toot. Trying to catch up, I guess. Here are two of them, again from this imaginative diary I've been playing with since coming to New York for the month.

The Roshi said to write a death poem. All the Zen people do it, she said. Every year. Then finally they don’t need to do it anymore. So I told her nobody knows me in New York City. My feet ache, my legs ache. Art gets in the way. Like Leo Stein. He fought with his sister Gertrude. They were saying goodbye. Alice had moved in. Leo wanted Henri’s Five Apples, and Gertrude wanted Henri’s Five Apples too. Leo was moving to Italy to chase a skirt. He called his beloved sort of “an abnormal vampire.” This was 1914. Gertrude was queer.  Leo stole the Apples and wrote to his sister, “I’m afraid you’ll have to look upon the loss of the apples as an act of God.” Like the Garden of Eden all over again. But differently. This is the end of my assignment. It’s my death poem. 2012. I am 70 years old.

Death Poem from NYC Transit
Going downtown on the Broadway #104
We’re all in this together
The canned voice of the bus lady
Says over and over again
Please exit from the rear of the bus.    


Of course, Basho, that old wandering cahoot, did a wonderful death poem, although he didn't know it was his death poem. He fell sick one of his journeys and this is the last poem he wrote--

falling sick on a journey / my dream goes wandering / over a field of dried grass