The Streets are empty on the other side:

Calle de las Novias, Juárez, January 2010

"I can’t imagine you really keeping all your selves apart from each other--when the whole is so great."
--from a letter from my friend Patsy Aldana, publisher of Groundwood Books. She lives in Toronto, but is Guatemalan and a frequent visitor to Mexico. She visited here a few years ago and she loved walking around the downtowns of El Paso and Juárez. She reads about the carnage and the sorrow and the chaos and, like the rest of us, she feels very sad and helpless.


Happy Birthday to Kankin, The Sutra Reader

Last Thursday, April 15th, was my birthday. I am 68 years old. Shit. Who would have guessed? My brother died before he was 60. My dad died as a young man in a plane crash, training young men to fight in the war. My grandfathers on both sides didn’t live real long either. Lee and I were in San Antonio on business, and we spent my birthday evening--a low-key dinner at the Cove Restaurant--with our son Andy Byrd, his daughter Emma Birdie and Joe Hayes, my good and close friend all these many years. Joe’s been like a Godfather to each of our children. It rained most of the day and the San Antonio air was humid and cool, like silk, the smell of honey suckle and roses and pittosporum. I like Dogen’s comment about the sutras, holy text, being “transmitted and retained on trees and rocks, are spread through fields and through villages, are expounded by lands of dust and are lectured by space.”

After learning in practice as Buddhist patriarchs, we are barely able to learn sutras in practice. At this time the reality of hearing sutras, receiving sutras, preaching sutras, and so on exists in the ears, eyes, tongue, nose, and organs of body and mind, and in the places we go, hear, and speak. The sort who “because they seek fame, preach non-Buddhist doctrines” cannot practice the Buddha’s sutras. The reason is that the sutras are transmitted and retained on trees and rocks, are spread through fields and through villages, are expounded by lands of dust, and are lectured by space. --From Chapter Twenty-One, “Kankin, Reading Sutras,” in Volume One of the Shobengenzo by Zen master Eihei Dogen (13th century), founder of the Soto sect of Japanese Zen Buddhism as translated by Gudo Wafu Nijishima and his student Chudo Cross.

On April 3rd I took the vows during the Shukke Tokudo (aka “the Home Leaving Ceremony”) to be a Zen Buddhist teacher, or priest (I like the word teacher better), in the Soto Zen lineage, the Order of Clear Mind Zen. My teacher is Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi. He gave me the Zen name of “Kankin,” based on the Dogen’s text quoted above. The story of my Zen practice is long. I could even date it back to my high school days when, with Harvey Goldner, I’d got lost in daydreams about Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the essays of Allen Watts and the poems of Gary Snyder. But the particular history of receiving this name Kankin is a much more particular story, an abbreviated version of which follows. I starting writing this as journal notes, but since it’s important to me as a poet I decided to publish it on this blog.

Three old men in the shadows: 
Ken Hogaku Hogaku McGuire Roshi, Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi
and Bobby Kankin Byrd

I’ve been sitting zazen for a long time. In the beginning it was off and on, fits and starts. Being in El Paso for the last 30-something years, away from so many things, I stumbled along my own way. Finding things here and there.
“The path has its own intelligence.”
I agree with that. That’s what you learn walking up and down hills in the desert or the woods, the streets of a city even,  no matter where. Some animal--a deer, varmints, cats and dogs, some unknown Buddhist, a little kid, whatever--has gone before you. Like even this quote itself I found on a business card that the poet and performer Joy Harjo gave me in Tucson. I hadn’t seen her in years. Our kids had gone to daycare together way back in the mid-70s at UNM in Albuquerque. So wonderful to see her. She gave me her card so I’d get in touch with her. And yeah, it was on that card I saw the statement, “The path has its own intelligence.”

Yeah, that's right. The path has it's own intelligence.

So at first I did zazen by myself, sort of catch as you can--five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 and even 20 minutes--, not knowing exactly what I was doing, looking from one book to the next for instructions, but definitely wanting something. A friend told me about Phillip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen and that book in particular invigorated my practice. And of course Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginners Mind which I've probably read five or six times by now. But without others to sit with, my practice lurched along, bouncing off the walls. Sometime in the 1980s I attended sesshins with Rinzai teacher Joshu Sasaki Roshi, first a weekend in Santa Fe and later several week long sesshins at the Bodhi Manda in Jemez Springs. Joshu Sasaki Roshi is an astounding man (he’s 100-something now). My journals are full of memories of him and his words I heard from him, either in Sanzen or during his teishos, even for the little time I spent with him. He enlivened my practice. Illuminated it. I drove north to Santa Fe and Jemez Springs / Bodhi Manda to attend those sesshins, but as time passed I never felt at home there. Roshi was lost behind the rustling of student robes. The Sangha never felt welcoming to me. The people there were into their own rhythms and habits. The trip was a long journey away from family and job. I quit going. My sitting became irregular, sporadic. In the mid-1990s I started sitting again, strongly in fact, although again by myself, sparked by a strong sense of sorrow and hunger for something other than the man I felt myself to be. Ironically, my wife’s Christian practice--it was important to her, I could see her mature, especially in her works of compassion--made me realize that I needed a spiritual discipline to practice. Just not Christianity.

Then sometime in the early 2000s I happened to hear about the Las Cruces Zen Center of the Soto variety. I didn’t know much about the difference between Rinzai and Soto. The usual things. The Soto sit facing the wall, the Rinzai have their back to the walls. According to the legends, the Soto tradition comes out of a rural, farming mindset, the Rinsai have the taste of soldiering, of the samurai in their institutional memory. I just wanted to sit, and I didn’t much care if I was facing the wall or not. The LCZC Sangha met on Monday evenings at Harvey SoDaiho Hilbert’s house on Baylor Canyon Road below the Organ Mountains. Harvey was a disciple of Ken McGuire Hogaku Roshi who received transmission from Soyu Zengaku Matsuoka Roshi. I started driving to Las Cruces every week. An hour back and forth. An hour and a half of practice. At first I was cautious. I’m not a good joiner. But I enjoyed the services--the bells, the chanting of the Three Refuges and Four Great Vows, the Heart Sutra in English and Sino-Japanese along with the beating on the wood fish (mukugyo), but especially the two meditation periods separated by kinhin. Sitting zazen with others is powerful. And the sangha was friendly. They let me be but accepted me. They were happy that I was there. And Harvey’s dharma talks were very special. Good food for my home practice.

The services included a nice incense ceremony before tea was served.  A piece of charcoal is lit and sits in the incense bowl at the altar. Each practitioner, if she or he so wishes, can approach the altar, bow to the Buddha, take some kernels of incense and drop them on the charcoal, bow again to the Buddha and then bow to the teacher. For a number of weeks I didn’t participate. I stood there, watching, my hands in gassho. It didn’t feel right to me. Bowing to a statue. Watching the smoke. Bowing to a guy I didn’t much know. I didn’t understand it so I didn’t do it. That was okay. After maybe a month or so, I did it. Something was happening in my life--I forget exactly what now--but I wanted to say a silent prayer.I bowed to the Buddha, which is a bow to the emptiness, the absolute, the dharmakaya. I let myself go. Just a little bit. The air felt good. I  dropped a number of incense kernels on the charcoal and watched the smoke curl up into the air. I said my silent prayer. And I bowed again to the Buddha and I bowed to SoDaiho. It felt very right. I slowly began to meld into that community of practitioners.

A few years passed. My home practice became stronger. I was sitting 25 or 30 minutes in the mornings, lighting a candle, a stick of incense, doing abbreviated chants and a few prayers for my family and our communities, making vows for my own practice, sitting zazen. Perhaps a little bit at night. I was reading a lot of Zen literature and attending weekend sesshins as much as I could. I felt at home in my practice. It became a necessary part of my life. If, like when I traveled, I couldn’t find the time or place to sit, I would get nervous. There’d be an odd hunger in my head and heart and body.

Things change, of course. They always do.

The LCZC, through the help of Judy Daishin Harmon, had begun renting a small house on Mesilla Avenue for services and practice. Harvey Hilbert and his wife Judy finished their place off the grid above Cloudcroft and moved up there. Judy and then Mike Gozen LaTorra received their Shukke Tokudo ordinations and became priests. After a while they shared responsibilities as co-abbots of the LCZC. On several occasions Harvey SoDaiho asked me to receive the precepts, to do the Jukai ceremony. I treaded water until on April 2nd, 2005, after a weekend sesshin at the LCZC, I took my vows during a Jukai ceremony with several others. The name he gave me was Hen-shin, which means transformation or rebirth. There really wasn’t a lot for me to do by then. I had read all the books, talked with Harvey SoDaiho, talked with others. Being in El Paso I was sort of on my own leash. But I did have to sew my own rakusu. A black one, of course, to signify that I had received the precepts. I had sewed the thing together with my own hands. Thick clumsy hands they turned out to be. That was a task. The rakusu pattern is complicated and confusing. The directions were a puzzle by themselves. The whole process was a koan in itself. In the evenings and on Saturdays I sat there at the dining room table and sweated and even bled over that rakusu. Nothing makes a man more mindful than jabbing a needle into his ungainly fingers. Lucky for me Lee gave me advice with the pattern and even did some of the sewing for me when I thought I might weep.

The life of the LCZC, Clear Mind Zen and Harvey Daiho Hilbert Roshi its founder is a story I want to tell another time. But its history has not always been a smooth boat ride along a wide easy-going river. Nor has my relationship with Harvey. There were disappointments. “Confusion,” a good friend told me once, “is a relatively high state.” Like working on a koan, the relationship between a teacher and student. A few years ago, there was a riff in the sangha. The usual gunk that goes along with being human. It happens, no matter how long we sit and stare at wall. This goes for roshis, this goes for students and priests. The sangha bifurcated. The dance of an amoeba. The division process was not easy. By then Judy Harmon had gotten a divorce from her husband and as part of that difficult process she quit her position as co-abbot and left the Zen Center. Mike SoGozen LaTorra had remained at the LCZC as abbot. He and Harvey Daiho had a disagreement. Or “quarrel” would be a better word. The clash, on one level, was about practice and understanding the dharma. The word “enlightenment” was one of the sticks thrown on the flame. It was also about the teacher and student relationship. Zen in America stuff. And finally it was about very personal disagreements. Two men who perhaps understood the same thing differently. The sangha bifurcated. Like an amoeba. The division process was not easy. By then my friend Judy Harmon had gotten a divorce from her husband and as part of that difficult process she also left the Zen Center. Mike Gozen LaTorra had remained at the LCZC as abbot and Harvey Daiho went on his own way, formalizing his Clear Mind Zen organization which he had been talking about for years. Mike and Harvey--student and teacher, close friends, fellow Zensters--quit talking to each other.

It was not a fun time. But things change. The Buddha said that. You can quote me, he said. Mike SoGozen retained his position as Abbot of LCZC and he continues teaching there to a strong sangha. Harvey Daiho Roshi cemented in his mind and heart the Clear Mind Zen organization which he had been talking about for years. Zensters took sides, going this way or that. With others I tried to heal the riff, but that was not to be. At least, not immediately. The three pillars of Zen practice--Great Faith, Great Doubt, Great Effort--really made sense during this time.I kept in contact with Harvey Daiho, although at a distance. He was my teacher.
I realized this fact deeply. I felt really at home with his understanding of the dharma.  I just didn't make the weekly drive to Las Cruces. Something in my practice had changed. His understanding of the dharma was and is crucial to the growth of my practice. I had started, with his blessing and sometimes participation, a small sangha in El Paso. I called it the Both Sides / No Sides Zen Community. I wanted practitioners from both sides of the border to feel at home there with us. At the time El Paso or Juarez really didn’t have a place to come together as a group and sit zazen.

And “small” is a good word to describe what we were doing. We sat at the home of Richie Barajas and Briana Armendariz, which also served as the office for Richie’s practice, Black Tortoise Acupuncture and Herbs. We sat there--many times just me, Richie and Briana, sometimes only two of us, sometimes only me--for over a year. Train tracks run behind the house, and I always found it interesting when a train came rumbling by during our zazen. Its long whistle provided good resonance in my body. Then, a couple of years ago, John Fortunato began sitting with us. He offered the sangha his home. He’s a bachelor, and he had, he said, a large sunroom that would be perfect for sitting. He was right. We’ve been sitting there for two years now. And our sangha has begun to grow. Any Saturday (services begin at 330pm in you’re in town) we’ll have six to eight people sitting with us.  Several times during these years Harvey suggested to me that I take the precepts to be a teacher (aka, a priest), do the Shukke Tokudo. No, I didn’t want to do that. I don’t like the words like priest and disciple, I don’t like robes, I’m uncomfortable with the entire hullabaloo. I was happy sitting, helping to keep the doors of our sangha open and acting the part of a lay teacher.

During these years, besides reading, I had the opportunity to talk to others who were practicing in one way or another. Three, in particular, were providential and nourishing to my own practice. One was Claude Anshin Thomas, whose book At Hell’s Gate is probably the best book I’ve ever read about the struggles of being non-violent. Claude Anshin, with a small sangha, was walking the U.S./Mexico Border from Brownsville to Chula Vista, CA, on a pilgrimage for peace. (I wrote about him and his pilgrimage here.) He and his fellow pilgrims stayed in El Paso for a few days, I arranged a talk for him at the Unitarian Center and we had a gathering for everybody at our home. It was good time and a good chance for me and others to hear Claude Anshin and to witness his practice. Also, Mike Gozen LaTorra worked it out to bring punkster roshi Brad Warner to Las Cruces and El Paso, and then last year we brought him here again. Brad’s books have been important to me, not only for his ideas(he was certainly the best guy to open the door for me into Dogen’s Shobengenzo) but also for his iconoclastic rhetoric and tetchy rants about the touchy-feely practice of Buddhism in the U.S. That same rhetoric and his practice of Buddhism has helped me immensely in reconciling my poetics to my practice of Zen. (I’ve written about Brad here and here.) And finally there’s my good buddy and fellow poet JB Bryan, who can be as happily cantankerous as Brad when he’s talking about Zen (or poetry or whatever). JB is a leader at the Three Stones Zen Group in Albuquerque. The Three Stones folks are a delightful sangha, and they practice a non-denominational, anarchistic (aka "chaordic"), egalitarian and homegrown Zen, although their roots can be found in the work and teachings of Charlotte Joko Beck. (She has likewise been very important to me. It's wonderful to read a wise woman write about Zen practice.) The Three Stones is a perfect fit for JB. He’s always delighted to preach to me about institutionalized, hierarchical Zen with all its bells and whistles and bowing and scraping. His Zen heroes are old patriarchs like Han Shan, the Cold Mountain poet, and Hotei, the Happy Buddha.

So every week we rang the bell, we chanted and beat on the wooden fish with its eyes that never close, we lit incense, we sat on our zafus and practiced zazen, we did the silent kinhin dance, we sat some more, we chanted the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese (our voices so much stronger after sitting), and we sipped on our tea. It’s been good. Late last year, one of the men who had been practicing with us for some time told me that he wanted to receive the Jukai Precepts. I was delighted for him. But I said, “You’ll have to go find a teacher to practice with.” He looked at me and said, “I think I already have.” I was both startled and honored. But of course that meant, if I wanted to do things rightly, I had to take the vows and become ordained—to receive Shukke Tokudo. After much thought I went up to Las Cruces and told Harvey this story about the man who wanted to receive the precepts. I asked him if he would ordain me.

“Of course,” he said, laughing so hard I wondered if he would fall off his zafu. He said I wouldn’t need the robes. I could buy the brown rakusu. I had done my duty of making the black rakusu.

So this is how I came to receive the name Kankin on April 3rd. Before the ceremony we had a modified Zazenkai (one day sit) from 8:30 to 2:30. I sat strong. It was so good to sit with my friends. It’s the best way to be alone. Then people started showing up. We had about 35 in all. My family was there, folks from the sangha, friends and kids. Harvey’s teacher Ken McGuire Roshi and his wife Fern McGuire Roshi. Ken and his wife Fern both studied with Matsuoka.You can see photographs here that Lee took.

Tokudo means ceremony, and Shukke is leaving home. Thus, “The Leaving Home Ceremony” or “Home-leaver’s ceremony.” In the old days monks-to-be left home and went into the monastery. Not so much anymore. Especially for American Zen Buddhists. Here Zen is much more a householder practice. But “leaving home” is still a very important concept. I like to think of “leaving home” as leaving that comfortable place called home or the ego to serve something greater than ourselves. In a way we all leave home, we leave the ego, when we do our home practice, the wall in front of us, alone with our breath and the universe in which we live. No separation--the absolute, the universe, the breath, breathing together in and out. We do this too when we come together to sit and practice as a Sangha. And we do this when we climb off our zafus and take our practice out into the city,  the place of our life, where the 10,000 things thrive and multiply.

During the ceremony I vowed to practice and to teach others, if they so wish, the Way of the Dharma as I understand it. I vowed to appreciate my whole life as the life of the Three Treasures--the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, and I vowed to serve Family, Sangha and Community and to practice right livelihood.
I take Refuge in Everything That Is (Buddha)
I take Refuge in Reality and its Teachings (Dharma)
I take Refuge in Humanity (Sangha)
I vow to cease creating evil
I vow to do good
I vow to work to create abundant good for all beings

So this is my birthday present to myself. Good luck, huh?


Robert Creeley died Five Years Ago

In Memoriam to Robert Creeley
Born: May 21, 1926, Arlington, Massachusetts
Died: March 30, 2005, Odessa, Texas

NOTE: I wrote this piece for the Texas Observer soon after Bob Creeley died. It's on the TO website as well as elsewhere, but I just realized it's been a few days over five years now since he died, and I wanted it here on my blog too. Creeley, one of the most influential American poets of the 20th Century, died in Odessa, Texas at the age of 78. He had just begun a two-month residency in Marfa as a resident of the Lannan Foundation when he took ill and was rushed to the hospital in Odessa. Among his many awards, he has received the prestigious Bollingen Award in 1999 and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001. Creeley has always been a crucial influence on my work as a poet, writer and publisher.

“I believe in a poetry determined by the language of which it is made. I look to words, and nothing else, for my own redemption. . . . I mean the words as opposed to content.”
—Robert Creeley, somewhere around 1960

POET ROBERT CREELEY died in Odessa, Texas, of all places. A Creeley poem would have smiled at the irony, wondering in short gasping breaths about sadness in the Ukraine at the edge of the Black Sea, wondering if that human sadness was the same sadness he saw in the face of the black nurse in Texas who was watching him die. Then a few days later the Pope died in Rome. Where he was supposed to die. The media made sure that the whole world followed the Pope on the journey to his new status as Holy Cadaver and Future Saint. But news of Creeley’s death, not withstanding his importance to American cultural history, was muted, traveling mostly by short newspaper obituaries, emails and telephone calls. For poets of my generation the news was like a switchblade slicing across the chest. It wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did happen. Quickly, almost painlessly.

During the extravagant media-driven spectacle of the Pope’s dying while still carrying my own personal sadness for Creeley’s death, I was reminded of Paul Blackburn’s poem “Obit Page.” There, in a few short lines, Paul coupled the deaths of Roger Hornsby, the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time, and the great American poet William Carlos Williams who had followed Hornsby into the void. Blackburn’s short eulogy was a celebration of pure Americana and the American idiom. WCW had entered the Hall of Fame where he belonged. But Creeley and the Pope within a few days of each other? Creeley was an existentialist poet, a romantic, a believer of words as he wrote them on a blank white page or on a computer screen when that time came--nouns and verbs transforming into a poem, content and life always in a state of change and becoming. Here he was riding in a rickety boat crossing the River Styx with El Papa, the last great Sun King, the man who had been perched atop the monolithic throne where truth and answers were promised packaged neatly in a book. This image is the antithesis of Blackburn’s elegiac celebration. It’s more like a good lucha libre bout on Mexican television.

Creeley was 78 when he died, a member of the remarkable generation of poets that Donald Allen immortalized in the Grove Press anthology The New American Poetry, 1945—1960. In the 60s I was young man at the University of Arizona BCW (Before “Creative Writing”) first experimenting with the making of poems. Creeley and a host of his peers came through to read, thanks to the largesse of the Ruth Stephan Poetry Center and its board of teachers and writers like Keith Wilson and Barney Childs who were plugged into the Allen anthology. We heard folks like Creeley, Robert Duncan and Gary Snyder, among others.

And Creeley became my hero. His poems were intense personal revelations that seemed so accessible at first reading, but the closer I got to them, the more mysterious and deep they became. His poems--and this is still what I find so extraordinary about Creeley and his generation of poets--reflected exactly the poet who was writing them. Form was the constant subtext, his poems seemed to say, the place where a true revolution was being waged. The “new American poem” was an organic mechanism, a reflection of the poet in constant flux, but more like staring into a creek or a lake than staring into a static mirror. The “New American Poets” gave my generation this gift, and they had received it likewise from Williams and Pound who had received it from Whitman.


Creeley was a handsome and charismatic guy in a disheveled and very personal sort of way. He had been blinded at an early age, so he wore a patch over his bad eye, which made him even more attractive. He loved fervent conversation, especially about poetry. He took young poets seriously and easily invited us into his circle. He would sit down, elbows on the arms of the chair, hands clasped; he would lean forward and peer at us at us with that one eye; and he would answer our questions about how a poem is made. He would talk about content becoming form and form becoming content, about using a typewriter or a pencil, about legal-sized pads of yellow paper opposed to notebooks, about all these many things. And he would tell us stories about Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and Williams Carlos Williams. Not gossiping stories, but stories with an intent to reveal something about poetry and living life like a poet with eyes and ears wide open. His stories became parables in our hearts. It was a paradise. I wanted so much to be a poet.

Creeley and his poems were addictive. If you read too much Creeley, which I of course did, then you started writing like him with short perfect lines, simple nouns and verbs, short little ditties that were oblique and tantalizing with innuendo. Opening up any poetry magazine of the time you could find young poets scattered across the United States who had been snorting and smoking too much Creeley. But if you were serious about your craft, and you understood Creeley’s ideas about form, then you would go find other poets and sources that led you back home to yourself. It was exhilarating.

As the years passed I’d bump into Bob Creeley in various places. We’d talk like old friends and compare notes, we’d drink wine and laugh, and he’d tell me stories about poets and poems, peering at me through that one mysterious eye. The cadences of his conversation were the same cadences of his poetry. I was always scuttling back to his poems, more sure of myself, reading them and being amazed. And I would always be reminded of the sense of a community of poets that Creeley had passed along to me and my peers. I still feel that when I hear and read poems I like, and when I write poems, or an essay like this. I feel like I am participating in community. That together we are feeding the luminous beast which is poetry.

Ezra Pound said poets and artists are the antennae of their race, and Creeley loved to remind his listeners of that statement, wondering aloud what it meant. That’s why I put Creeley and Pope John Paul II together on Charon’s rickety boat floating on the River Styx toward the other shore. The Pope feels confused and out of place afloat the dark waters. His tenure on the Spaceship Earth was as the spiritual leader of a feudalistic institution that wields enormous sway in the world he has just departed, but its symbols and paraphernalia of a God-ordered universe no longer seem to catch hold. Its power and majesty are subsiding. In the quiet of his heart the Pope understood that the struggle was about ideas and mythos, but he was never able to grasp evolutionary theory and the New Physics. Those ideas didn’t fit comfortably inside the Cathedral. And now the Pope sits facing his companion, a goofy one-eyed poet with an unkempt beard. The guy seems nervous and unsure of himself, but he’s scribbling on a piece of paper.

“What are you doing?”
“Writing a poem.”
“About what?”
The poet leans forward and says, “Well, I don’t know yet. I let the poems bubble up from the mud. It’s sort of like everything else.”
“But what does your poem say so far?”
“It says, Death is so much emptiness, huh?”
“Well, maybe,” the Pope says.
Charon, the ancient ferryman, dips his pole into the dark water and pushes his boat toward the other shore.
He says absolutely nothing.
He never will.


An excellent place to begin researching Robert Creeley’s work can be found at the Electronic Poetry Center here. And there's a wonderful electronic archive of poetry readings here. I'm pasting below a photo that I copied off poet Larry Goodell's facebook page (Larry is publishing all sorts of wonderful photos from back in the day) when Creeley and Bobbie Creeley (aka Bobbie Louise Hawkins) and kids lived in Placitas, NM, above Albuquerque. Larry is hunkered down, poet Ron Bayes is the third man in the photo. Below the photo is a poem I wrote not long after Bob died. His poetry was echoing around in my thoughts. Lee and I were driving I-10 east, south of Odessa, north of Marfa. For Love, of course, was Creeley's first big book, a collection of poems. I have my original copy of that book somewhere, all dog-eared and used up.

For Love on I-10, West Texas

Ivan Ilych was dead before we got to Ozona.
He answered his koan.
His bones began to rattle like my mother’s rattled.
And then, like my mother, he let go.
I started thinking about Robert Creeley.
He died up north of here in Odessa—
Strange place for a poet to die.
Especially Creeley,
No big car to drive, his hip New England riff
Useless in all this emptiness of sky.
Then our van ran out of gas.
A sheriff’s deputy—
Big square-jawed man in a cowboy hat—
Showed up with 5 gallons in a red plastic can.
He had two sidekicks, a white guy and a black guy.
Big smiles all around.
Is this the 21st century dream of Texas?
I hope so.
All three of them nursing an adrenalin rush.
They wanted to help somebody.
They had just cleaned up a bloody mess on the highway.
An SUV going east, a young couple and their three kids,
The front right tire blew out, the vehicle rolled
And over.
And over.
It was ugly, the deputy said.
And bloody.
The emptiness surrounds us. Nothing
To do but drive, he said.
We shook hands all around. The black guy said,
Look out where you’re going.
And I thanked them for the gas.
I didn’t ask how many people were killed.
I didn’t want to know.
What kind of news would that be?
How would it get us to Ozona?


A Garden of Lettuce

We live in El Paso, the Desert of Chihuahua, so all winter  long we eat fresh lettuce from Lee's lettuce garden. It's not a big space--maybe 4'x12'--half of which Lee uses for her lettuce. I double-dig beforehand. A manly chore. Then Lee plants seeds. A mixture of seeds from Cook's Gardens and Seed Savers heirloom seeds. The ritual begins sometimes late September. Maybe October. The seeds sprout. "My little babies," she calls them. Grandkids gather around to watch and help. She waters the garden, she tends the tiny plants, and in three or four weeks she's thinning and pulling leaves from the larger plants. She's putting little plants in our store-bought lettuce salads. The plants thrive in the cool desert air. If the weather promises a freeze, she's out there laying sheets over the bed. Soon we're eating salads with lettuce totally from the garden. Fresh lettuce during the Christmas holidays is exotic and delicious. Lee makes a wonderful salad--feta cheese, red onion, red bell peppers, salt and pepper, olive oil, balsamic vinegar. We feast on salads. November. December. January. This last January we went off to Boston for a conference. We figured the garden would be gone when we got back and Lee was already planning what seeds she would be planting to get us to April. But January was peculiar. A very wet month. We came home to a flourishing garden. Now the heat is coming, the hot winds of spring, and Lee has an abundance of lettuce. The lettuce won't last much longer. We've not bought lettuce from the store in months. She making gifts of lettuce to neighbors and friends. Our evening salads get larger and larger. Tonight again we feasted on a wonderful salad. Such a pleasure. Below is a poem I wrote several years ago about Lee's garden.

● ● 

This morning I made love with the lettuce picker

Every year the lettuce picker plants her lettuce in October.
Lettuce loves October in the Chihuahua Desert.
October passes and November comes.
The lettuce grows leafy and happy.
The lettuce picker slips out to the garden in the morning.
I will not tell you how old I am.
I will not tell you how old she is.
But her legs are white, her rear end
is clad in purple pajamas
and is raised like a flag planted
in the dirt
for the preservation of love.
Today is Sunday, the day of Sabbath.
A day to remember ourselves.
A day to worship all that is holy.
This is what we do when we make love.
● ●

Reading this poem after all of this time I think of Judson Crews. Just yesterday I saw a picture of him on Larry Goodell's Facebook page. Good old Judson. He's alive and still doing a little bit of kicking. Living up in Taos. Women around him, of course. An ancient man now. He certainly understands what wild and beautiful stuff can happen between a man and a woman when they are together harvesting lettuce from the garden.