Aug 18 2009
From “No Pond Moment”
A frog jumps in.
The sound of water.
Slicing though its own
reflection the frog silently
embraced its disappearance.
I’d like to believe the frog was
just pursuing its genetic dharma.
How you are to them is all they’ll notice.
Deep in the mountains,
reiterate the moment.
Frog spawn: and a bulge of
pop-eyed Bodhidharma faces
glaring from behind a lotus.
(Humourless as carp
that mopped up the tadpoles
inseminating this pond water.)
Jump at just the right angle
and you might cancel your reflection.
Was this frog cognition?
The frog was hesitant and then it jumped.
Nothing was the same and not much
changed in a gently wetted cosmos.
In the water of his mind, no pond
to jump in. The poet said this.
The frog knew no better.
Slumbering universal water. The frog swam
to the bottom where the world’s umbilical
coiled upward from its root mud to a lotus.
There were plenty of mosquitoes and he ate a number.
First here and now gone. It adopted
a familiar but unfathomable medium.
The word gone’s implication.
The frog that spawned successive
energetic generations. Which individuals
have been witnessed jumping?
of some description.
A remote stretch of water.
Ten thousand frog throats
lifted to extol the silence.
Afternoon garden. Downward entry.
Below the surface, one solitary venture converged
with the All in an inaccessible resolution.
A hole in the water that led
twistingly to the underworld.
This small messenger connected us.
‘Why not sit quietly?’ ‘Because something makes
me want to jump, if just once. Isn’t it natural
to fribble away your energy and talent?’
Evolving towards the space,
that the man left empty.
From facts on land to beyond
in the water. What’s unsaid is
what no longer happens.
One thing’s become another.
In time they will belong together.
The frog slipped off as quietly as it could.
Mindful of Zen etiquette et cetera.
Spiral. Everything evolves in
its endogenous reflexive coil.
So too, this insignificant interpolation.
Was there majesty in anything?
By the mythologically terrific rock fall,
issued these infernal hissings
of the creative primal serpent.
But what I heard was nothing heroic.
I listen to it twice daily just under
the surface of my soup bowl’s contents.
Brain flash, mediated by the lotus stem
that feeds in the muck and wanders
to the surface, detonates its flowering.
Launched in the water the frog had no trouble
reconnoitring the silence.
Every midday tension sublimates eventually.
Neither frog nor water, but the sound
of the one as it entered the other.
Momentary and, in some ways, lasting.
Reports of these moments.
Their importance the import.
Pond, frog, water splash
synonymous in time gone.
A few inches of calligraphy.
First Basho jumped. Next Ryokan.
Then Sengai followed.
Names in the water washed off with the splashes.
Towards a realm of the opposite.
It took a single step. And then deep
into freedom with its unlimited vicissitudes.
It’s form and nothing
the mind jumps into.
No Pond Moment – Introduction.
In a memoir of his time with the poet Matsuo Basho (1643/44 to 1694), Shiko, one of Basho’s students, wrote: The poem was written by our master on a spring day. He was sitting in his riverside house in Edo, bending his ears to the soft cooing of a pigeon in the quiet rain. There was a mild wind in the air, and one or two petals of cherry blossom were falling gently to the ground. It was the kind of day you often have in late March – so perfect that you want it to last for ever. Now and then in the garden was heard the sound of frogs jumping into the water. Our master was deeply immersed in meditation, but finally he came out with the second half of the poem,
A frog jumped into water –
A deep resonance.
One of the students [the poet Kikaku] sitting with him immediately suggested for the first half of the poem,
Amidst the flowers
Of the yellow rose.
Our master thought for a while, but finally decided on
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond.
The student’s suggestion is admittedly picturesque and beautiful but our master’s choice, being simpler, contains more truth in it. It is only he who has dug deep into the mystery of the universe that can choose a phrase like this. (From Noboyuki Yuasa, 1966:32)
Because of our familiarity of Basho’s haiku, it is easy to lose sight of the strangeness and originality of both the poem and the context of its composition. For many (I include myself here), Basho has attained, on account of both his poetry and his journeys through Japan, a quasi-mythological status. He has become for us a Buddha of early modernism whose frequent expressions of suffering do nothing to diminish our esteem for his Buddhist insight and poetic genius. In the context of this and our own contemplation of his frog poem, it is natural to imagine the poet alone by the pond, while the silence is broken by the frog entering the water. Shiko’s narrative disabuses us of this expectation. Not only is Basho set apart from the pond but he is in company (presumably on the veranda of his little house whose garden abuts the river). Nor is the noise of any one frog alone in breaking the (comparative) silence. There are poets on the veranda and the air outside is alive with wind, rain, bird song and frogs jumping and croaking. (Croaking frogs, naku kawazu, are a commonplace of earlier Japanese poetry. Basho’s translation of sound from a frog to the water is one of his hokku’s innovations.)
Our conventional response to the poem may not, however, be entirely wrong. After all, most readers will not have enjoyed access to Shiko’s memoir. It must therefore be reasonable to imagine the master alone in a garden where all that happens is what he describes. A moment such as this of Buddhist insight is impossible to convey: but it shares the nature of a Zen face slap or the breaking open of a Rinzai Zen koan. Set against this, Shiko’s narrative interestingly suggests a combination of sociality and reclusion. Where the circumstances of an enlightenment experience is concerned no either or is required. How and where such an event occurs has no relevance.
Compounding this absence of any quasi-absolutist reclusion, we learn that the poem emerged not only in two fragments that had been separated by another poet’s intervention, but that it was also completed in conversation. Of course the exchange between Basho and (the celebrated) Kikaku represented a version of linked verse (renga) practice. In this, poets composed mutually allusive pieces in response to the stimulus of a ‘head verse’ (hokku) which had been given by a senior practitioner. Indeed 1686, the year Basho composed his poem, saw the publication of an anthology called Kawazu Awase (‘Frog Contest’) consisting of frog poems by several authors suggested by the hokku that Basho had made famous.
Notes to poems
5. The leptodactylid is a species of frog.
7. The Indian monk Bodhidharma who travelled to China in the early 6th century was the first Ch’an [Zen] patriarch. He is said to have meditated in a cave somewhere in southern China for nine years before agreeing to engage in teaching. Japanese tradition depicts him with ferociously staring eyeballs.
10. Basho’s term for frog is kawazu. Another word is kaeru, whose alternative meanings are to change and to go home.
15. Two aspects of lotus lore crop up in this series. In Hindu tradition, the universe is conceived as a lotus growing from the navel of the god Vishnu as he dreams the cosmos into being from the pre-creational waters. In Hindu-Buddhist iconography, the lotus also represents a final stage of spiritual evolution (for which ‘purity’ is a frequently used shorthand). One Sanksrit term for lotus is pankaja: ‘mud-born’. The word (pungently) encapsulates the fact that the lotus is rooted in mud and its long stem works its way to the surface on which perfect and unmuddied blossoms open.
19. The etymology of ‘extol’ is from Latin ferro, ferre, tuli, latum ‘to lift’ (such was one pillar of a mid-20th century private education). The verb is used largely for its assonantal function. ‘Ten thousand’ is a Buddhist/Daoist symbol for multiplicity.
39. The head is filled with crazy and unrealised thoughts, feelings and impulses. Courtiers, editors and diplomats, however, educate themselves to transmute these psychic materials into conversation: a rare talent which sometimes also finds expression in creative sublimation. Poetry in particular is a means of making amends for solecism and verbal misbehaviour.
54. usuk – Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) for the membrum virile. Trickster in native American myth was represented variously as quasi-human, coyote, raven, hare. Hunger-driven fool or semi-divine demiurge he [sic] underwent the misfortunes and humiliations of the idiots found in many folk traditions.
Tom Lowenstein is known internationally as an ethnohistorian, a writer on Buddhism, an anthropologist and a poet. His Ancestors and Species: New & Selected Ethnographic Poetry was published by Shearsman Books in 2005. Later this year (2009) Shearsman is publishing his new collection of poems, Conversation with Murasaki, which includes ‘No Pond Moment’. Ancient Land: Sacred Whale, which includes prose and 80 pages of his poetry, appeared in three editions (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Giroux, and Harvill, 1993 and 2001). His book on Buddhism, The Vision of the Buddha (Macmillan, 1996) appeared in four English-language editions and was translated into seven languages. His latest ethnohistory book is Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009). His poems have appeared recently in London Review of Books, Poetry Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, and Tears in the Fence.
Inconsolable at her loss – parts of Orpheus’ body buried in Mount Olympus, his head in the island of Lesbos – Eurydice pleaded for her release from Hades so she could give Orpheus a proper burial. Not knowing how to prepare for such a venture, Eurydice sought the counsel of Savitri. “It was simple for me,” said the pure one. “I could not take my eyes off Satyavan. I followed him everywhere, until Yama gave in to my requests.” Savitri then took Eurydice to meet Krishna, who emanated divine melody, perched on a tree with branches draped in colourful saris billowing skywards, tugging like trapped kites. Are all the lovers of the world musicians of sorts? Eurydice mused as she smiled at the half-naked maidens of Mathura frolicking in the pond camouflaged beneath the old gnarled canopy of the ancient tree, unashamedly rejoicing. Krishna’s breath was music; he exhaled Om oblivious of the women clamouring after him, his face serene, smiling. Pity Orpheus did not learn a few of these tricks, thought Eurydice, drawn to this dark-blue boy who charmed all the gopis and kept Radha happy. When Krishna finally let the silence of the universe in, Eurydice’s question – Krishna, how can I bring Orpheus back to life? – danced in the wind. He spoke of human limitation, illusion, the soul’s eternal quality. Just when Eurydice thought she was getting the drift of his meaning, he disappeared from her sight like a vision leaving her in a field of light.
Savitri chose her husband Satyavan; so firm was her devotion to him that when he died, she asked Yama, the Lord of death, for the gift of his life. Yama offered Savitri any boon except the life of her husband. She asked for the restoration of her father-in-law’s eyesight and his throne, sons for herself and a life in all its fullness. Yama granted her all her wishes without thinking twice. Then Savitri reminded Yama that she needed her husband to fulfil her wishes. He was so impressed with her intelligence and love for her husband, so the story goes, that he relented and released Satyavan to return with Savitri. Many Indian wives observe a day in memory of Sati Savitri, the pure one, who won the life of her husband back from the hands of Yama.
Shanta Acharya was born and educated in Orissa, India and later won a scholarship to Oxford University, here she completed her doctorate in 1983; her dissertation, The Influence of Indian Thought on Ralph Waldo Emerson, was published in the USA in 2001. She was a Visiting Scholar and Teaching/Research Assistant at Harvard University, 1983-85, and after her move to London worked in the City as a fund manager. As well as books on business and finance, she has published five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Dreams That Spell The Light (Arc, 2009). She is Founder-Director of ‘Poetry in the House’ at Lauderdale House, Highgate, London.
interface to reflection
where blind earth rests
still & compliant
warps ancient meadows
wrapping pollarded willows
in a flurry of inconsistency
backward I have dreamed
this worrisome day
no one speaks
we are elements in complex
fabrications of time
through fearful prediction
the wound core
grown thick like a cloud
loaded with moisture
all day we said the wind
no longer relevant
as summer passes
long and low autumn
shortens daylight gold
words and ideas
to the hurt of stillness
and thwarted imagination
falling and rising
a broken current
swilling the palette
light receding unequivocally
like words can mean
as politicians fabricate
as air poses
where we float
in a line
between social rhetoric
and pleasurable banter
between neat formalities
the cathartic meridian
and social infrastructures
the sun goes
the sky is empty
the murmuring of lives
in ensuing silence
how each takes
from the other
a simplified version
cold dark insect purring night
the remote clicking
of precious chips
that scream our names
dreams of random process
cleansed in salt
we are numbers, ciphers
we live in the guest rooms
we are dying
in a humming stillness
cold dark night
of brilliant numbers
broadcast endless wishes
last moments hint
a breath expressing
what the ear fails to identify
of exquisite song
a morsel of hope
of endless thought
of endless hope
David Chaloner was born in 1944 in the north west of England. Apart from small press publications, his first nationally published work appeared in the Tandem paperback Generation X and the Penguin anthology Children of Albion. Salt published his Collected Poems in 2005, and Beyond These Lines appeared from Equipage in 2007. A long poem/performance text is in the latest issue of Angel Exhaust. He divides his time between London and Amsterdam managing his own design/strategy consultancy
Swifts cut curves in a lemon sky,
sipping the last sweet motes of day
as the goddess swallows the sun.
The desert turns a cold shoulder
and lying beside me
in the woven blankets
of night by the Nile,
you’ve the faint gleam
of a hieroglyph, half man,
half beast, indecipherable.
The slipping river sounds
invade the room. Its dank incense
chases me open-eyed
up the ladder of night
over the hoopoes’ hide,
the kingfishers’ burrow,
the reedbeds where ibis
are still as shallow carvings
on the columns of temples,
across lopsided stilt-houses
propped out on the water, where
the heron-headed fishermen lie.
Flotsam rides the current, slides back
into eddies, plastic bags, pale carp -heads,
your after-dinner dog-end, expanding
by the furled hotel felluca.
One lark hesitates above the jetty,
tries a scale that rolls out into riffs
whose light wings beat, drift and broaden.
The goddess filled with stars
relents. Your arm around the hollow
of my back, I find the stairs down into painted dark
where I may sleep, surrounded
by sealed jars.
The only meal I ever saw my father cook
Breakfast, my favourite. The stink of burnt white bread
he’d scrape with a whirring bone-handled knife,
black flakes snowing into the chickenfeed bucket.
Eggs fried lacy, fat flipped over the yolks till they dulled,
blind eyes on a china plate, and rashers with the rinds on
curling in the frying pan like red and white party ribbons.
The spit and billow of steam when he doused it
too soon from the cold tap, oily gobbets flying,
fizzing out on the tiles, spent Catherine wheels.
At the siege of Tobruk all he had for a week, morning and night,
was dehydrated cauliflower scavenged from the harbour,
a miracle blossoming in a mess tin filled with salt water.
Not again, our mother would groan,
we’ve heard it all before.
Give it a rest.
And in his eighties, alone in the bungalow at six a.m., no-one to please or irritate,
beetroot sandwiches were all he wanted, monumental slabs of bloomer and beet,
eaten with purple fingers at the cold kitchen table, no knife, no fork, no fuss.
Alex Josephy is an educationist living in East London and working with NHS doctors in South East England. Her poems have been published in a number of magazines including Rialto and Smiths Knoll. Some of her recent work will appear in the next editions of The Interpreter’s House and Obsessed with Pipework.
Tantie Diablesse hears the voice of the Mother of La Brea
Walk to me. Show me trees laden with cashew nuts,
make me baskets of razor-grass.
Close yourself from Christmas to Carnival, because I can be dangerous, I have
Rainwater pools on me. I choose
which edges are safe, which ones
to coat with oil or sulphur.
My touch can caress your boils,
ease crooked joints, coat your body
with blood-coloured water.
My breath is as long as a month. See how my faults can be filled, oozed up.
Lie on me. Moisten me. Cover
my burning skin with fishbones.
Send me live animals to eat
while still trapped.
Look at that eagle. He sits on a tree that is ten thousand years old.
La Brea or the Pitch Lake stretches from the west coast of Trinidad and re-appears in Lake Bermudez, Venezuela. A constantly molten area near its centre is called “The Mother of the Lake”.
Tantie Diablesse Prays
It’s time. Three hundred years have passed and I wait. My body is turning
into its own ghost.
Your priests tell me I am blessed; yet why do
you refuse to take me?
When I was pulled from my mother’s arms, placed with rats and filth, chained under
saltwater skies to be sold, like livestock,
did you ever hear me complain? So why do you
refuse to take me?
I fought until blood broke my shackles, only to see my children choose fettered lives.
Change will never really happen, so why do you
refuse to take me?
You sent Cousine Fate to visit, and I won all her games. There is nothing left to play
again, to forget.
You make hope exquisite torture, and always you
refuse to take me?
Now I have money, a large and beautiful house, more than enough land and even a
I didn’t ask for these favours. Why do you punish
by never taking me?
Fawzia Kane was born in Trinidad, and now practices as an architect in London. She has been published in several magazines including Agenda, Poetry London, Poetry Review, Poetry Wales, and The Rialto.
We put our puppies on the tables
with nervous loving hands.
I’ll stroke yours if you stroke mine
are the rules in this seminar.
I pick up a spotty Dalmatian
and say hello – it stares back,
its owner holds her breath:
no response, just a hot mess.
Beneath the table are legs
with tapping feet, extravagant shoes,
gnarled, bitten and covered in drool.
My shoes are no better: my puppy squats.
I listen to the tutor suggest a change;
he proposes I take the wagging tail,
wrap it up tight and cut the blood off,
calls it ‘docking’, says he does it all the time.
I smell dead fish on his breath.
My puppy lowers his nose to the table
and growls at him – I smooth it over,
my palm nursing his fur.
After we have all stroked the puppies
we chastise them slightly, there is always
room to improve – we take cups of water
and pour it over their heads.
They shiver and whine, and that’s it
nearly time to go, we put the puppies
into our rucksacks, then sit and wait.
The tutor introduces us to ‘Alpha’.
He opens the classroom door
and in runs a great big Doberman
covered in large, hairless scars.
It barks and foams and bites.
We all leave in tears,
our arms and legs lacerated,
puppies jostling in the dark,
whimpers rise from our baggage.
Jonny Reid’s poetry has appeared in Magma poetry magazine and will soon appear in Stand. He studied Theatre at Lancaster University, UK, and now lives in Manchester.
There are no fish that swim here
in this mire dark green and viscous.
He always felt at peace in the water
and even now he remembers
how he would toss in a stone
and watch his face tear away with the ripples.
When the wind drops and the sun rises, lazy as lost spirits,
the coffin – a boat for the dead –
is anchored and tranquil
wreathed in tendrils and reeds
somewhere beneath the surface, crystallised with light,
out beyond the storm, beyond reach.
That Winter the bay froze
as his body turned with the sky from dusted
pink dawn into a bruised blue-green dusk,
all warmth and light drawn away like miners pulled
from their tunnels in subtle shifts.
But still he may return
like the others.
Every single one of them
a ghost-limb of the bay
as though the water forgets
to keep what it claims.
Steven Nash is a professional musician and teacher. He is currently studying for a Ph.D. in Literature at York University, UK.