From Living in the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen




Words wind from my mouth

                        as hair winds from my head--

thick, shiny, tough lines of black

            that dirty with the dust of days,

                        knot, tangle, and fall.


            The bald monks grimace

when they find my poems on walls,

                        on leaves, in mud, on rock,

as though seeing a single strand of black

            in an evening bowl of rice.




                        The Way is open and free,

            wide as a rice patty in Spring,

silver and broad as the face of brown water,

                                    and unguarded as a pearl


            in an oyster’s open mouth, shimmering

in sunlight, among starfish and green weeds.

                        Yet we dare not reach

                                    for what is free, for fear


of the unknown, the expected,

                                    imagined menace lying

                        at the lip of freedom.

            Instead, we cower and retreat


            like an army fleeing the gaping gates

of an undefended city, only because

                        Kung Ming in robe and slippers

            glowers from atop the wall.




Kung Ming was a brilliant strategist of warfare. Legend has it that he turned aside an invading army for which he was unprepared by throwing open the city gates and sitting in plain view atop the walls. He was recognized by the approaching forces, who feared a trap and fled.




Carrying ash from kitchen coals to the great heap out back,

            I watched young monks gather after evening rice

                                    in a clearing by the outhouse,

            They pointed with childish, fearful cries

                        at a comet arcing over the Dragon's back.


            One in a voice loud with the night said,

“Ancients say ‘broom stars’ sweep away

                                    the old to make way for the new.”

            By starlight, I saw the blunt luster of bald heads

                                                bobbing in the dark.


            Like fat carp they were, thick backs breaking

a shallow surface, rushing over mossy stones to feed on scraps.


                                    In a voice they hadn’t heard

since the old master died last spring,

                        I crept behind them and barked, “Ho!”

            The idiots bolted like frightened horses fleeing

                                    a snaky coil of hemp curled in mud.


                        Fools!  If a comet swept clear the walk

for every holy one born, for every throne lost,

                                                for every river raised by rain,

                                    the sky would never be dark,

            the heavens would sing with a rasp of brooms,

                        and dust would fly like summer stars.


                                                        .           Ÿ


In China, a comet, with its feathery trailing tail, is known as a “broom star.” The broom, a familiar attribute of Shih-te, is also a symbol of immortality.