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.
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.