For the last three-plus years, Gary Young has been working on a limited fine press edition of the late Zen priest Kobun Otogowa—who is probably best known in the United States as the spiritual advisor of the equally late Steve Jobs.* As news of the project spread, an invitation was extended to Young to come to Japan itself, where he could work as well on a poetry translation of that calligraphy. And so in the summer of 2011, immediately prior to the publication of his book, Even So, Gary Young journeyed to the mountains above Ono, Japan, where in the Hokyoji Temple he sat ZaZen for weeks, participated in general temple life, and met with multiple Buddhist scholars, who together explained some of the textual origins and metaphorical meanings embedded within the calligraphy as Young worked out his translations.
I offer this biographical tidbit to introduce you to the respect that Young has gathered in far-reaching communities that are at once outside the traditional academic centers in which poetry is largely embedded these days, and beyond the national confines of English-speaking poets. In Japan, in the esteemed environment of an ancient Buddhist temple, Tanaka Shinkai Roshi declared that Young was “a Bodhisattva, whether he wanted to be or not.”
And indeed to read the poems of Young’s latest collected works, entitled Even So, is to be introduced to a natural affinity between Young’s contemporary prose epiphanies (certainly in his last five books), and the elaborate, wonderful millennium of Buddhist poets writing haiku and other, later forms, whose tonal spirit hovers within and behind Young’s poetic efforts. When Young writes, for instance–
Queen Anne’s lace crowds the air; cicadas call from beyond the stream. Monkeyflowers rouge the hill below a pasture where six horses crop sage; and beside the road, between riprap at the river mouth, down gullies and the wasted ravines, thistles are showing us their hearts again.
–the East/West interpenetration is self-conscious, almost an homage. As a benchmark, here is the Monk Jakuren’s poem, written sometime near the end of the Twelfth Century:
The hanging raindrops
Have not dried from the needles
Of the fir forest
Before the evening mist
Of autumn rises.
Young is characteristically honest regarding his influences, in which he delights rather than broods resentfully. Nevertheless, he is using his distinctly American hand to point to those past masters. Notice that both poems are written as one sentence, but Young in that last clause employs a syntactical mimesis which the Zen monk would never imagine because there is too much rhetorical effect. Young’s winding sequence of prepositional phrases leads us to the end of ravines, where the metaphor is blooming: “thistles are showing us their hearts again.” This syntax, and the use of metaphor, distinguishes Young’s work from the Japanese. In both poems we find that simple, focused, direct natural observation, but there is less a delight in metaphor in the monk’s verse, less device. Instead, there is the intent to create a sensibility whose simplicity allows experience to register at once delicately, but indelibly. Young, on the other hand, uses the quiet Zen-like attention to arrive at a definition, a declarative statement, a captured truth. There are revelations in his poetry, but you have the sense that he set about to capture them, a silent predator after an elusive prey.
And that, I think, represents the essence, the essential characterologic friction Tanaka Shinkai Roshi is indicating, as he observes that Young is an enlightened being (Bodhisatva) “whether he wanted to be or not.” Because Young would not necessarily prefer to know what he has learned, or choose to feel what he has experienced. He is not benignly tolerant. Many of Young’s empathies are disagreeable to him: he doesn’t want to like these hateful people he often portrays. Similarly, his clarities are ambiguous, his loves are dying, his loyalties make him angry, his persistence is as much resignation as courage. He is full of surprises when you least expect them—which of course is what constitutes the surprise. For instance, I suspect that most of his many students in general (not to mention this reviewer in particular) would admit it is hard to imagine Gary Young sitting still for hours at a time with an empty mind. I don’t see it happening—even in the Hokyoji Temple. He is the kind of poet who does not empty his mind, so much as clear away a bit of space in his perception for yet another insight, one further observation, a second look. Nothing is lost on him.
In this he reminds me of a resolutely American poet, Emily Dickinson, who also spent her time crafting finely wrought moments of perception, paring away the inessentials to capture a necessary truth. “I like the look of agony,” she writes, “because I know it’s true./Men do not sham convulsion”. Well, actually they do—at least in contemporary mass civilization, pseudo pathologies have arisen—, but her point, really, is that you do whatever it takes to arrive at conviction, which is pleasing even when it is unpleasant. Young writes in a poem I will fully quote later “Even my bad ideas are good,” and both poets agree—over a century and a half apart—that life is built upon contradictions, that empathy is hard to reach, that truths are not self-consistent, that pleasure may contain horrors. Insight is a bitch—but it is also to the purpose, the heart of the poetic act. Both poets as they write concentrate each poem upon one act of clarity, a sole idea realized, a single event captured. Accordingly, each instance of imagination is encapsulated; there is no narrative provision made to connect one poem with another.
With that said, because he himself organized the sequence of poems in the individual volumes comprising this generous selection he has entitled Even So, Young can create a sense of thematic connection that may generalize over his untitled prose poems—an opportunity that Dickinson’s lack of publication denied her. Young’s early work is a bit more traditional than his subsequent prose poems, and offers an early taxonomy of themes that Young explores in more detail, in layers of nuance–and as the mood strikes him–, in his later poems. Open the book, and we first encounter “Walking Home From Work,” which introduces the cardinal points, the coordinates of Young’s poetic world.
Asphalt and gravel flex with my shoes as the heel
hits and pulls the rest of my body forward.
Ahead of me, twilight is ending
and the ragged outline of the mountain
is glazed with iridescence, each tree
singular and sure.
Each night the same. Or if not
the same, then part of one long night
that leads me to my house, there
on the high ground of the foothills.
A thin streak of gray smoke
rises from the chimney,
a string from which the house
is suspended in the darkness.
I am a block away before shadows appear
moving against the fogged
windows in the kitchen.
My wife is baking bread. A hand
reaches up and wipes away the steam.
Light spills out of the kitchen
and begins to fill the world.
Work, we are to gather from the title, is important: it is the source of material well-being, the means to keep the wolf from the door, the opportunity to insure the basis of Maslow’s hierarchy of human necessities. We have food, water and shelter, possibly bread—and there Young draws his imaginary line in the civilized gravel. On his side we find the means of life; on the other there are hazards.
What exactly constitutes the nature of those threats to the domestic image is left to be explored in many subsequent poems of this volume. But for now, the quiet, lovely tone of the poet in “Walking Home from Work,” focuses on the positive things—once the possibility of menace is acknowledged. We are to notice, as he does, that there is an inchoate pressure of darkness: the impenetrable stuff that remains opaque and inhospitable. In the midst of this unlit gloom, the house—his native place–is suspended on a thread, a sort of inverse Sword of Damocles. Cut the thread, and vitality is swallowed once again into the inessential night. This time, however, he makes it home to the promise of sensual intimacy. The house is warm. His wife is beckoning through the window, bread is baking, the windows are steamed with the aroma, and the light of all this affection spills into the Biblical darkness. We sense at once the immense importance of Young’s protected space—which is a shared territory. The scale is not sublime, but human and individual, because it is within domestic rooms that personal identity is made possible. Indeed, domesticity is the very horizon of identity. It provides the setting, and the opportunity, for intimate knowledge: of one’s self, and of others. It allows a person to enjoy sensual pleasures, to form friendships, build habitual associates, establish a familiar network, create a social status, enjoy a civic stature.
Young is systematic in his exploration of these themes, and their corollaries, in his subsequent quartet of books– Days, Braver Deeds, If He Had, and Pleasure—though he does so by intensifying his thematic focus to a degree that omits history, with its material clutter of specific dates, different names, separate places. None of the poems are titled in any of these four books, and so there are no identifiable places or grounds, no generic frame of reference, no executive authorial contextualization. Indeed, to take Days as an example, we immediately observe that we are given no information to identify the people appearing in the book, whose lives and conditions nonetheless comprise the book’s material. Days in poem after poem elaborates the scope of social possibilities: marriage, separation, health and illness, mothers and fathers, wives, friends both male and female, life and death, babies, infants who are acquiring language, and elderly stroke victims who are losing theirs. An unnamed stranger accosts him in the street to request that she hold his infant son:
I’m a mother, too, she said, and took the child in her arms. She closed her eyes, kissed his head, smelled his neck. My baby is twenty-nine, she said, and she handed him back.
That is the whole poem. Because there are no stated identities (and indeed, Young’s wife, who is holding the baby, is not even specified, her presence merely indicated by that inclusive adverb “too”), we are able to concentrate on the ways available to us to connect our communities. A stranger can assert primal identifying events that survive temporal changes (her baby is twenty-nine—i.e. an adult), and collapse over individual differences. The two women have intimate connections, a shared experience, a common body of knowledge, similar loves and commitments, even though they do not know each other. And, we should notice, it is an act of kindness to allow these communal ties to be acknowledged: presumably Young’s wife does not need to hand her baby over to a stranger.
Acts of trust and kindness are part of the privilege of living in a related body of other human beings, part of the means by which the scope of personal life is magnified. Vitality itself is a privilege—a miracle, not a right:
Two girls were struck by lightning at the harbor mouth. An orange flame lifted them up and laid them down again. Their thin suits had been melted away. It’s a miracle they survived. It’s a miracle they were born at all.
When they were lifted and laid down again, unclothed and baptized by fire, their status reveals the essential wonder of things inhering beneath the illusion of human control. Their survival in the wake of the atmospheric random blast is a miracle because unpredicted—both in the sense that they were the ones stricken by the lightning, and not someone else, and in the sense that their survival defeated the odds for such a thing. Nothing about their lives is in fact predictable. No biological law will create an individual personality, no social authority will control lightning, no government will legislate consequences to random natural acts. Most people do not get hit by lightning (though these girls do), and those who are so stricken commonly do not survive it (though these girls did).
The nature of miracles is a continual theme running through all four of his books of prose poems. In the instance above, the miraculous is to be understood as an event that is at once statistically unlikely and also (unexpectedly) beneficial. Its occurrence operates within the perceived laws of nature, but it nevertheless discloses values obscured by quotidian oversight or inattention, until they are illuminated by the extraordinary persuasive event itself. Whether lightning strikes you or not, just to be young, just to be able to stand in the sunshine in your bathing suit is a miracle—an opportunity that is temporary, and that is not given to everyone to enjoy (check out the burn units, the neurology floors, the ERs in any given medical center, or the battle field of any theater of war. There are lots of them.). Nor is it an opportunity that is guaranteed to be given twice. You never know when or where lightning may next strike—or in what form, or with what force.
The bodies of men and women sometimes ignite from within, and burn from the inside out. Nothing remains but a pile of ash where only minutes before a girl had been lying on the beach, or a young man had complained of the heat and then burst into flame. How can we explain the world? My heart is beating, I can feel it. God loves us more than we can stand.
In one sense, this poem is a revisitation of the lightning, occurring in another book—Braver Deeds–, in another mood with a darker cast to the advent of miracle. Again we have the abrupt arrival of unexpected revelation, but the violence of the disclosure is not to be withstood. It is, to say the least, a mixed blessing to be the recipient of so much affection.
Indeed, in Braver Deeds, as well as in If He Had, Young explores just how various the qualities of his experience can be within this miraculous life. I should probably mention here at the outset that Young can write more bluntly about the presence of God than I, for one, am quite comfortable with. But then again, Young also writes bluntly about the pleasure he takes in looking down the blouse at the exposed breasts of an unaware young woman, and about how many times his wife orgasms–which for my part I would not openly discuss either. You know these events are sure to have happened; it’s just that there is often a decorum about admitting it. But Young won’t have any of that. He is kindly enough, generous in his empathy, but nonetheless unsparing about what he does, what he values, what he believes. Because he is equally direct regarding what he presents in each of his poems, regardless of the niceties of his reputation, he is all the more persuasive about the mixtures he imagines, the inescapable paradoxes by which people are at once redeemed and gravely tested, saved but pretty much left without gratification.
Tom Bone fell from deck, and watched as the ship sailed on without him. He tried, at first, to convince himself that he wasn’t there, then he swam all night. He drifted with the current, and in the morning saw an island, and swam to it, and was saved. There’d been a moment, before dawn, when he’d lost all hope and lowered his head into the water. He was about to take a breath, when he heard a voice say, you’re going to live, don’t give up, you’re going to make it. I have listened to that voice all my life.
The voice that tells Tom Bone ‘don’t give up’ says nothing at all about happiness that might accrue if he perseveres, nor are there promised satisfactions, no guaranteed rewards, no escape from pain, no immunity from fear and terror, no assurance that he will survive the next challenge. This is an old-time–an Old Testament poem that critiques the orthodox conviction extending from our original Puritan fanatics to our contemporary evangelists, who expect privileges to attend to their religious conviction. You are saved, therefore you can expect happiness and wealth. The corollary is also professed: if you are not happy and wealthy, then you are a sinner who deserves to burn at the hands of an angry god.
Tell that to the Apostles, each of whom died violently: some crucified, some stoned to death, some flayed alive. Young insists that love—divine or human—does not protect from the malevolence of pain, the injustice of circumstances, the trauma of disease, the extreme conflicts of interest.
I discovered a journal in the children’s ward, and read, I’m a mother, my little boy has cancer. Further on, a girl has written, this is my nineteenth operation. She says, sometimes it’s easier to write than to talk, and I’m so afraid. She’s left me a page in the book. My son is sleeping in the room next door. This afternoon, I held my whole weight to his body while a doctor drove needles deep into his leg. My son screamed, Daddy, they’re hurting me, don’t let them hurt me, make them stop. I want to write, how brave you are, but I need a little courage of my own, so I write, forgive me, I know I let them hurt you, please don’t worry. If I have to, I can do it again.
None of the reassurances in this poem actually relieve anyone. That nineteenth operation does not signal a freedom from the girl’s fright, or her release into confident health, but—as with Tom Bone’s certain voice—it testifies only that she will make it to the next island: the twentieth operation. Young ‘s reassurance to his son—‘please don’t worry’—is not likely to put his son’s mind at rest. Nor isYoung reassured against his own guilt and remorse, because he knows he may be called upon to hold his son down again to allow further torment. That’s why he needs his own courage: it is the case with all survivors that they live in order to face further shocks and challenges. Risks are never taken from them, and what they are given is the opportunity to keep swimming against despair.
There is, in short, nothing sentimental about Young’s belief in revelation, or in his conviction regarding the essential value of life over death. Even during casual promises that arise during any given day, the occasional satisfactions, the momentary bursts of small joys—nothing grandiose–, even then Young prefers to acknowledge the thrill of coequal sorrow.
Every Wednesday, Fidel brings oysters to market. I like to eat them with salsa, cilantro and lime. I like to run my tongue along the slick lip of the inner shell and suck them into my mouth. I love knowing they’re alive. Fidel wants to know, how many? And when I tell him, I’ll start with two, he taps his blunt knife against a block of ice, and shucks three.
The Epicure confesses here, ‘I love knowing they’re alive,’ as he consumes the material of living things. Whether you enjoy oysters as much as he does, Young nevertheless conveys his relish in unabashed, thoughtful detail. He means us to admire, as much as he himself admires, Fidel for knowing him so well, who is not fooled by Young’s initial profession of modest enthusiasm. Neither man is to be mistaken for half-hearted, tepid creatures insecure in their pleasures. We are meant to respect—as Young himself respects—Fidel’s confident pride in the quality of what he has to offer, the source of a pagan delight.
At this point I think we ought to return to Tanaka Shinkai Roshi’s summer observation regarding Young’s status as a Bodhisattva—which is to say, one who has attained enlightenment, but who postpones his entrance into Nirvana in order to remain among the confused, blundering souls on earth, so that he might assist them in attaining enlightenment for themselves. There is a benign heroism in a Bodhisattva, but Roshi’s observation—‘whether he wanted to be or not’—indicates a double meaning. The first, of course, refers to the understandable reluctance to renounce Nirvana. But the second meaning, I think, acknowledges Young’s unseemly pleasure in the mixed blessings of sublime, ugly struggles. Here is that poem I promised you earlier:
The world is at home in my mind. I can spell Detroit. I know where my cats are buried in the orchard. I know the quadratic equation, my mother’s maiden name and the suicide squeeze. I know all the words to A Good Woman’s Love and I can hear them in my head at will. Every thought is like a sweet rolled over the tongue. Even my bad ideas are good.
To many of us, it may seem unusual, if not outright quirky, to renounce Nirvana in order to learn the quadratic equation, of all things. But fortunately we have an entire, generous, persuasive book of poetry—Even So—in the course of which Young produces for us his many reasons why this is his free choice.
* Just so you know, an edition of this book is forthcoming from White Pine Press.