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“In Kyoto …”

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.

Translated by Jane Hirshfield

This wonderful short poem feels like an appropriate adieu to 2010.

The collage above is by Susana Jacobson and dates from our days of sharing a loft on the Lower East Side, on Henry Street at Rutgers, so many years ago. We were in our 20s back then when she gifted this to me. And as is the nature of the mind, it feels like a life that was happening just a few months ago.

And yet we all in the end live, do we not, in a phantom dwelling?

This koanic line from Bashō became the thread through a variety of impressions and images for me this morning.

When The Shoe Fits

Ch’ui the draftsman
Could draw more perfect circles freehand
Than with a compass.

His fingers brought forth
Spontaneous forms from nowhere. His mind
Was meanwhile free and without concern
With what he was doing.

No application was needed
His mind was perfectly simple
And knew no obstacle.

So, when the shoe fits
The foot is forgotten,
When the belt fits
The belly is forgotten,
When the heart is right
“For” and “against” are forgotten.

No drives, no compulsions,
No needs, no attractions:
Then your affairs
Are under control.
You are a free man.

Easy is right. Begin right
And you are easy.
Continue easy and you are right.

The right way to go easy
Is to forget the right way
And forget that the going is easy.

–Chuang Tzu, translated by Thomas Merton

I heard the nun Joan Chittister on Easter morning tell a story from her book on gratitude about the fierce warload who had run every villager out of town except for a fearless monastic, whom he demanded be dragged to his feet. “Don’t you know who I am?” he thundered. ” I can run this sword through you without batting an eye.” The nun replied, “Do you know who I am? I can allow you to run your sword through me without batting an eye.”

–In a message from my friend Kathryn Kimball


New work: Bulae, 2010


The dark that’s gathering strength
these days is submissive,
kinky, silken, willing;
stretched taut as a trampoline.
World events rattle by like circus
trains we wave at occasionally,
as striped, homed and spotted
heads poke out their windows.
Feels like I’m wearing a corset,
though I haven’t a stitch on.
Burn the place setting I ate from,
OK? and destroy the easy chair
I languished in. Let birds
unravel my lingerie
for nesting materials.
Fingers poised on the piano keys,
I can’t think what to play.
A dirge, a fugue?
What, exactly, are crimes
against nature? How many
calories are consumed while
lolling in this dimness,
mentally lamenting the lack
of anything to indicate
some faint mirage of right-
mindedness has been sighted
on the horizon? The world
is full of morbid thinkers,
miserable workers and compulsive
doodlers. Darling, my mother
used to croon, you were a happy
accident, like the discovery
of penicillin. When I sense
the zillions of cells in my body
laboring together, such grand
fatigue sweeps over me.
Once in a blue moon I smell
the future’s breath,
that purgatorial whiff
shot through with the scent
of burnt hair, like when sailors
have been drifting at sea
for a long time and suddenly
they see gulls circling
and the ripe composty odor
of land unfurls in the air,
but they’ve no idea whether
an oasis of breadfruit
and pineapple awaits them
or an enclave of cannibals.

–Amy Gerstler

This poem is so good and so full, I don’t even know where to begin. It is not the last note I want to leave you with however, so here’s something lighter to counterbalance the intensity of Doomsday:

In Kyoto …

In Kyoto,
hearing the cuckoo,
I long for Kyoto.


Amy Gerstler’s latest volume of poetry, Dearest Creature, was reviewed in the New York Times this past Sunday. An excerpt from that review by David Kirby is referenced in this Slow Muse post.

“Known for witty, complex poetry that reflects such themes as redemption, suffering, and survival, Amy Gerstler won the 1991 National Book Critics Circle Award for the collection Bitter Angel.” (The Poetry Foundation.)

Bashō (1644 – 1694) was the most famous poet of the Edo period in Japan.

Amy Gerstler, “Doomsday” from Nerve Storm. Copyright © 1993 by Amy Gerstler. Courtesy of Penguin Group.

Bashō, “In Kyoto,” translated by Jane Hirshfield. Courtesy of the translator.