Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Poems Like Prayers in March's Verse-Virtual

            Poets have a wide of variety of uses for "prayer" -- the word and the concept. They don't necessarily pray 'for' something. They don't necessarily "recite" a prayer. And sometimes, as in the poems written on the theme of prayer for the March issue of, they make them up. 

            In "Benediction" Wesley McNair writes his own prayer of blessing. The diction and image flow seamlessly in this poem about flowering plants (or 'nature,' 'the seasons,' or what Thoreau famously called "wildness"), exactly mirroring its subject.
            Those "lilies of the field" we are asked to consider may stop attracting our eyes when their flowers have passed, but they remain part of a pattern and a process that the poem aptly names as "the joy of everything":
"Consider the lilies of the field,

how they grow

beyond their flowering, no longer

beautiful to our eyes. Consider

the brittle-petalled, black

centers of the black-eyed Susans,

waving like pom-poms

in the cold wind."
            Everything connects in this wonderful "Benediction."

             Prayer often mixes with other occupations, as noted in the title of DeWitt Clinton's poem "ON LISTENING TO ITALIAN ARIAS WHILE STOPPING FOR COFFEE ON ROSH HASHANAH."
            Not such a stretch when you think about it. The lovers and dreamers of Italian opera often find themselves in desperate straits and turn to prayer for help, or at least comfort. The poem spreads its universalizing notion of prayer from opera singers to rocks, the sky, water, animals and finally to people trying to compose prayer. The final request, believably enough, is for more time.

            In David Chorlton's poem "Night Trains," the rattle of trains passing along the track "click like rosary beads." In this tightly woven poem, the trains see everything ahead with "a single eye." Whether this excellent poem is a benediction or an inquisition -- "They take trees by the root/ and rattle their leaves" -- is up to us. Maybe both.

            In Barbara Goldberg's "Flock," the familiar language of a religious text is put to new uses that evoke the sacredness of the everyday.
"The Lord is my shepherd

He rides a red tractor

His work boots caked

With earth and dried dung"
            Words from sacred texts we are likely to hear over and over again can birth new poems, just as lines from Shakespeare or Frost do. Here the words of a psalm mix with images from the everyday, as the poems encompasses a real shepherd and his sheep, a "red tractor," "a black dog yapping/ to keep them in line," and some well cared for sheep who "do not want." The combination leads me to feel that the sacred is everywhere.
            Sarah White's poem "God Creates Eve on a Prayerbook Page" extends the notion of prayer to include the medieval practice of "illuminating" the meaning of the text with often highly individualized visual depictions. The poem continues this fertile relationship by offering a vivid praise song to a curiously engaging illustration. It notes "God had clothes galore—
Crown, cloak, robe of illuminations blue,
beard, a bit like Charlemagne’s, aflower."
            While Adam, "wore nothing but his curled coiffure."
            At the end our banished first couple dream of "a place/ like a tapestry" -- with a loose string that "she" cannot help pulling. The poem is brilliant fun, capturing a lighter-hearted humanity in this ancient art.

            The dog in Jefferson Carter's poem "Strep Throat" is indeed a loving dog. He is the answer to a sick man's prayers. The poem wittily ties together the speaker's remembrance of Che Guevara (who called apolitical friends "Drunks, singing, their throats/ about to be cut") and his own title malady, by depicting the devoted canine's entrance into the sufferer's bed "wriggling the comforter
aside & draping himself
over my head like
someone’s flung beret."
A happy and satisfying image.
          Marilyn Taylor's "Poem for a 75th birthday" is an implicit prayer of gratitude written in the language of love. She captures her husband, a gifted gardener, in this beautiful depiction:
 "it’s nearly evening
and here you still are, slow-dancing
in your garden, folding and unfolding
like an enormous grasshopper in the waning

            This prayer of thanks then moves straight to a sort of theological certainty:
 "...I lean
in your direction, absolutely satisfied
that summer afternoon is all
there is, and night will never fall."
            I take away from this poem an image of a vision.

            There's so much, as another contemporary lyric puts it, to be thankful for in these and the many other fine poems in Verse-Virtual's March 2018 issue.


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Garden of Garden Styles: Or, the Japanese Do Florida

            It was Sunday. The paths were crowded.
            It was Florida. People walked by in shorts, talking on their phones. Some groups chatted about other places, other 

           But the Morikami Japanese Gardens are about being here now.
            Eventually we found the gardens within the garden.
            The website for the Morikami Museum ( and Japanese Gardens tells us that the gardens are actually named "Roji-en: Garden of the Drops of Dew," and were designed Hoichi Kurisu in 2001 and inspired by (but not copies of) traditional garden styles. They were built on a large tract of donated land in the town of Delray Beach, by a colony of Japanese farmers who came there a century ago. 
            About a thousand years ago, the Morikami Museum website tells us, Japan's ruling upper class adopted Chinese garden design ideals featuring lakes and islands. Ideally these "gardens" were viewed from a boat, and classic wooden bridges were part of the design. 
            Today at Morikami, this is how you start the tour, walking across a traditional little foot bridge to take in the lake and a couple of islands, fringed with green and flowers beneath the reliably blue skies. (Sorry, no boats.)
            Anne and I then followed the path along the lake's circumference, enjoying the rich landscape of trees, flowering plants and frequent signed 'features' to look at (lake view, top photo). It takes me about half an hour to realize that the site's layout encompasses six distinct 'formal' gardens based on different styles, and periods, of the Japanese garden. 
            Our circumambulation of the lake represents the oldest of these, the "Shinden-style" garden. The lake's two little islands, the website points out, "are reached by a stately arched bridge similar to those often painted vermilion in Japan after models originating in T’ang Dynasty China (618 – c. 907)."
            The second of the six "gardens" -- a very elastic term, as we should not be surprised to realize -- called "The Paradise Garden" features paths (instead of boat rides) for strolling the perimeter of the garden's lake. I cannot recall at what point we pass onto this path, though Anne recalls seeing a sign for "Paradise Garden." (Second photo down.) What I recall is that about halfway around the lake, a labyrinth of paths begin to twist around one another in a complex design dimensionally more intricate than, say, the NYC subway map. 
            This style developed, the site tells us, from a troubled upper-class 12th century belief  "in the western paradise, the Pure Land, here on earth." The Paradise Garden is intended to help you visualize this place from a path along the perimeter of the garden's lake: "Paths led from vantage point to vantage point from which changing scenery could be viewed."A lovely idea.
            Interestingly, these gardens were not built for the old "nobility," but for the men and women of the newly arisen samurai class whose "manner of attire," the website states, "allowed them greater freedom out-of-doors. Garden paths typically led to a pavilion overlooking the pond in which guests would gather to enjoy the recently imported fashion of drinking tea."
            The Paradise Garden strikes me as a good name for any place where you overlook water and contemplate a healing view, whether drinking tea or something stronger.
            The "Early Rock Garden" is a Zen garden, the only phrase I've ever associated with Japanese gardens. The new style was favored by the now dominant samurai class, drawn to Zen ideas of self-reliance and sacrifice. (I'm not sure that's the side of Zen that caught on in the West.) The most obvious innovation in this style is the replacement of water by rock (including sand or gravel; third photo down) meant to suggest waterfalls or watery surfaces. The website says, "Often such gardens were in imitation, not of nature directly, but of landscape ink paintings in the Southern Sung style... spare, devoid of color, suggestive of a cogent inner truth."
            We've always taken Zen gardens as places designed for meditation. That seems pretty close to the idea.
            The "Late Karesansui Garden" is also a rock garden, now almost completely devoid of plants, consisting of flat expanses "of raked gravel, with little more than a few well chosen rocks carefully placed here and there," the website tells us. I am surprised to learn from the site's discussion of the difference between these two forms of Zen garden, that the early style was meant to represent "a tumbling waterfall."
            Situated beside the residence halls of Zen temples, these later gardens -- karesansui means called “dry landscapes” -- took the abstraction of nature to an extreme, banishing not only water but plants (fourth photo down). Nevertheless,"their uniqueness has made them the most widely recognized of all Japanese garden types."
            The Hiraniwa Flat Garden, also consisting of a flat gravel floor built next to a residence, allows shrubs and trees to make a reappearance into the garden on its farthest border, along with "aesthetically positioned" rocks. Leaving abstraction far behind, this style also permits garden ornaments such as pagodas, basins, wells, lanterns, and stepping stones as "accents and focal points." Finally, this style of garden brought in rustic huts (we saw a few of these at Morikami) to stage the practice of the tea ceremony, in the late 1500s.
            Morikami's Hiraniwa garden also makes use of a view of the site's distant tiled-roof museum. The technique is called shakkei, or “borrowed scenery.” How brilliant is that?
            In our backyard garden in Quincy, the 'borrowed scenery' includes a bicycle, basketball backboard, and the Y-shaped posts holding up a neighbor's deck. In my defense, we didn't have a lot of choice in this regard. I tend to look at all our neighborhood views as "installations" in search of a museum.  
            The final garden style, in terms of temporal development, is called the "Modern Romantic Garden," a name I also enjoy. Closest to our own traditional notion of a garden, this style reflects Western influence, but also marks a return to the direct observation of nature.
            Morikami's example of the style includes a "long-legged kotoji lantern" that, the website tells us, "mimics the form of the movable bridges of the stringed instrument called a koto."
            I don't where to put the flowing streams and waterfalls, and the gravity-based bamboo pump used to fill a basin we encountered on our visit, along with flowering plants and interesting trees, or the extensive display of bonsai trees we enjoyed encountering in our stroll around this series of intricate gardens.
            In my very loose, contemporary view of the idea of "garden," this entire place qualifies as a one big magnificent garden.
            You might also call it a "living museum."

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Garden of Verse: A Poem About Prayer, If Not Exactly Like One

       I made three attempts at writing poems on the theme of 'prayer' for the current month-of-March issue of Verse-Virtual, the online poetry journal to which I contribute regularly. 
        My first attempt sought to encompass the various meanings of this widely used word. I was astounded at discovering how many ways in which the word 'prayer' is used.
         Here's an excerpt from the resulting poem that appears in Verse-Virtual. 

Words for 'Prayer'

a stillness
a blank wall
on which nothing is projected

Or, perhaps, a 'collect'?
(pass the plate)
a grace? (before eating)
an invocation,
a word anciently used for the act of 'calling' for the presence of a god

A litany,
which may merely be a list of excuses
A 'thanksgiving'?
Oh, that happens in November

'evensong, matins, vespers'? -- what lovely words
for the way the sisters' voices join together
for a few transporting moments in "Call the Midwives"

'Appeal,' 'petition,' 'solicitation'?
All these sound like going to law.
If I am 'petitioning' the Almighty,
I am likely deceiving myself about the reach
of judicial redress
'Entreaty,'  'supplication'
I will reserve words of this sort for those occasions
when, God Almighty,
I am truly in trouble

Other such words,
'conjuration, cry, desire'
and also 'call,' 'claim,' 'request'
all sound like excited demands for attention
Not the way I wish to present myself
to the all-knowing, ultimately benevolent (so we trust; despite appearances)
solar divinity behind the shadows,
the great and powerful Oz above the little man
operating the gears

I'll take 'offering,' 'seeking,' 'contemplating'
in a state of 'mindfulness,'
that last full cup of aspiration,
a synonym in itself
serving as my current self-help reminder
for the state of consciousness
I wish to possess after giving a good shove
to the prayer wheel

Here we are
(as in the hymn "Here I am, Lord")
hungry for Attention


           I don't pray regularly in any religious tradition, but what I found when I tried to think my way through the concept was that my mind truly, widely, wandered. Does this happen to people who do pray regularly? 
            Whether it's viewed as devotional, or purely as a mental exercise, the theme of prayer surely provoked an outpouring of poems in this month's Verse-Virtual. Editor Firestone Feinberg reported that he received "a tremendous response -- definitely the most enthusiastic one ever" for an issue theme. 
            For my second attempt, I set out to write my own prayer beneath the straightforward title "This Is My Prayer," but almost immediately found myself stumbling into what people are now calling a "rabbit-hole" in the internet.

This Is My Prayer

Let's hear it for the Buddha of forgiveness
Next time around we will surely do better,
remember all we have learned
think first, sulk later, make better choices
(I can't think of any at the moment;
hopefully no snap quizzes in the afterlife)

[..... when I found my way of the rabbit-hole,the poem ends like this:]

I know of no way
to follow those tracks backwards
to the impressions of an hour
soft enough to be enticed from its mouse-hole
by liturgical longings
offered in words we are utterly unable
to understand

When our hours run out,
I have been told,
we must delve, as with a very long line,
to the bottom-most part
of the Always-Present
known only by its absence
like the missing beat
at the end of the song

and sound that beat
sing that note
that echoes
in the deepest well
of who we are 

The last of three poems, Prayer for the Waters of Sacred Confluence, draws on a phrase from a Hindu chant in the ever-expanding collection of 'yoga music' songs I often listen to. Again, I'm not part of this tradition, but I am moved by its songs, chants, and messages.
            This poem grew absurdly long and self-indulgent, even by my standards. It compares Eastern and Western religious ideas, and then this happy little rant pops sup:

Or how about "Ray Man Shabad"?
(translated, perhaps loosely, to "my mind without ego")
Yes, those first words do sound like 'Raymond,' whom everybody loves,
and the third like Shabbat, the Sabbath, on which the Masculine Pronoun rested.
Truly I think there is some confluence, or some spring of sacred origins,
from which all these words, and likely the notions behind them, spring

"Oh my mind," the chant goes
(the translation microbes in my think-machine working overtime)
 "practice Yoga in this way
Singee saach akapat kanthalaa
("Let Truth be your horn, sincerity your necklace")
You bet I'll singee and I will blow my horn of truth -- can anything be more blatantly appealing than this admonition?
I'll blow yours, too, if you let me.
And this, rather surprisingly --
as least to me, lover of simplicity and logical sequence that I am --
is followed by explicit instructions on how to die.
"Let the soul (self) be the alms bowl in which you collect the sweet Naam and this will be the only support you will ever need."
You bet your sweet 'Naam' I will.
Then follows a concise guidance on meditation and
the ashes you apply on your body,
"The Universe plays its divine music.
The sound of reality is shrill, but this is where God is."
Is this not the best of news?
Don't we all know (or wish to believe), at the bottom of our minds,
underneath all life's sound and fury,
this is really so?
We all know 'shrill.' Try to get work on the 'T' at rush hour.
The beggars line the stairs at Park Street and when you emerge onto fresh air and frigid pavement, the bearded prophet is reciting -- in the nagging voice of the dedicated hater --
how the sinful will suffer for all eternity.
(Guy oughta know; he's there already.)
Frankly, I don't think Jesus wants this particular
dirty-beard killjoy on his home team.

           To read these poems in their entirety, and check out others among the fine offerings in the March 2018 issue, go to


Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Garden of the Sunshine State: Green Gardens, Beautiful Beaches, Splendid Birds, and Old Birds (Like Us)

            I don't know why for years I avoided all thought of Florida. I think it was snobbery.
            Florida, I believed, lacked culture. Where would we be without our museums, our theaters, our universities? (In
            A story I heard years ago summed up this frosty attitude. When a New York City couple retired they said to one another, "Well all our friends have moved to Florida, I guess we should too." So they moved to Florida, settled in, and tried to find some classical music on the radio to listen to. 
            But couldn't seem to find any.
            "That's it," one spouse said to the other, "we're moving back to New York."
            Truth is, we spent four days in South Florida last week, and I only tried the radio once. Sure enough, no classical. We settled for 'classic rock' and listened to "The Dancing Queen." 
            Add your own punch line.
            It's true that people like us who live in Greater Boston or New York or another urban center enjoy more access to the delights of 'high' culture -- museums, live orchestras, live theater, art shows, opera, author talks -- than the sunny climes of Florida.
            But if you're not driving to the airport in a rented car to catch a plane home at vacation's end -- a pretty unlovable activity in any time and place -- Florida in March beats the hell out of any place we could be "up north."
            And after two or three months of the winter drearies, truth is we can live without these spiritual enhancements easier than we can live without sunshine, outdoor exercise, flowers, birds, warm water, and lots of growing green stuff all around and blue sky above.
            I was wrong about Florida. Particularly in late winter.
            In the sunny community of Delray Beach, in the first days of March, people as old as me, and older, sit around and talk all day with most of their clothes off.
            They gather in beach chairs and lounges around the pool, in shade if shade is what they want, in the sun if sun is what they want it (and buy skin screen by the quart). You can have it either way; or a little of both.
            Sometimes they sit on brightly colored foam floaties manufactured in a bizarre but effective shapes best described by the slang term "noodles" on which they float, in a reclining or even sitting attitude, potentially for hours.
            This is possible because in Florida they have heated pools outdoors. Sometimes fresh water; sometimes salt water.
            So if it the temperature isn't quite hot enough for a classic beach day, it's still warm enough to loll by the pool and float around in the warm bath-like water. To avoid any momentarily unpleasant cooling by condensation when you step out of the pool, there's always a transitional visit to the hot tub.
            On our four-day visit, hard on the heels of the most recent coastal-flooding Northeaster, we ventured beyond our pleasure dome to take in some local delights: An extensive Japanese Garden (the Morikami Museum and Japanese Garden one day. A public boardwalk adventure trail built over wetlands heavily frequented by water-loving fowl (the Green Cay Nature Center and Wetlands, in Boynton Beach) and some slithery creatures prowling underneath, the next.
            We walked the lovely shores of nearby Delray Beach -- roiled to historically strong surf by the same Northeaster cyclone that drowned New England coasts -- before on the final day jumping into the storm-churned Atlantic. 
            Plus all that pool time.
            We had meals (and one of us had naps) on a sunny balcony, rubbing shoulders with the green lineaments of invading palms and visited by fat Florida pigeons.
            For evening repasts we were on the town. Our feats included luscious seafood in a cutting-edge emporium of Nouveau American cuisine; a pub meal in a quaint British-replica establishment with jazz on Sunday nights; and a popular Mexican restaurant with delicious tacos and $3 Margaritas (Monday nights only).            
            Ah, the pleasures of senses. I'm still working on the poems of this season. But I no longer have any difficulty making time -- winter time -- for Florida.