Thursday, February 11, 2010

Dennis Maloney: Just Enough

I've just finished reading Dennis Maloney's Just Enough, a collection of 64 tanka, for the 2nd time in its entirety. The first time was a couple of months ago and, as I often do, I marked favorites with post-its on which I scribble a thought or two if I'm lucky enough to have one. What struck me this time is how many of the poems I hadn't highlighted during this reading.

Who said procrastination is a bad thing?

According to the cover copy, the poems are a linked collection "written in the voice of a contemporary hermit-poet living in the Higashiyama region of Kyoto." As Dennis notes in the Afterword, he has visited Kyoto many times since 1973 and that many "of the poems are drawn from experiences in Kyoto or inspired by it."

The tanka themselves are a loose collection of poems exploring the self and its relation to the outside world, the stuff of classic Eastern verse. This beautifully designed little volume, published by Palisade Press, with Bashô's hut pictured on the cover, fits neatly into the hand (4 x 7") or back pocket.

As with the best Eastern verse, there is a subtle, understated quality that may be deceptive in its simplicity. Here there is less erudite allusion or a sophisticated style than a simple, pure philosophic outlook. There are no simple answers, however; what there is is the constant everyday working toward the light, if you will, the light as in enlightenment.

Don't give me the whole truth,
but sea for thirst, sky for light.
Give me a glint,
as birds bear water drops
from bathing.

There are no sure answers; we are human, after all. There is contradiction, in the best Whitmanesque sense. First, the poem from which the title is derived, also the first poem in the collection:

How hard it is
to take
what is given
and say yes,
just enough.

And then 28 poems later:

You didn't ask to be born,
but here you are living
in the everyday world.
There is so much,
one life is not enough.

Both of these poems are, in their individual ways, glorious celebrations of life. Whatever the goal or the Buddhist principle, the truth will out, as it does in both poems that on the surface seem contradictory but in reality work together as the wings of young sparrow.

One of my favorite poems here is about poetry, a weakness of mine that is obvious to anyone who knows my finer editorial peccadilloes, yet still it manages to be about, and evoke so very much more, than that in a mere 21 words:

A good poem
should smell of tea,
earth or newly split wood.
A few words woven together
to make a home.

Notice the economy and precision here: the poem should "smell of tea," not "like tea." And three simple elements here - tea, earth, and wood - make up not just the poem but what any good home may be comprised of.

Art and life, perfectly dovetailed as one.

The quest, of course, is never ending, the journey is the destination, otherwise we all could have stopped writing (and drawing and singing) a long time ago.

On the mountain trails
of the self
-hot summer sweat
step after step uphill,
no destination in sight.

And life is conjured in all its glory and ambivalence and wonder, internal and external:

Some days the pond
has utter clarity
-a distant mirror.
Other days
it is clouded by rain.

The mirror appears again, this time in its symbolic guise, resonating back and forth:

Years spent in
meditation halls
wandering from teacher to teacher
polishing, polishing the mirror
-now break it!

Maloney has adopted certain principles, certain archetypes, be they Zen, lyric, or otherwise, and made them his own. His vocabulary is basic; he puts the words he chooses, and ones he doesn't, to great use. Here is another about a teacher and the lesson, which I glossed over in my first reading:

In the old days
the teacher said
find a need and fill it.
What is that need?
Only the road will till you.

However you view that road, be it literal or symbolic, the point I originally missed is that it is external. It is "a need" not, "your need," (italics mine) and it is outside yourself you will find it. As another contemporary nature poet asked, "What will you do with this one wild and precious life?" Again, "this one wild and precious life", not "your wild and precious life" (again, italics are mine).

This is a beautiful little book for appreciators and practitioners of tanka, those with an interest in Eastern philosophy, and anyone generally enamored of the short poem. Here's one final reason this volume deserves to find an attentive audience:

If you're kin to the pine
you'll live long,
glisten in the rain,
be lively in autumn,
beautiful in snow.


The featured broadside this week is Lilliput Review #125, entitled Only: a patch of Cid Corman. Cid was a giant in 20th century poetry. His work, as illustrated below, is focused in the now; in the shortest verse each and every word bears its own weight. He slows you down, makes you look now at the realities of life. In addition, I can personally say he was a poet of unflinching generosity to even the smallest of presses, Lilliput certainly falling, both literally and figuratively, into that category. The notes he wrote, the poems he sent, the spirit he shared, all were an immense lift to me and, as a result, the magazine. He showed me hope, he showed me heart, and he made me see things, literally and lyrically, in a different way. I was lucky enough to publish 2 broadsides and 2 chapbooks of his work. I believe Now/Now, "Modest Proposal Chapbook #12, was the last collection of his to appear in his lifetime; it arrived just before he entered hospital in December 2003. The broadsides and chapbooks are all still in print and still available.


To feel what it is
was to be or have been this
only this moment.

Nobody survives
except as a form of no
thing - is what this is.


We like to think we
think and that we mean something
by thinking we do.

There are reasons for
reasons excuses excuse
and there you are - here.

Cid also loved the classic haiku poets, Issa included. Here are two poems by a master poet I believe he would have loved:

butterfly dances
'round the arrow
in a dying deer

dying to the beat
of the prayer to Buddha...
one leaf falls
translated by Daniel G. Lanoue



Greg Schwartz said...

sounds like a great collection of tanka. I've only ever read Dennis' translations, not any of his original poems. I like those two Issa poems at the end, especially the butterfly one.

Ed Baker said...

a poet has a
way with words

Dennis has his own

not a single unused word.
and, every metaphor works and is working

(and, certainly Cid does/did this)

one thing about going up Mountain easy-er coming down

or is it same?

I know Dennis Maloney's "stuff"

from 'here and there'

over book-purchase budget now

so, this is now on my list
for May's purchases!

etc, etc, etc

Princess Haiku said...

Just wonderful. These poems do indeed celebrate the spirit. It always amazes me how haiku say such much with a simple, perfect brush stroke.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...

Greg, glad you liked the Issa and hope Dennis's fine work grabs you, too.

Ed, ah, over book purchase budget, my perpetual state - the other proverb I remember about mountains was something like easier to be a monk alone on the mountain than back in the city ... so I guess easiest might be don't come down.

PH, many thanks - always glad when the work connects deeply ...

Ed Baker said...

bottom line?

be in a calm place with positive energy and without obstacles

-islands, caves, mountains
,anywhere that the air is pure and not too much noise

- avoiding that any object becomes an object of philosophical speculation or/& intellectual conceptualization

ain't so easy when the air ain't clean..and your surroundings are all-ways shouting/polluting!

full moon
w all circumstances