Poetry

IMG-4942.jpg

Meditating in Guru

Padmasambhava’s Cave

                              The Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan

We climbed high into the mountain

To reach Taktshang—

The Tiger’s Nest.

 

Here Guru Padmasambhava was set down

Off the back of Yeshe Tshogyal,

The Flying Tigress,

His loyal consort.

 

Having ascended,

We descended

Deep inside—

Her tight stone womb.

 

This is where Guru Rimpoche

Meditated for three years,

Three months, and three days.

 

We meditated.

The mountain breathed,

And we breathed with it.

The Blue-Eyed Buddha

In the monasteries of Bhutan

The Buddhas have blue eyes—

So that they may be somehow

Not of this world.

 

And so now we,

The blue-eyed,

Have journeyed to Bhutan,

Carrying our curiosity

With us on our backs

Along with our dark minds.

 

We hope to take some wisdom

From the land of the dragon

Back to our overcrowded cities,

Buzzing with humanity,

Displays of light,

That never cease to blink

Despite our talk

Of global warming

And the need

To cut back

Our excesses.

 

And so, I stand

Before the blue-eyed Buddha

My own blue-green eyes common

Where I come from.

 

Oh Bhutan,

Dream of the last Shangri-La,

Kingdom of mountain peaks,

Where wisdom

Has not dissipated,

Like the clouds

That entangle themselves

Around your craggy cliffs.

 

Where a benevolent King

Loves his people still.

And welcomes us,

The blue-eyed,

To his kingdom.

IMG-4928.jpg

Preparing for The Next Life

Circumambulating the stupa in Thimphu,

Elderly Bhutanese women,

Earnestly walk clockwise,

 

Twirling their prayer wheels, chanting,

Preparing themselves for life's eternal journey.

They all wear purple—

Purple jackets, sweaters, blouses, shawls,

Long purple kiras.

 

All my life I've loved the color purple—

I've worn purple coats, purple sweaters, purple dresses.

I've even painted entire rooms in my house purple.

 

I fit right in

That moving crowd of purple

And prayer.

 

Excused from housekeeping,

Tending grandchildren,

They spend their final days here,

In the shadow of the stupa.

 

When they are called

They will be ready.

Circumambulating the Stupa

Circumambulating the stupa

I am tempted to take a photo,

Shoot a video, be the tourist.

 

But why would I throw

Such a precious opportunity away?

The chance to cleanse my soul?

 

What is it I cannot let go of?

My good training as a consumer?

The wish to possess everything

I can lay my hands on?

Take it away with me

As an image locked  

Inside my iPhone—

Stored securely on the cloud.

 

The camera seeks to capture the present

But by the time the shutter releases

The present is gone—

 

It is a fool's game.

 

Embrace the present

With each footstep

That takes you

Around the stupa—

 

That is your challenge—

Even if it means

Going around in circles

For eternity

Until you get it right.

IMG-4925.jpg

Poem for My Lingerie Left Behind in Bhutan

I am down to one nightdress now,

Having left my pink lingerie

Hanging on a hook on the bathroom door

In a hotel in Bhutan.

 

I don't like to wear much when I sleep—

Not because I imagine myself sexy

In my 52-year-old body,

But because I don't like to be burdened.

 

Bedclothes entwine like vines

Around my body

As I twist and turn

In my solitary dreams.

 

I imagine my flimsy pink shift—

The one I wore to bed with my last lover—

Discovered by a modest girl

Who works in the hotel.

 

A girl who picks up after us tourists.

A relief to be freed

Of standing ankle deep

In the murky waters

of the family rice paddies.

A modern girl.

 

After I've gone,

Surreptitiously she slips

The lingerie inside the bountiful sleeves

Of her traditional silk jacket,

Then waits until she is home again

To pull it out—

Like those magicians

Who produce lengths of silk

From a single tin can—

The soft fabric endless as eternity.

 

When no one in the family is looking

She tucks the lingerie inside a drawer

In a wooden commode

Painted with Buddhist symbols.

 

Perhaps that drawer is her only private place

In a home overfilled

With doting parents, grandparents,

Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles,

And lazy dogs who recline in the dust

All day long, silently,

And who bark incessantly

All night long.

 

Every once in a while

She slips the lingerie out

Of its secret place

And imagines

Herself wearing it.

 

Perhaps entreating a lover

Or a future husband

Or simply wearing it

As her own private delight.

 

Or maybe she slips it on

Beneath her Kira, her daily dress—

A long sheath of silk fabric

Wound cleverly thrice about her body,

The front panel folded in a neat crease.

The lacy decollete hidden

Beneath her blouse—

Her own private delight.

 

A careless item

Left behind by a rich visitor

To her even richer land.

 

Will she carry something of my soul

When she wears the lingerie?

Or will her spirit

Inhabit it now?

Or will her spirit 

Mingle with mine?

Merge into one?

Cleanse my sins?

Prolong my life?

 

How good it is to leave something behind,

Even if it is only by accident.

 

Even if it is just the shed skin

Of a liaison with a lost lover—

A relic from a time

When my body was lithe,

And sensuous,

And gave pleasure—

 

A body now prepared

To step naked into eternity.

 

She may keep the shift

With my blessing—

That careless scrap of fabric

A swath of a woman's past.

IMG-4930.jpg

On the Thirty-Year Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, June 4, 2019:

Oh China,
You have blackened my lungs
And broken my heart.

 

Oh China,
I long for your earth’s
Dusty yellow embrace.

 

Oh China,
How will I live now,
Knowing I may never again wander
Your royal spaces, temples, ancient parks,
Follow your undulating clay walls?

 

Oh China,
I have removed your beads from my wrists,
But I still dream of your Buddhas,
The glare of your neon lights,
Racing into the future,
Your hacking, spitting old men,
Aiming at my wheels as I glide past,
The perpetual smell of smoke in the air.

 

Oh China,
I have fallen under your spell—
The mystical, the modern,
The ancient, the authoritarian,
All flowing into one.

 

Oh China,
How can I ever feel my own balance again
If I may no longer
Dip into your ten-lane chaos of traffic
On my flimsy yellow bicycle?

 

Oh China,
With your obscene politics,
Your murdered millions,
Your silenced Tiananmen dead,
Your indoctrination camps,
And your people—
Generous to a fault,
Curious, kind.

 

As I flew over Siberian ice shields,
Making my exit,
It pained me to know
I may never come back,
Never again listen—ting ma?
To your gongs, your drums,
Your street chatter—
Be one in sync
With the flow of Beijing’s
Twenty-two million registered,
And million or so more 

Uncounted, undocumented.

 

Oh China,
My longing for you will never cease.
It will be an ever-present ache,
Like a beloved gone silent,
Who I long for, always.

Morning Commute in Beijing

Just beyond Tiananmen Square on a frigid winter day
We bicyclists pause at an enormous Beijing intersection.

 

We are like runners, our legs quivering on the racing block,
Waiting for the light to turn—only there is never a light for us.

 

Beside me, on an electric scooter sits a family of three.
Manning the scooter is the handsome young father,

 

Tense with responsibility, behind him his wife, clutching a net bag of garlic
With one hand and his waist with the other.

 

Crouching in front is their little boy,
Warm and cozy inside the scooter’s quilt body sleeve.

 

From inside his quilt lotus-patterned womb

Wearing a fuzzy brown hat with cub ears
 

He pokes his little head out to look around him.
The light changes. A bicyclist in the lead gives the signal—

 

The slightest imperceptible nod of his head,
And we all surge in unison across the pedestrian walkway.

 

Taxis barrel into the intersection, determined to turn left or right.

Passenger vehicles the size of tanks cut the light, honk at the bicyclists.

 

I pedal my bike across and watch with apprehension
Until the mobile family safely reaches the other side.

IMG-4938.jpg

Hiking the Great Wall in Spring

We ascend the Great Wall

As pear trees burst into bloom—

A vista of pure white blossoms

Across curvaceous mountains.

 

And when we descend

Into an efflorescent thicket,

We are stunned into silence.

 

The handsome young guide

Turns towards a pretty girl

And says softly: Lihua.

 

A shy smile spreads across her face.

And those of us who overheard

Smile quietly too,

Because we know that Lihua,

The pear blossom,

In Chinese poetry

Symbolizes a young woman’s beauty—

Beauty that inspires love—

Transitory,

Like the pear blossoms—

A love, fragile, blossoming

Between these two.

This is the Moment:

Spring in Beijing

This is the moment
Blossoms come down
And white dander floats on air—
Like faeries, each one
Carrying its own blessing.

 

This is the moment
When the pink
That has adorned this city
Of cold gray stone
Plummets to the ground.

 

This is the moment
The city bursts into green
Before the scorching heat
Of a dusty summer.

 

This is the moment
Life gives us all
A chance—
To be reborn,
To sprout anew,
To carry within
The memory,
Of the abundance,
Of pink blossoms,
And white,
Pure and sacred,
Adorning the boughs—
A gift, bliss,
A fleeting moment
To carry us through.

IMG-4946.jpg

How Do You Mourn A Tree?

                                                             Beijing, China

How do you mourn a tree?

With coffee and cigarettes?

Or with your heart and soul.

 

How do you part

With the one tree

That was your only sustenance

As you gazed out your window

Overcome with homesickness

In a foreign land?

 

And how do you comfort those

To whom the tree brought shade in their old age?

The elderly men and women

Who would gather beneath its branches

To play mah jong, to drink tea from thermoses,

To reminisce and share Chinese wisdom?

 

The wisdom that the young have stopped up their ears to,

As the nation makes its postmodern leap forwards.

 

And who devised such a plan?

To slaughter their own backyard tree

That got in the way of cars and SUVs

As they battle for parking spaces?

 

And how will we all live

In a world barren of trees?

Without their gentle caresses

And the ever-changing light

That emerges from beneath their canopies—

Their quiet conversation

Just when you need to hear those words most,

Or the subtle movement of their leaves in the wind

Like the flickering eyes and hand gestures

Of a Chinese opera singer?

 

Who will mourn this tree with me?

Who will eulogize this tree?

Who will embrace its thick knotted trunk,

As it ultimately crashes down onto the hard asphalt?

 

Who will witness this slaughter with me?

And who will feel each cut of the chainsaw

As it burrows deeper and deeper

Into the tree's flesh,

Revealing its naked rings,

Rings as old as the centuries that are China,

Rings that hold within them

The stories and whispers

Of all who have sought solace in its shade.

IMG-4926.jpg

The Gift of Birds

Every morning I see 

The same flock of birds

Through my Beijing window.

Flying in concentric circles

Carried loftily upon air currents

Only they feel

And I cannot see.

 

Merrily they swoop and circle

Among the five story flats

In figure-eights

Like ice-skaters,

Etching their designs in the sky.

 

Is this their morning exercise?

Or an expression of their joy

Of simply being?

 

The life of birds is so brief—

And yet this does not concern them.

 

They never touch down on the dirtied streets.

 

They rejoice in the moment

They are able to fly,

To greet the morning sun,

And on a good day—blue skies.

 

Oh, the life of birds—

Brief, mid-flight,

Ever in motion,

Embracing the luxury

Of a single moment

That will soon pass,

And may never come again.

The grace of their wings

Carrying them effortlessly

With the direction of the wind.

 

And so, we all must take a lesson

From the birds of Beijing—

And go—

With this city.

At the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival

Amongst gigantic snow icons of civilization,

A Chinese man dressed as a bright orange fox

Reluctantly trudges towards the ice arena. 

 

Under his arm he carries 

A large round fox mask

The size of a basketball.

 

Pop music erupts painfully loud

From strategically placed speakers.

Strobe lights flash across the ice. 

 

He joins other orange fox men on a stage of ice

And begins gyrating his hips, pumping his paws,

Now to the left, now to the right.

 

I wonder how much they pay him

To dance like that? 

Everything is fun, fun, fun.

 

The flashing lights are incongruent

With the eerie peace of a winter landscape,

And the gently fading northern light. 

 

Behind him is a Taj Mahal sculpted from snow,

To the left a fairy tale castle, and to the right a cathedral,

Across a cheerful snow pig—this year's zodiac. 

 

In this land of snow and ice, the gateway to Siberia,

Where the bones of hundreds of thousands

Of my people lie,

 

In the city where the White Russians fled,

Seeking shelter from the Bolsheviks,

We are all compelled to have fun now. 

 

And I think

There is something sacred

About frozen rivers,

Slow northern twilights,

Black arctic nights

With temperatures that kill. 

 

It is something we want to block out

With colorful neon lights and

Chinese pop music shrill voices screaming: 

Bu-bu-bu-ka-chi!

 

When the song is finished,

The troupe of orange foxes,

Trudge off the ice arena. 

 

They tear off their masks, 

Revealing black hair

Heavy with sweat. 

IMG-4944.jpg

I Was Born of a Tree

                       E. Jonušas, Testament

                                       Nida, Lithuania

It was a tree that birthed me—
A strong oak tree
With myriad branches
Reaching outwards
Towards the blue sky.

 

Only that sky was tumultuous,
And the blue only an illusion.
Red clouds rolled in,
Closing in on me
And my Tree Mother. 

 

I was born screaming
With my mouth wide open.
My blue eyes set off
By white, white, pure white.
My eyebrows tinged green.

 

I was born with thick green hair,
Bangs cut straight across my forehead.
A freak, a monster. 

My rib cage poked through
Because I was, after all,
A child of starvation. 

 

I was born knees spread wide
And with the soles of my feet
Facing outwards.

 

I was born of a blue womb
While my Tree Mother burned red,
Purple at her outermost edges. 

As violet as that red is
At that place where
Inner and Outer worlds meet,
A soft white light protects us,
Encasing us. 

 

That white melds with green
To form a phosphorescent glow
That emerges from her roots,
Flows around her womb,
Encircling it, and finally,
Reaches up into the sky. 

 

I cried out in pain,
Emerging into this world
That humanity has imagined for us. 


I burst into this world engulfed in fire,
With cold blue rain beating me back. 

 

Is this how the world is?
Red molten hot
In opposition to cool blue?
And where does the orange come from?
That fragile orange light
That illuminates 

My most vulnerable branches
For all to see? 

Could it be hope?

 

And all those thin, green, gnarly branches
At my tree's outermost tips?
They are my forest home.
Small, twisted, tormented trees,
Their growth battered and stunted
By the ever-constant wind. 

 

Those red-orange waters pooling
At my mother's feet—
My mother's feet,
My mother's claws,
Her roots—
Roots that reach deep
Into our water womb
That birthed us all. 

 

Oh, I see now, those roots
Are her hands, hands that grip
Into the earth, holding on for dear life. 


Holding firmly, but just barely.

Nature is always placid,
Even in the midst of the roughest storm.
Nature never changes,
Even among constant change. 

It is human evil
That plays out
Against the backdrop
Of kindest nature. 

 

Shall I remain in my blue womb?
Locked within the trunk
Of my Tree Mother?
Never enter your world? 


You may hear me cry out
As you stroll past in the forest.

 

Trees and humans—
We are one.
We are the embodiment
Of each other.

IMG-4934.jpg

We Need No Symphony Here

                                                  Juodkrantė, Lithuania

We need no symphony here,

For the wind is ever present. 

 

The wind plays

Various tempos, pitches—

 

All we must do is listen. 

Softer, now louder,

Drowning out the chatter of birds—

 

And what is that ever-present rushing sound?

 

That is the sea, and not a man-made highway. 

Here only the sea is in a hurry. 

 

When you stop, and listen

It is all so loud—

 

How can your ears stand it? 

All these sounds under the surface

Of consciousness.

 

Oh, this noisy world 

Of wind and sea—

 

Forces that may never stop—

Not until the earth ceases spinning on its axis,

 

And we are all obliterated 

Into the crashing of waves.

My Lover's Clothes

                           Vilnius, Lithuania

I brought my lover's clothes to Caritas.

Before I could even get to the gate,

A man, reeking of stale cigarettes and vodka, 

Stumbled forward to claim my bag. 

“Ponia, I will take these,” he said,

Addressing me politely.

 

He relieved me of my bag, 

Before I could even ring the bell, 

And because I was afraid of him,

I did not protest.

 

And so, rather than my lover's 

Fine cashmere sweaters,

And expensive soccer jerseys,

And smart button-up shirts

Going to the deserving destitute, 

They were destined now

To be sold off,

Or traded,

For a fresh bottle of vodka, 

A pack of cheap cigarettes, 

Or in the best case scenario 

A loaf of good rye bread.

Or maybe a pickle

To ease down the vodka.

 

The man returned to his pack,

And they descended upon him,

Reaching deep inside my plastic trash bag,

Pulling up item after item for inspection—

 

Like a flock of vultures 

Descended

Upon the carcass of our love,

Devouring it, 

Until there was nothing left, 

Not a scrap,

Nothing at all.