Entering the 'Clear Pool School' of Poetry
Reviews of Eric Paul Shaffer's Lahaina Noon and Jordan Jones's The Wheel
by Eric Paul Shaffer, 2005
Leaping Dog Press
PO Box 3316
San Jose, CA 95156-3316
trade paperback, ISBN: 1-58775-018-X; LCCN: 2005820367
$14.95 US, $18.95 Canadian
distributed by Biblio Distribution, Inc.
by Jordan Jones, 2005
Leaping Dog Press
PO Box 3316
San Jose, CA 95156-3316
trade paperback, ISBN: 1-58775-020-1; LCCN: 2005901963
$14.95 US, $18.95 Canadian
distributed by Biblio Distribution, Inc.
Poetry may be more beleaguered than it appears on first blush and dismissal. Overwhelmed by publish-or-perish imperatives for the few gigs in acadeem, an audience of more writers than readers and an infectious me-me mediocrity meeting a numbing I-Yi-Yi monotony, it's a tougher racket than ever, especially for those with something to say. So it's a wonder that in a market as glutted as verse with its imminently slipping into financial ruin spread sheet, an independent house like Leaping Dog Press not only exists but produces books of such exceptional quality.
Its two most recent titles are Eric Paul Shaffer's Lahaina Noon, his third LDP collection, and Jordan Jones's The Wheel, his first. Reading the two books in the same sitting was both a fierce wake-up call and a hard times shakedown about our species' relationship with the world rapidly becoming extinct around us.
Let's look first at Shaffer. Readers of his "textless translations" of Shih-te (companion of Han-shan, the legendary T'ang Dynasty poet who penned Cold Mountain) will already be aware of his eye for the cheeky in the face of the pious. In his Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen, the Way he seeks is strictly lower case, informal, of the all-that's-left-to-do-is-have-a-belly-laugh variety. Shaffer, who studied with Gary Snyder, has a feel for Asian languages and world citizenship, but his attitude is closer to Lew Welch who wrote, "Church is bureaucracy, no more interesting than any post office" and "Seeking Perfect Total Enlightenment / is looking for your flashlight / when all you need your flashlight for / is to find your flashlight." As Shaffer tells it in the voice of the eighth century cook: "And it is best not to speak of Buddhas / to one who daily watches monks eat." Or as John Kain said of the collection, "These poems--like a strand of black hair in a monastery rice bowl--irreverently remind us that 'enlightenment' has nothing to do with purity or perfection. 'Be human!' Shaffer bellows."
Ann M. Sato, reviewing his earlier book, Portable Planet, wrote: "Shaffer's work is more of the 'clear pool' school. That is, many of the poems appear to be straightforward and 'about' something, as a pool seems as transparent as glass." This is not to suggest that there is only one way to craft a poem! One of the real joys of American poetry, starting with Father Walt and Mother Emily through vortexical Uncle Ez and mad Aunt Gertrude to Harlem's twins of the vernacular, Brother Langston and Sister Zora, is the individual's railing against forced British meter and toward the distinctive voice. Like the blues, which is really not a genre of music but the root of all American musical genres, it is in the diversity of approaches that we get a flavor for what is quintessentially American. Include even avant-garde writing styles deemed by some to be unreadable, disruptive or divisive-- projective, surrealist, black arts, langpo, lesbian separatist, dada, nuyorican--but which certainly are part of the "democratic vista," and one can see the value of the phrase "clear pool school." It names what Shaffer and Jordan are up to very succinctly. Consider Shaffer's title poem, "Lahaina Noon":Today, I'm a shadowless man.
The sun calls me into the street,
and I walk alone into the light
of noon. The moment has come.
I stand quietly on Front Street
balancing the sun on my head.
My shadow crawls in my ear
to hide in the small, dark world
of my skull. The sun illuminates
the shadow in my skin, and I shine
like a second moon, reflecting
all the light I cannot contain.
Effortless to read, neither dumbed down nor smarted up with lit tricks, the visual melts warmly into the sensual in a delivery so nonchalant it's joyous enough to the ear to go back and listen for the rhymes a second time. That's deadpan American that man without a shadow is talking, clipped and enjambed, irony already encoded, just nuke it and presto, it's piping hot.
The transparent narrator is not the target, not the point. That's why there's not one extra word anywhere. In the old days, we used to call this reader-centric. Moreover, he is so easily us: the event takes place in our own skulls as we experience a bald man's high noon over Hawai'i. It actually happens to us. Feel your own face at the last line, the top of your head.
Though the poem's got nothing to do with the Buddha nature, it is exactly like the arts of calligraphy, flower arrangement, tea ceremony, "self defense," archery and landscape painting as they have been traditionally expressed in the Far East. By that I mean they are purposefully experiential. If it's too much to say that their intent is to awaken a satori, a flash of original mind, the unconditioned integrity within which the fields of opposites play, then okay, at least we can admit it radiates a just-so-ness. Hence, there's no commentary necessary. If Shaffer were a radio dj, the tag line would be "all experience all the time." He weaves, like a Chinese scholar's garden, light and shadow, playing yin to yang, molten liquid and moon rock to evoke that lunar-like eclipse inside our heads. Or as he concludes in "Black Light," "The field of white we mistake for blankness / shapes darkness into words."
What struck me most about the collection is its mature and confident feel; it's much richer, more deeply felt, both a funnier and sadder book than Shaffer's earlier shots. It's also a celebration of place: this Pacific Rim wanderer, who has lived in Okinawa, Japan, Indonesia and California, loves Hawai'i. What's not to love, you may say, but unlike most ex-pats everywhere, Shaffer has gone native, learning the language, local customs and politics along with the flora and fauna. The result is a poetics of engagement with a guy one feels lucky to share the foxhole with. Unlike many poets convinced that "the work" means promoting your own status rather than woodshedding your talent, Shaffer is a throw-back to the pre-professional era when grants and prizes were secondary to living every day with one's muse.
It has certainly helped him burn the superfluous away in favor of mad flow. Consider the set-up in "Lovers on Pulehu Road": "I drive past, but they do not look over, / knowing everyone on the island knows everyone else. . . . They know the road to the dump is far too public / for a lover's lane, and they have not forgotten their families / and their friends drive this red-stained, two-lane blacktop / to throw away what they no longer want, what they have used / beyond use, and all the many things they have broken." It's the whole story in a county dump, the paradise brochure dripping in the rain: life is funky, things fall apart, how that last line comes up so Lady Day sad and weary.
He's also quite funny. Consider this chorus (one of seventeen) of a poem that takes the first line for its title: "Officer, I saw the whole thing. I was standing there minding my own / business, when the sky cracked open like a blue Easter egg, and / suddenly, I saw it all / was made of atoms and molecules and elements bouncing around the tiniest, infinitesimal, electron-microscopic drunks in the / universe. Yes!"
With a grain of sand he shows us a view of the planet in "Blue Curve" and "As Seen From Space." Karen Joy Fowler wrote, "No one is better at peeling away a single, ordinary moment until the whole world has been revealed." But such revelations won't make the six o'clock news. All the more reason to read "Big Paw: Black Leopard in Exile on Maui" to its Clear Pool School conclusion:When I hear of you roaming upcountry, hungry, alone,
I tell everyone you are myth, and I think so myself
most of the time, and I wish you were, yet I love
the sight of your pawprint in the dirt. Some say you are
a threat to us, but I don't care. We're a greater threat
to ourselves, and you could never endanger us
as we endanger you. I apologize for what we've done
and will do. I curse the fool who brought you here--
one of us, of course. We are a willful, stupid species,
and out own intelligence is our greatest delusion.
I wish you food, untainted by poison, unspoiled by traps.
I do not wish you a companion, although another fool
already plans to smuggle you a mate. Don't ask me
how I know this. I am human. I know how we think.
I wish you stealth. Run fast and far when you see us.
We mean you no good, and I don't want you dead
or in a cage. I want no more killing or cages.
Speak only in the night, for your loneliness will raise
ears and arms. If your fate is a cage, I wish you
good food and a short life. If you are lucky, I wish you
solitude and a short life in our green hills and gulches
far beyond eyes that hunt you, for some still believe
killing you will end their doubts and make them men.
If Shaffer's 'macro in the micro' suggests the spatial, Jordan Jones adds the temporal to the Clear School Pool. His eye is on the everlasting, what's behind the veil, the circle in the square, the older order hidden amidst all this tyranny scramble and greed. Known to readers of venues like Asylum, Fiction International, Heaven Bone, the 365 Project, Obscure Publications, Futharc Press and ABR, Jones also edited the late, great Bakunin "for the dead Russian anarchist in us all." His poems, reviews, tales and co-conspiracies with other writers, as well as his translations of Rene Damaul's Vedic-influenced The Anti-Heaven reveal an ear tuned for nuance, a tongue sharp enough to sculpt verse with and a heart-mind at home in ancient and non-Western philosophical systems.
Whereas Shaffer is grounded in a wandering American Taoist-Buddhist tradition where praxis is the axis that spins the prayer wheel, Jones seeks to redeem the wheel itself. Not as a symbol but as a call to witness, a fact of existence, the truer shape of things than the "lies that fueled the engine of power" for our late capitalist, screwball world-outta-balance, occupying foreign lands for oil in which we're the freedom fighters and they're the insurgents.
If Jones played guitar, no doubt the words on its body would read, "This machine kills fascists." He's got Woody Guthrie's talking-blues impatience for government obfuscation ("$200 billion for a pre-emptive war? / Don't worry! The final accounting will appear / on your toe tag) and Whitman's eye-popping impatience with the learned astronomer's lecture. In the opening poem, "Cycle," Jones writes, "The sun eats the flesh of the moon. / The moon makes a dress of the stars. / On earth, we have nothing more / to take care of than ever-- / Just each other-- / that is enough."
Divided into four sections--new, waxing, full and waning--The Wheel blends precise, crystal-clear descriptions of what Jones finds in the Coyote Creek watershed of California's Santa Clara County with what comes up on the nightly news. His instinct is to set them both against a parade of ancient times and places that celebrate the cycles, circles, wheels and spheres of the natural world all-of-a-piece with a human world. "The planet," he observes in the Manifesto, "is tidal and watery by nature."
The result is a free-wheeling meditation on the interplay of opposites, the industrial night extinguishing the stars, the color of fireflies and a frog pond in a younger Simi Valley, a porn bomb welcoming Dubya to the White House, trail markers and the Aztec calendar, a Zen baker, getting naked in Babylon and the Druids of Stonehenge, the erosion of human rootlessness and the Book of Revelation meeting the Hindu tri-murti, grapefruit and a possum in the back yard, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina and the birds of Iraq, an alternate reading of Orpheus in Hades and the Lakota Ghost Dance remembered on Thanksgiving, "the whirl of years in wood" meeting "the whorls on the tips of our fingers" and the moon hanging in the heavens like a perpetual blueprint for civilization.
Notice in "Chimney Tree," written at Big Basin Redwoods State Park, how the last lines burn their imprint deeply like Lao Tzu's uncarved block:The hollowed-out trunk
of the chimney tree
shows the path--
standing inside the base,
I saw sky
through & beyond
the center of the tree--
let the heartwood burn,
straight through the tree's top,
so long as xylem
& phloem still conduct,
so long as
the remaining trunk
Here's what death doesn't consume,
& life differs little from death.
A practice of dying makes a living
wise, long, & sweet.
Life and death taken together make the whole story, not one without the other. It is in the observation of the cycle of all things that his wide-ranging juggle of juxtapositions coheres. Whether actual wheel, hiking trail, flow of seasons, contour map, the roundness of objects or the circular reasoning of the present administration insisting the water's fine, Jones is there to remind us that there is a puncture in the ozone, that war is not peace and global warming is not just some acid-reflux about fossil fuel. His investigations compel our attention and dig up what's underneath the mainstream discourse. What he finds is loss and what he recovers is a sense of the whole. "The state & the sawmill," he concludes in "Fingerprints," "will one day be fossils of little interest, / all straight lines & human planning, / not a biological circle / to be found."
Like Shaffer, Jones's clear pool aesthetic has an ethic implied in the act of viewing. These poems are the antithesis of escape, of covering over, of switching to another station. Like Shaffer, there is not a word wasted and plenty of craft at work, though it does not call attention to itself. Listen, for example, to how he works the 'o vowel' around consonant clusters to elicit a sense of taste to the woods and to evoke that killer, uneasy image in the last line of suburban "Sanborn Park":Pale green leaves underfoot
maroon of madrone,
ochre of tanoak on the trail--
hundreds of small, slippery poems
the trees address
to the leisure
of summer soil.
Decaying leaves nourish wildness
in the terrain Coyote inhabits, just outside
the circular edge of the urban.
The war our species is waging on every other species (including our own) isn't just happening in remote corners of the Serengeti but in our own struggles to make our neighborhoods safe, tame and antiseptic. As Greg Boyd wrote of The Wheel, "Jones demonstrates that the best poetry is an engaged and active response to the world around us." Exactly unlike TV, that passive screen that Jones mocks, one could say that the reader's engagement is the crucial connection. It's the spoke that drives deeply into the wheel's still center bringing it back to where it all began. It's only at the end of book--"And who's going to pay for replanting the forests? / Let the shade of concrete buildings refresh you"--that all the pieces come together and we know we've been somewhere.
If our present administration seems too stupid and petty to hang ironic metaphors on, Jones reminds us that stupid and petty are responsible for the damage. Still, the poems that leave out their cataclysmic agenda and focus more on nature itself seem stronger and more likely to be read again and again. For example, take a look at "The Body Is a Watershed":I am only a temporary geology of bones
water sands to fluid curves,
speeding its return to itself
& the expanding acres of krill.
Water moves through me & falls away--
as charged with minerals as I am,
as salty, as polar.
Oxygen carves rivulets through my flesh
& feeds the soil of each drinking cell.
Water wheels back into the air
from whoever I am
to fish, fowl, protozoan, person.
How joyous to be a mortal house
of rushing water!--
to be at the center, all my life,
of the give & take of water & clay.
That last stanza! Taken together, The Wheel and Lahaina Noon offer the reader a double dose of good medicine. Poems this easy and satisfying to read are not political? It should be remembered that Imagine-Nation and the image-making machinery of your mind at play--the very site of reading words and translating them into images--is a skill that many children will never learn in the home of the brave, the play station and the myriad channels of the entertainment tube. That's why poetry matters. Every writer threatens the State. We're so contagious we're like terrorists.
May we never be contained.