Bunkong Tuon: “Song I Sing”

 

 

Song I Sing

America, you were brave once,
decent, almost pure, but never quite
the myths you tell yourself.
Is this the karma from centuries of bloodshed,
lands pilfered, women raped, men murdered,
lynching, assassinations, race riots, class inequality?
You name it, we have it.
You want Coca Cola? You want heroin?
You want coke? Me love you long time.
What’s a little bit of sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll,
legalized murders and colonialism in the name
of democracy, which is just a fancy name
for imposing our definitions on those
with a different set of definitions.
A war is a war however you name it,
just like a murder is a murder however
you spin it. Thus anger screams for justice
on the streets of Los Angeles,
Chicago and Minneapolis,
the fire of unfulfilled dreams burning
across your once great land.
Meanwhile the pandemic death toll reaches
100,000 and counting.
They say bodies pile as high
as the flag, not enough plastic bags,
lying against walls of mobile mortuaries,
not enough space in local cemeteries.
There’s talk of making burial grounds
in local parks where children used to play..
There’s talk of reopening the economy,
money valued over human life,
business as usual, the old American way.
Is America going mad or am I going crazy?
I’m tired of reading the news these days.
I’d rather take my daughter to the park,
ride swings with our feet against
the bright burning sun, go down slides
and scream our hearts out, laugh
like the little children we all are.
I want to smoke hash with Allen Ginsberg,
grocery shopping in search of Whitman,
talk poetry, Buddhism, and God,
all of which are the same thing, a celebration
of the human Godhead, the human breath,
the Atman in all of us. Love
ourselves. Take good care.
America, I love you even when you spit
at my Asian brothers and sisters,
throw rocks at their cars, accuse
them of carrying the “Wuhan virus.”
When I speak, you don’t hear.
Some don’t believe that I should be here,
a place at the table, where professors
profess, poets sing, students evaluate.
I have no wisdom here. Only this.
The birds soar high in the bright blue sky.
Everything is blue, crystal clear.
The air is clean. Those birds,
they are singing their songs again.
Oh, I love you all. In spite of it.
I love you all. I just can’t do otherwise.

 

About the Author: Bunkong Tuon is a Cambodian-American writer and critic. He is the author of Gruel, And So I Was Blessed (both published by NYQ Books), The Doctor Will Fix It (Shabda Press), and Dead Tongue (a chapbook with Joanna C. Valente, Yes Poetry). He teaches at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He tweets @BunkongTuon

 

More By Bunkong Tuon:

Gender Danger

Lies I Told About Father

Fishing for Trey Platoo

 

Image Credit: “American Flag” Harris and Ewing [between 1915 and 1923] The Library of Congress

Taking Shade with Buddha

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Taking Shade with Buddha

by Mark Murphy

Of all the dense vegetation in this wild country
I have come to take shade with Buddha
(though he is equally at ease in sun or shadow)
under the bent branches of the Bodhi tree.

Frankly, it is not the best spot to make camp,
break the night’s fast,
or break the habits of a life-time
but Buddha seems at home, like a man who has lived

irreverent aeons alone – he makes a welcome as only he can –
confident of my comings and goings, naked
as one new born, sure that living is its own answer,
he offers figs for my hunger.

Slowly then, Buddha savours the morning air
as though it were sustenance enough
while the first light bakes the land
and each man and beast in the field is busy with the crop.

Already, I am in at the deep-end with my questions:
what if the knowledge of trees is no knowledge at all –
and if the trees should support the sky no more,
and the deliberate hush in the night really is the end, then what?

But Buddha is having none of it. And indeed, why should he trouble,
being at one, as he is, with forest, sky and the hallowed ground.
And by and by a talkative brook bothers the shadows
and Buddha is smiling – pleased at the sound of water on stone.

For an instant, he is like a child who has found his mother’s hand
in some crowded place and then a moment later
he is old all over again like a being who has lived many lives.
Buddha breathes deeply. He breathes in the universe.

 

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Mark A. Murphy is the author of two chapbooks, Tin Cat Alley and Our Little Bit of Immortality. Murphy’s poems have been published in over 100 magazines and ezines in 17 different countries world wide. His first full length collection, Night-watch Man & Muse was published in November 2013 from Salmon Poetry (Eire). He is currently working on a new play, Lenny’s Wake for which he is looking for a publisher.

A Review of Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim

magnolia-lotusA Review of Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of Hyesim, translated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ

By J. Andrew Goodman

Admittedly, I had to read Magnolia and Lotus a number of times before I could appreciate its depth. Some poems are rigid; others are didactic or produce moral puzzles; some poems are merely observations of nature or human experience. Most, however, are evocative or clever in their explorations of human thought and playful in their allegories. Hyesim is a natural observer and an endearing persona. His life is an interesting one.

Hyesim (1178-1234) is the first Sŏn Buddhist Master dedicated to poetry. Sŏn Buddhism is the Korean equivalent of Zen Buddhism in Japan—both forms originated from the same Ch’an Buddhism tradition in China. And, like most poetry written in this tradition, the world is distilled through a tonal distance. Mood appears by observing nature or its juxtaposition with the ravages and delights of human experience. As Ian Haight says of Sŏn Buddhism in the introduction, nature is not an object, but an ideal.

In “Plantain,” Hyesim is imaginative in describing an aspect of nature: A plantain is an unlit/green candle of beeswax//the spread leaves, a vernal coat’s sleeves/desiring to dance.//I see this image in my intoxicated eyes/though the plantain itself//is better/than my comparisons.

The fruit is beautifully rendered here in simile and apt metaphor. In the second stanza, it is personified. In the final stanza, Hyesim acknowledges his limitations to describe the fruit completely. The inability of language to describe absolutely is another aspect of Sŏn Buddhism, and seemingly an exercise in Platonic forms. Magnolia and Lotus is replete with such poems.

“Instead of Heaven and Earth, I Answer” is another example of linguistic exploration and the human mind’s capacity for description. Hyesim recognizes the myriad distinctions a person may observe in an object, then asks in the poem’s final lines:

if one abandons this discriminating mind
what forms of matter are unique?

Nature provides the epistemological truths people should strive to learn. Such realizations lead to enlightenment and transcendence. As Sŏn Buddhists believe in “sudden enlightenment,” it is no surprise to see such didactic poems written in simple verse. The poem is expansive because so much depends on the reader’s thoughtfulness.

These poems feel like anecdotal lectures that may only interest readers who enjoy cerebral foreplay. Other poems intimate Hyesim’s life and a wider gamut of readers will find those more accessible and enjoyable.

In the collection’s introduction, readers are given Hyesim’s biography in short detail. Its brevity owes to little information about Hyesim’s personal life; the book’s translator, Ian Haight, even claims that arranging this collection as a chronicle of Hyesim’s life is presumptuous. What I find most interesting in Hyesim’s biography is his determination to become a monk, though his mother disapproved—his father died when Hyesim was still young. At his mother’s request, he entered the National Academy to prepare for government service. When his mother died and he had no other familial obligations, Hyesim immediately left school to become a monk novitiate.

Hyesim’s own life seemed analogous to Sŏn Buddhist teachings. To achieve enlightenment and to cultivate the mind through self-discipline and abstaining from desire, there is certainly some ambition in the quest. Hyesim proved it could be obtained with humility—he famously refused titles, promotions, and tried to refuse royal gifts—but he seemed to always desire self-improvement toward a more natural ideal. Sŏn Buddhists believe all humans are a part of the Buddha-mind. The Buddha-mind assumes a type of objectivity through which to view humanity and likely accounts for Hyesim’s ease at writing witty, quixotic, and insightful poetry.

In the poem, “Patiently Dreaming, a Buddhist Layman Asks for a Poem About the Pasture Cow,” Hyesim slyly acknowledges the distance between a liberated Buddhist mind and those who do not seek enlightenment, while also addressing the effects of humanity’s exertion of power over nature.

Put to pasture on a family’s field,
a cow watches other cows drink water.
Sometimes this cow tries to eat a little grass—
held by a nose ring, her head cannot move.
As days pass, the cow grows accustomed to this—
after years, the cow accepts it as natural.
In an eternity, the cow never yearns for freedom—
how many years does it take to accept the habit of a yoke?

One wonderful quality about Hyesim’s poetry is its timelessness. Magnolia and Lotus is a collection of poetry written approximately eight centuries ago. Still, Hyesim is thought-provoking. His commentary on nature resounds as a quality of human nature in spite of their sometimes symbiotic relationship. His poetry contributes to modern rallies for human equality and liberation from consumerism. Haight’s translation recovers a unique Korean voice, often overlooked among other Buddhist poets and scholars. Hyesim’s voice is a refreshing one, minding new readers that transcendence is humanly possible. Our only obligation is to watch and to listen.

Magnolia & Lotus: Selected Poems of HyesimTranslated by Ian Haight and T’ae-Yŏng Hŏ. White Pine Press, 2012: $16.00

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J. Andrew Goodman is a recent MFA graduate from Murray State University and an intern for the independent literary publisher, White Pine Press. He currently lives and works in Louisville, Kentucky.