I’ve written a poem in response to a zen koan. The Moon Thief will be published in the forthcoming spring issue of Urthona.
‘The Moon Thief ’ came out of an encounter with the koan in the poem’s epigraph: the great Zen poet Ryokan, meditating in a mountain hermitage, offers his clothes to a thief but cannot give him a full appreciation of the moon. Mark writes: ‘I was walking home from work and suddenly thought, “there’s another side to this story.” Working in and around the silences of the koan brought many scenes and characters over time.’
This long poemrelates the quest of a drifter and thief desperately seeking a treasure that will heal his inner wounds. He stumbles upon Ryokan, the Japanese hermit poet. In this version, the chance encounter changes everything for the thief – but what will he find at the summit?
Here’s the original koan that inspired the poem.
A Zen Master lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”
Breath hisses like a burning log.
The cracked black wood burns red,
smouldering in a deep iron heart.
Too much air, it flares and flickers out.
Too little, it starves and we get cold ash.
But when the grate is open well enough
it breathes hot and constant.
Sometimes a blister, a spark, a crack.
Mostly nothing but silent, black heat
warming the room without display or cease.
Full use was made of the firelighters. Not so much the rest of it. Matthieu Ricard’s book would have given me much happiness in the form of blessed heat but it didn’t come to that.
The burner was one of those US Boxwood stoves. They look quite iconic and can fit a lot of wood inside. You leave the tray and flue open to get the fire going and then close the tray and twist the flue handle towards closed (horizontal) to keep the heat in the chamber and warm up the iron. It seems analogous to meditation somehow.
Love is not made here. There is no air, nor bread, nor beer.
It is doubly dark, which is to say that it has no colour.
It is doubly deep, having no need of a beginning.
It is doubly quiet, because I can hear myself.
You have brought me to a place that does not exist.
This land is dark and unsearchable. There is no water.
The air is not transparent, or else everything is.
What purpose is there in bringing me to a desert
so dry, where nothing can be found?
Hello! Guess what? I was shortlisted for the Live Canon International Poetry Competition again. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get over to Greenwich Theatre to hear the shortlisted poems performed but am chuffed to have my poem published in their new anthology. It’s a response to Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.
Returning to Woods on a Snowy Evening
Developers have sought permission for
much-needed housing. Many trees are gone.
Although I’ve rarely walked in them before,
these woods belong to me, if anyone.
My new coat covers something old in me,
a looker-at-birches who journeyed on.
Ice storms silver everything here but time.
Diggers crouch: eager to do and be done.
Trees are like flagpoles beside the road,
marking the quiet border of a ceasefire.
At 1 a.m., I’ve come out here to tread
down snow and put the freeze on my desire.
Love, in any language, can’t be understood.
The call’s been made, the council has agreed.
No one can say how dark, how deep this wood.
How long before suburbs become its seed.
The competition was won by Aileen La Tourette for ‘The Diving Horse’. Congratulations to Aileen and to all of the poets who shortlisted. As a competition that believes poetry should be read aloud, the Live Canon anthology will be alive with poems that crackle and sparkle in the ear. You can buy it from Amazon.
Who needs a skull grinning brightly on their desk
when an apple core moulders so quickly?
There’s no getting away from it. Leaves brown in the gutter.
Blue islands form archipelagos in the bread.
Walk through the cemetery. See how even gravestones,
our markers of impermanence, decay. Then see wild grass
rushing up their sides, fountains of columbine spilling
over in the last days of autumn. Breathe the air
moving silently between tall trees.
So the nights are getting longer. I was doing walking meditation in the library courtyard, feeling relaxed and yet self-conscious enough to walk at such an angle that the late shift librarian couldn’t see me from the café. He didn’t care, he was playing an electric piano, though I couldn’t hear it through the glass. Libraries are such important community spaces. My band used to practice on the sixth floor of the local library on Friday nights when we were too young for rehearsal studios (and pubs). Now I pace slowly backwards and forwards accompanied by a silent pianist. It’s a little surreal, I suppose.
Anyway, there I was shuffling up and down and the paving, walls, and surrounding buildings were lit with a kind of intense twilight that made everything more vivid. The deep blue sky contrasted starkly with the clouds, which were dyed candy-floss pink by the descending sun. Within five minutes, the light faded and suddenly night had crept into the scene. I remember seeing a similar vivid glow while camping in the Dart valley. My tent was surrounded by a carpet of fallen leaves which were suffused by hazy autumnal light. Similarly, on returning from a quick trip to the bothy, I was surprised to see the startling effect had already gone, replaced by limpid daylight. When you gotta go, you gotta go.
There’s something refreshing about the turn of the seasons, though I’m increasingly grateful for the return of the light after winter. This season of mists and mellow fruitfulness used to be a favourite but now I appreciate the change most of all. Probably twenty years ago, I was kicking leaves while walking through a village and saw a bookshelf and lamp in the window of a terraced house. That’s what I want, I thought. It’s funny how these blueprints stick and before you know it you’re on the other side of a window, fixing a broken bookshelf and surrounded by books and more books: many of which you haven’t read and have no time to read. Or at least it sometimes feels like it. But that’s OK. Moving south-west has been a big undertaking/adventure but the house is coming together, we’ve been extremely fortunate to find freelance work so far, and things like this meditation group are fostering a sense of connection to the area. I don’t know what the next change will be but I’m still excited to keep shuffling through the leaves and see what I find.