Monday, July 18, 2011

Two Death Poems, by Mumon Gensen

In today's episode of Poetry Crossfire!, our poet-pundits are asked to grapple with the perplexing poetry of a 14th century Japanese Zen monk. At stake: one of mankind's most vexing end-of-life issues. Not medicine, pain management, or hospice -- but metaphor.

Bob Hicok is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Words for Empty and Words for Full (University of Pittsburgh Press). He is associate professor of creative writing at Virginia Tech.

William D. Waltz is the author of Zoo Music (Slope Editions), chosen by Dean Young as the winner of the 2004 Slope Editions Book Prize. He is also the editor of Conduit, "The Only Magazine That Risks Annihilation." He lives in St. Paul.

The poems:

Two death poems, by Mumon Gensen (d. 1390)

These two poems are reported to have been recited, one after another, in the moments before Mumon Gensen's death.

Life is an ever-rolling wheel
And every day is the right one.
He who recites poems at his death
Adds frost to the snow.


Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You'll be bound forever
like an ass to a stake.

Ready, set, crossfire!

Bob Hicok: I wrote two responses. And didn't count the titles. Or the spaces. Off to swim. Or to be more accurate regarding my abilities: not drown.

Thurman Munson's death responds to Mumon Gensen's death

Life is squatting
in dirt and catching
a ball happily
with your crotch. Death
is a monarch
hovering over
queen anne's lace
in a field
where a stadium
once cheered
eternally. The god
damned pitcher
still shaking you off.

The mummy reads Mumon Gensen

Life is knowing your brain
will be swished
around and pulled out
your nose. Death
is walking
without dialogue
through movies,
except a groan
suggesting hemorrhoids.
I am bandages,
I am wound, I am
a cloud of mist
in the mind
of a poem.

William D. Waltz: When I began reading Japanese death poems, my friends were concerned, much like they would be if I started rooting for the Yankees. I liked Thurman Munson, despite his Yankee uniform, because he was from Ohio. Another Ohioan who moved to New York was Hart Crane and he drowned, which is weird because his father invented the little candy shaped like a life preserver.

Bob Hicok: While I knew of your antipathy to the Yankees, I didn't know about Hart Crane's pop. Pop Crane. do you remember Pops from Speed Racer? I wish Speed would have committed suicide, and Spritle too. I think Hart Crane would have liked Racer X. I think he should have jumped off The Brooklyn Bridge. "But we have seen the moon in lonely alleys make a grail of laughter of an empty ash can." I would give my pineal gland to have written that. In a box. With a bow. If I knew what the pineal gland does, I might revise that offer. It does it well, so far as I know, whatever I don't know it does. Hart Crane's bones are cairned by the ode of the sea. Your love of Ohio is commendable and touching. A state that makes you say O coming and going, as if it has a mind for exultation and orgasm. Put that on your state flag. Or, "Of all the people who've drowned here, Hart Crane was none of them." But in Latin.

William D. Waltz: Ah, I do remember Pops and agree with you regarding the demise of Speed and Spritle. I'd throw Chim-Chim in there too. I found Speed and his checkered flag supremely annoying and often wondered if other kids actually liked Speed and if I was the only one who rooted against him. My love of Ohio perplexes some. One splendid thing about Ohio is that the state flag is really a pennant and is thus unique among the state flag brotherhood. Another is the Great Serpent Mound, which depicts a snake swallowing an egg and was built three thousand years ago. I don't know what a pineal gland does either, but I think you're on to something with exultation and orgasm.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say I love the show. Long time listener, first time caller. Wondering if you poets could explain synecdoche vis a vis the environmental policies of the International Monetary Fund especially toward Central America and this relationship to any austerity measures involving Ohio bridge poets, candy, and general forlorn-ness. Thanks! I'll hang up and listen.