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A Zen Master Speaks: Poems By Dick Allen

"His Zen is most similar to 'crazy Zen', ... but it is impossible to explain Zen rationally."

This month's featured poet, Dick Allen, was Connecticut's poet laureate from 2010 to 2015. He is the author of eight poetry collections and has received many of poetry's highest honors and most prestigious fellowships. You may have heard him on "Prairie Home Companion" recently. He has been a Zen Buddhist as well as a student of Zen for more than 50 years, and is the author of "Zen Master Poems," forthcoming this summer.

About the philosophy of the Zen Master who speaks in these poems, Allen says, "His Zen is most similar to "crazy Zen" based on flashes of intuition, juxtaposition of name brands with pastoral river banks, paradoxes, whimsy…" The poet goes on to say that "it is impossible to explain Zen rationally. ... Zen Buddhism's realizations must be approached on many paths, some covered with brambles and old kite strings, some cleared of cobwebs, many of our present American ones littered with broken No. 2 lead pencils or computer strokes." Allen lives in Trumbull.

—Rennie McQuilkin, CT Poet Laureate

Old Zen Master

I never in my life before

became aware

egg shells are so light,

said the Zen master,

holding the shells of two eggs

in the palm of one hand.

Why, they're almost

as light as a Crayola mark.

Even when I move my head,

if I wasn't looking,

I doubt I'd know they were there,

and if this is so, what else

might I have missed,

like the tea-kettle whistle

at the end of the sound of "Yes,"

low-lying hills in the distance,

how the sky fits into them

like one hand pressing

into another,

the smell of a cloth bag filled

with quarters and dimes,

and at my age, how silly,

how splendid,

to still be discovering this.

The Zen Master Rewrites A Poem of Seasons By Seung Salun

Purple violets in the spring grass.

In the summer, porch swings at night.

Vermont red and orange mountains.

The white-on-white of ski tracks in winter snow.

Is the world giving up on me?

Am I giving up on the world?

I sit bare-headed in the Zazen room.

I find I don't care.

One airliner in the blue sky.

Soda pouring from a McDonald's soda fountain.

The wind through the abandoned factories of Ansonia.

I give my whole life to them.

Turning Over the Tea Bowl

Turning over the tea bowl,

I found the nick

deliberately made —

the small flaw struggling against

beauty's arrogance.

Zen Master Shaking His Head In Disgust

What an ugly way to describe

this vessel that holds us.

Skin bag.

Is this what I am?

Is this what you are?

Skin bag.

I would rather have said,

Delusion that Bears My Name,

Beautiful Disguise,

Deceiver of Eyes,

Robe Draped Upon my Soul.

Like Water Off a Duck's Back

We watch them swimming in heavy Adirondack rain,

the mallards,

their scapulars, tertials, coverts

and all their other feathers folded around them,

the rain sliding off them,

as we would wish our troubles to slide from us,

so we could just glide, glide across rainy lakes and rivers,

beneath the thick pines,

with the deep reedy laughter of the females

and the short, rasping quelips of the males,

expecting little better,

confident we can shake off anything that comes,


our green heads upright

like the handles of stalwart canes,

turning from this way to that.

All poems copyright © 2016 by Dick Allen

CT Poet Laureate Rennie McQuilkin selects work for CT Poet's Corner by invitation.

Copyright © 2018, CT Now