The air this morning is sparkling, in the 70s, and dry. We’re not at the lake yet, but out my window there are birds going at it, and trees, fully green now. I’m glad to be alive. I’m glad to have finished my long round of chemo and radiation and am looking forward to a summer of repair, of resting a lot, spending time with our children and grandchildren, and swimming and kayaking as much as I can. I especially appreciate this poem by Dick Allen, about the quality of our appreciation.
The speaker in the poem notices the birdsongs closely enough to work at thinking what to compare them to, to get the sound right. He honors them in that way, by finding the right images to help us to hear them.
He’s aware that even the cat’s “primitive head” is “a cave of possibility.” He’s paying attention to the elemental, the nitty-gritty of the world, which is telling him something about itself: maybe the world can be happy. Everything is possibility.
The speaker obviously knows something about quantum mechanics. He knows that the “double-slit experiment” demonstrates that matter and energy can display characteristics of both waves and particles. He knows that they may be either, both, or neither. He’s ready to see that mystery. He’s not only open to the birdsong, he’s open to what he can’t really know. He knows the universe is made of accidents.
He has great ambitions for himself. He wants to have patience enough to stay with all this awareness. Patience enough to keep track of the shifting leaves, even keep track of his thoughts like a good Zen practitioner, to see the world in all its beautiful intricacy and mystery.
What does he do instead? He fries up some bacon and eggs and Xs out the days on his calendar, (noticing its pictures, which have to do with solitariness), including the days he’s forgotten.
Has he often failed to keep track of the wonderfulness of what’s around him? Has he fogged out and missed some days of his life? Yes, but I don’t sense this is a problem for him. He has his bacon and eggs and the happy continuity of cooking them in a skillet that’s older than his house.
There seems to be a great forgiveness in this poem. We think, “Now I’ll start paying attention to everything. I’ll appreciate the world around me. I’ll be grateful for every minute.” But we forget. We fry up food that may not be so good for us. But we like it. This is being alive, enjoying being alive, which is exactly “Zen Living.”
Birdsongs that sound like the steady determined tapping
of a shoemaker's hammer,
or of a sculptor making tiny ball-peen dents in a silver plate,
wake me this morning. Is it possible the world itself can be happy? The calico cat
stretches her long body out across the top of my computer monitor,
yawning, its little primitive head a cave of possibility.
And I'm ready again
to try and see accidents, the over and over patterns
of double-slit experiments a billionfold
repeated before me. If I had great patience,
I could try to count the poplar, birch and oak
leaves in their shifting welter outside my bedroom window
or the almost infinitesimal trails of thought that flash and flash
everywhere, as if decaying particles inside a bubble chamber,
windshield raindrops, lake ripples. However,
instead I go to fry some bacon, crack two eggs
into the cast-iron skillet that's even older than this house,
and on the calendar (each month another oriental fan
where the climbing solitary is dwarfed . . . or on dark blue oceans
minuscular fishing boats bob beneath gigantic waves)
X out the days, including those I've forgotten.
— Dick Allen, from Poetry (July 2001).