SF Zen Center Poetry Reading
Believe it or not, in nearly 15 years of living in the city, and despite studying poetry with two renowned American poets (Jane Hirshfield and John High) very involved with the SF/Green Gulch/Tassajara zen triad, I had never entered the San Francisco Zen Center. Maybe it was an aversion to silence intruding on my silence. But on Friday evening, August 11, I visited the ZC for a poetry reading by John High, visiting from NYC where he now lives, and Lou Hartman, the venerable resident 92-year old monk. John was a founding editor of Five Fingers Review and is a leading translator of contemporary Russian poetry.
John had given me the wrong starting time, so a half-hour early I got a cup of coffee from the cafe across the street and then sat in the ZC’s tranquil (what else?) courtyard on a damp wood bench. Opposite the dining room windows, I could see the zen folk chowing down in the dining room. I pondered the insane week I had at my day job, then eventually settled into the calm. I knew that the red brick ZC once housed a synagogue, and the metal railings around the courtyard and surrounding the windows above incorporated Mogen Davids. It’s a beautiful building.
I saw John in a hallway and went in to say hi, along with other folks who haven’t seen him in some time. It had been seven years since I last saw John. He was at the ZC for the week, along with his daughter Sasha, now 12 and who I hadn’t seen since her first Giants game at Candlestick when she was 5, and with his girlfriend. John would go to Tassajara the next week to lead a poetry workshop.
The reading took place in the back of the dining room with its living room decor–easy chairs, a sofa, and an oriental rug. There were about 20 people attending the reading, including friends and some ZC folks. John read from his forthcoming book, HERE: A Poem for Billy High, 1959-2004. As with most of John’s work, the poetry floats through the spiritual and “material” world, invested in each other, spirit beings mingling with the earthly. It is a poem of confrontation and forgiveness, of grief and acceptance. Very powerful work, transformational.
Lou Hartman then read from what he termed “a collection of verse”–work that spanned decades. Lyrical work with phenomenal imagery (I remember “a swarm of stars”) and often a wry voice. He raised some chuckles with his observations, but more so some “whoas” from the depth in haikus he read.
An inspiring night, which I mentioned to John upon saying my goodbye. “Then write me a poem, bro,” he instructed. Ok, teacher, here it is:
The Day After Your Reading at San Francisco Zen Center
for John High, 08.12.2006
Early this morning you drive
to the north country, to spread Billy’s ashes.
The ashes of the dead are heavy, I’m told,
heavier than poems
on stacks of paper, heavier
than the words of poems stamped
upon the heart.
Soon, later today,
the particles of body & word
from ground locus
into sky & wind continuum.
Others you love–have learned to love–
accompany you, all of us
composed in your brother’s dust.