Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Book of Equanimity Verses: Richard von Sturmer

Five verses from a hundred verse sequence,
inspired by The Book of Equanimity, a Zen Buddhist
collection of one hundred koans.


The upper hand
lies forgotten
in a bottom drawer.
The lower hand is lost
gathering dust
somewhere in a basement.
Now that all conflict has ended
the roof tiles reflect the moonlight.


It's in the space between
the pillar and the lattice windows.
It's drawn to scale
by a blind person in a dream.
Look — when the kingfisher flies
into a phoenix palm
all the colours of the Nile
carry you across the evening sky.


The donkey looks at the well.
A bank of nasturtiums.
The well looks at the donkey.
A field of violets.
It’s mid-summer
and by the slowly moving river
blackberries are ripening
lobe by lobe.


When the ancient scholar
retires for the night
rats come out
and eat his manuscript.
The most demanding passages—
those he had to write and rewrite
are also the most
difficult to digest.


I divide my time
between High Street
and the Tang Dynasty.
This afternoon
half asleep
from one glass of wine
I allow a red bus to take me
down the road to Changan.


                                                Editor Harvey Molloy

Why do I enjoy Richard's poetry so? We have never met yet through his poetry I feel that I know something of him. The poems have an immediacy and energy which I immediately respond to. Nothing is wasted and there is no noise or redundancy. Richard's work fosters an expansion of awareness; the poems call us to pay attention to the sounds and splashes of colour around us. There's also a sense of play or surreal delight in his poems. Like a trapped djinn, Edison's last breath finds release under the stars not yet totally drowned by his lights.

The sparkling intelligence at work in these poems is shaped by Zen poetic forms and Zen practice. Richard's poems acknowledge a greater reality, an awareness of a spiritual power or energy that flashes through the poems and provides both the poet and the reader with a knowledge or insight that can only be expressed within the poem.

When I first started to read Richard's work I saw a certain tension between the poetic forms of the Zen tradition and the very vitality of experience offered by the poems. How much of all this awareness is a trick of language or poetic form? That tension comes from a misunderstanding of awareness: "For those who desire/the pure sky/it's a disappointment." In Richard's poetry, awareness and form are always tied together much in the same way that emptiness and form are tied together in Zen. He's a skilful poet whose crafted work has no bum notes.

Richard von Sturmer is a New Zealand writer and has published four books: We Xerox Your Zebras (Modern House, 1988), A Network of Dissolving Threads (Auckland University Press, 1991), Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose (HeadworX, 2005) and On the Eve of Never Departing ( Titus Books, 2009).

More selections from Richard's The Book of Equanimity Verses are online at Trout and Interlitq.
His wonderful poem Gathering Clouds is available on Best New Zealand Poems 2003.

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This week's editor, Harvey Molloy has published poems in a number of journals including Enamel, International Literary Quarterly, Landfall, NZ Listener, and Poetry New Zealand. His first book of poems, Moonshot, was published by Steele Roberts in 2008. He is the co-author of the book Asperger Syndrome, Adolescence, and Identity: Looking Beyond the Label. He is now working on his second book of poems.


maggie@at-the-bay.com said...

I love this poem

Mary McCallum said...

Richard von Sturmer's poetry has always fascinated me. I heard him read once and promptly bought his book of poetry - giving it, in the next breath, to a Buddhist friend because it seemed the perfect gift. Thank you for this post, Harvey - these verses are like tight buds, unfurling on every reading. As a writer, I especially respond to:

When the ancient scholar
retires for the night
rats come out
and eat his manuscript.
The most demanding passages—
those he had to write and rewrite
are also the most
difficult to digest.

Janis said...

I love Richard von Sturmer's poetry. I first saw him in the early eighties performing strange theatre as half of the Humanimals - great stuff. Thanks for posting this, Harvey.

Helen Lowe said...

Exquisite: precise yet universal; intellectual yet with emotional depth. Thank you, Richard--and Harvey for bringing these stanzas of the larger poem sequence to us.