Billy Collins' poem "Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of their Titles" has me wanting to read Chinese poems. It's a common desire, really. Most people I have seen today surely feel that same urge. The woman in running clothes waiting to cross the street was composing a poem about a river. That kid driving past the deadened lake, steering with his knee while lighting a cigarette, was writing of a stone bowl of rice in a fire. The fluttering scarf of the child standing at the edge of the road holding his mother's hand was itself a Chinese poem. Or maybe Japanese. I struggle to to tell them apart. Maybe I want both. Maybe we all need both and will know one from the other by the slant of the light, the soft force of the breeze, and the wings of the heron beating the water. Hey, that sounds like Chinese poetry, I say aloud. I look for someone to nod and agree, but I'm alone here with a desire. That desire, I would explain it, maybe write a poem about it, one with an extraordinarily long title about why and how this feeling has come to bloom inside me and spread like wildflowers or wildfire or maybe just yellow dandelions across what has been a frozen landscape, but of course everyone already knows, having felt the yearning for the Chinese poets and their translated words, having stood in the shade of their mountains and dipped their toes into the cool lake by which our huts all stand. Our doors are open. Inside each hut a Chinese poet sits drinking dark red wine from a tall green bottle and waving us inside.
This is about all I need in a poem. It may be pretty much all I need. It's like an incredibly well-tooled joke with a strong set-up complete with dustpan, bowties, and galoshes. Two thirds of the way through everything picks up pace just a touch and a thin, old Buddha materializes raking answers into the Zen garden. I look out and largely past, not yet able to see well. The joke leaves me smiling but also a little sad. It gets me to thinking.
I consider the thousand Buddhas in my own house. The Buddha of the ink bottle. The Buddha of the dictionary and calendar who does both jobs needing money to pay of his student loans. The Buddha of shaving admires his smooth skin continually touching his face with one hand gently, gently. Outside, the Buddha of dogs accepts the neighbor's untrained beast barking at every passerby and most cars, but looks strained from the lack of sleep. The Buddha of grey skies and rain holds the door open for the Buddha of first flurries. There is a Buddha of our porch lights who appears earlier every evening. The Buddha of desire sleeps in each of our beds with cold feet and sharp toenails. I would tell you about the Buddha of cats, but each cat is Buddha. We have no Zen garden to rake, but a young child Buddha sits at the kitchen table under the light holding a pencil in her hand. She writes a single word on a blank page. This is the whole story but I take it as a prompt and fill the rest of the page and two more with all my thinking. Though if you ask I can only just recall the word she wrote there and couldn't possibly pronounce it.
When I'm really reading, when I read for days and weeks and it's so good I don't ever want to stop, the books come and come to me. Where they come from is no real mystery. They come from out of the blue. Out of the radio and newspaper. Out of one book and into another. Out of the library. Out of the mouths of friends. Books I've ordered arrive in the mail. A friend leaves one in the mailbox. The note says something like, this made me think of you. Books stacked on my wife's desk have titles that call to me. At coffee a friend has a book I really must read. Books arrive from the past because space is curved and all things return after we read them. Reading one book I try not to think of others. I write quotes on sticky notes, in my notebook, between dates on my planner's pages. I dog-ear library books, God help me, and leave pencil dots near quotes that whispered to me. You see, I know where books come from. It's all magic. A trick in which a magician reaches into a dark place that isn't her hat, and pulls out something not quite a rabbit. The ears seem like pages and the magician's fingers are stained in ink. I stand and applaud, hoping she will hand it to me and I can begin to read.
Vision narrows. The mind lets go of the duties of the body. Things such as breathing, beating the heart, making words. Yet a part of the mind is still wide awake. It turns on the silent alarm. The flashing light atop the ship's bridge. We are going down. Mayday. Abandon ship. That small part of the brain, buried in our evolutionary past like some fossil, triggers a little language. I say, I not good. You hear, uh-nuh-guh. Then even that small part of my mind comes to a stop. Your eyes widen, your heart beats a moment sooner, your brain synapses fire lightning without thunder. You reach for me. Catch me, maybe. Help me down to ground. I won't know. You'll have to tell me all this later when I return to the world. My vision coming back. As I look up into the light of concern, a candle flickering in the breeze of my returning breath.