Nobody knew what
Unleashed from a
Bottle that shattered
On the ground
What it was
Like a genie
To the morning sky
That the beautiful
Flash will bring
Sudden death to thousands
Slowly to many more
Nobody knew what it was
That genie with no name
Picadon it was called:
What it was
For the first time
A weapon as bright
As a hundred suns
Death to thousands at once
But nobody knew
What it was
Quick death in one loud flash
Steel boiling from heat
Bodies turning to vapor
Shadows on concrete
What it was
By Rene J. Navarro, August 6, 1985, Bethlehem, PA
*Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the movie by Alain Resnais (director) and Margaret Duras (script writer), was the inspiration for this poem and “The Old Calligrapher.” I read a version of the two poems in the Peace Garden in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania on the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Meditation on Ganesha
A statue of Ganesha stands (or sits) at the temple entrance, a gate that seems to have been riven down the middle leaving 2 identical but opposite pieces like yin and yang. A checkered cloth of black and white patterns is wrapped around statues to embody good and evil, that one should be aware of their existence and must take care. The people are aware that spirits, good and bad, inhabit the world: so miniature baskets of offerings are made to the land, the rivers, the trees (especially the giant banyan of Buddha fame), the mountains. The volcanoes too are propitiated, their spirits becalmed, so that there won’t be any angry destructive explosions. Trees are the earth’s bridge to heaven, our connection to the divine, the older and higher, the better. Every single day, the people would carry these baskets, some as small as your palm, or even smaller, filled with flowers, rice, art works of palm leaves, and offered at an altar or the base of a wall, a granite rock, the edge of a statue. Watch out: you may be stepping on a miniature palm weaving on the ground.
We are alone here. Perhaps the rains in January have kept the tourists away from this open-air temple. It is empty of human presence … or sound, except for the voice of the young guide, a girl interne who is being trained to introduce the different landmarks and tell their history. She’s wearing a skirt of batik, swirling colors of the land and the other world, yellow gold sash around her waist and a translucent blouse of coconut fibers, a frangipani blossom on her ear. A priestess leading a tour of her domain.
Marina, my friend from Russia, inquires about the rat. The girl says it is somewhere. She lifts the corner of the checkered cloth wrapped around the waist of Ganesha: there is the rat hiding at the base of the statue. In the rain and the cold, it is the best place to be.
A mysterious mythology: there are many different stories about Ganesha and his attributes. He could be found at the gate of many temples. It is a mystical representation of godhood and beginnings and entrances. He removes obstacles to new enterprises. He insures safe passage. Every thought, every action, is a sacred birth in our journey through life. I did not think of it seriously before: Whatever it is we do, we always begin. There is only the present. Pray to him when you start a project, a work, an art, a creation, a poem. In the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, God is represented as muscular beefed-up Hercules, looking like an Italian superhero, index finger animating an equally muscular Adam. In other cultures, the divine is incarnated as the sun or the moon or a snake, or thunder and lightning. The almighty has to assume an earthly face, something familiar to us so that we could understand it better. In Bali there is one god but with different manifestations. Ganesha is our beginning, the start of a journey. He is everywhere because wherever we are, every second, every minute, is a sacred moment where we begin again.
Peppercorn Treatment in a Balinese Temple: February 2006
I was there for a week in February 2006, after my visit to the Magus of Java. I was the guest of a prominent family who made wonderful silk scarves under the brand name Bin House. Obin, the proprietor, told me to see a healer up in an old Hindu temple. He had successfully treated a woman of breast cancer with herbs, she said. The driver took me up north past the rice fields and the terraces and a volcano. Along the way, women in Balinese dresses were going to temple with pots of flowers balanced on their heads. Wedha, my Javanese guide, spoke to the guard at the gate, told me to pay a hundred thousand rupiahs, and we were directed to a spot in the temple courtyard. The money covered entrance, the lectures and a treatment of indeterminate nature and duration. Ganesha, the elephant god, stood on an improvised altar, incense burned somewhere among the flowers and palm leaves. There were people ahead of us sitting in a semi-circle in front of the old man, foreigners from America and Germany, mostly young women. Obin told me that he had married a young woman, had several children, and was still active in the healing trade. He talked half in Indonesian, half in English and whenever he paused somebody translated for him in English. A blonde woman stepped forward and lay down on a mat in the center of a brick platform where a table stood. I could not hear what he was saying, it was just a murmur, he was gentle with her, stroking her shoulder and head as he talked. When it was my turn, he gave me a painful treatment using a wand in the shape of a snake, probing acupressure points I recognized. Every single one hurt, especially along the Bladder line. What was the matter? I thought. He did not give a diagnosis of what was wrong with me. I stood up when he was done. When he noticed I was sniffing, he asked me if I wanted a treatment for my sinuses. I trustingly said yes. Well, he turned to his table — I did not see what he was doing — and when he came back, he asked me to close my eyes. He spit on my face. I heard laughter from the 10-odd western people who were there to study with him. He told me to keep my eyes closed for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, his saliva dribbled down my face. After a few minutes, I felt relieved and smelled the pepper-like scent of the herb. Was that Sichuan peppercorn, a warming herb in Chinese herbal pharmacopeia? I wiped his saliva off with a handkerchief. My sinuses were clear for several days. The wonders of traditional eastern folk medicine!
Wedged at the joint of the ceiling in a triangular corner
My gecko does not have to turn to take a peek at me when
I sit on the chaise longue just outside my bedroom. I am
Writing about this lonely house at the edge of the rice fields
In Maya Ubud: how isolated it is, how vulnerable it looks
Amid the bananas, durians, frangipani, coconuts. I see a white
Butterfly fluttering along the trellis of flowers, a red dragonfly
Flying from leaf to leaf in a secret benediction. A man scything
The tall grass is coughing. A piece of wildness at the end of a long
Trail from the road, through a steel gate, a slow descent and a last
Abrupt turn. At sundown, the lamp, like a beacon beside a spirit
House, glows in the gathering darkness. I want my gecko to start
Its ritual of mantras, the sacred sounds of worship to the earth,
Its tu-ko, tu-ko, tu-ko cries offer me the protection and blessing
Of its trembling voice. Its invocation reaching farther than the trees
And the stars to the island of the gods and goddesses. I can hear
The roar of the tuktuks and the motorcycles, the song of a bird
And the echo of conversations across the stream. But I am alone here.
The jackfruit hanging 50 feet in the air at the end of a stem beckons.
Gecko of my childhood, my little Dragon, my green shaman, I heard
Your chanting when I was half-awake in this big bed, your range
Reaching me in my dreams, as I drifted into exhausting,
Hypnotic slumber after a long flight from my home 4 hours away
To the Northwest, a priestess calling, calling me from across the continents.
You honor our planet, you honor life, with your single notes. At night,
At sunset, you never fail to bow your head and for an Eternity shake
My body with your throaty syllables: I should join you in your daily
Regimen of reverence to the sacred in the world. Mornings and evenings,
I should bow to the holy: The gifts of sun, moon, the greening leaves,
The breeze that touches me, the spirits I see wandering in the garden,
Or moving through the glass of the bay windows that open into the porch,
The blood that flows in my veins, a heart that pulses quietly through
The channels of my mortal flesh. I should repeat the ancient mantras
Of my people:
Bari, bari, Apu.
Great Ancestor, give me protection.
And my loves to pass through
This narrow trail to our home
In the woods
Unharmed through life.
Bless me with my Gecko’s sacred sound.
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Waiting an hour for the rain to fall:
it finally came in the afternoon at 4:26 .
Francesca was going through her yoga
postures when I woke up in the living room.
Uma was in the bedroom
napping. The rest of the guys
hadn’t appeared for the seminar
on detachment, impermanence,
and the Self. We were stranded –
they somewhere, we in the house –
by the rain.
In January rains come
almost every day to Bali.
These are hot days
but rains come
and fall for hours
at this time of the year
regardless. Do expect to get soaked
if you are in Bali. We are told it is a gift
from the gods of the sky
and the dry earth is thankful
for its blessing.
In the Philippines of my childhood, rain
came in May, the month
of the flowers and the Flores
de Mayo festivals.
We kids followed the local beauty queens
and their escorts, little
kids dressed up in white
as King Constantine, through
the streets of my hometown.
I also remember that, as a child
of 6 or 7, I used to go out
and bathe in the showers,
got my feet
wet and muddy as I ran
around the neighborhood
naked with my cousins.
Just now, at 73, with the rain
pouring heavy in the courtyard
of the temple at Jawaran Street,
this early afternoon,
I took off
my clothes, stepped into the open
bathroom, faced the wall
of black volcanic rocks in back,
and raised my head
and arms to the sky, water pouring
over me, washing
my crown, my eyes
and ears, my hands,
my whole body,
as a single stick of incense
burned in the
of the altar
Teaching the Blind Qigong
I was teaching a qigong movement:
Your sword hand should draw a circle
turning clockwise from 12 o’clock to 3
to 6, from 6 to 9 to 12 I said as I turned
my fingers in the space level with my head.
It was all so clear to me, as I saw the face
of a clock in front of my shoulder. The blind
man sitting to my left cocked his head
sideways. I realized later he could not
follow me or my instructions: he had no idea
what a clock was or how it looked. He had
never seen one before in his life. We who can
see tell time by a watch or the light, or the
position of the sun. But a blind man tells
time with his body, the sound of traffic
or voices, or the vibration of the world
around him, and how his bones register
the humming of the earth and
the pulsing of the heart.
10:45 pm/DEC 24/13.
— for Amalia “Mals” Canlas
When Mals died,
I was training in a high meditation
to experience taking off
from the physical body
through the Crown
called Sealing of the 5 Senses
with my Taoist master
in the foothills
of Chiang Mai.
Crying in my room,
I felt ridiculous thinking
of the kari-kari I cooked
in the old apartment
in Brooklyn in the 70’s. Oxtail
simmered on low heat
for hours until it was tender,
ready to fall apart
at the slight nudge of a knife. The tripe
melted in your mouth
like the pieces of
Japanese eggplants while
the long Chinese string beans were
crunchy just on the raw
side. Shrimp paste whose smell
drifted down the hallway
when it was sauteed
in pork skin and fat with plenty
of garlic and onions,
a little sugar and ground pepper,
added balance. Fresh heart
of banana was missing
because we did not find
one in Chinatown.
The sauce was golden and thick
from the toasted ground peanuts
and achuete seeds that were
soaked in water
and mashed. A cuisine
of patient waiting,
as only a trained chef
It was an art I learned
at the dirty kitchen
in the old house back
in Tarlac as Mals, wearing
her house dress we called
a “duster” sweated
over pieces of firewood,
a darkened clay pot and
three irregular stones. She raised
me and my three
forty years ago,
followed us to the States,
and took care
of my father
in his old age,
until she passed
1997 in Spring
Valley, Rockland, New York.
*This poem was originally published in Our Own Voice (www.oovrag.com).
Nights, Inday, I see you in the side streets
of this island town. There where the red
lights perched on bamboo poles tell
strangers where you are. Out by the beach
where seaweeds are floating, green
and plump and salty. Daughter of the South,
dark child of the islands: In the morning
you sleep a night of music and rum
and broiled squid. Now I hear your laughter
as I walk by the Paradise Bar and see,
through the screen of bamboo slats,
your face in the half-dark of this land
of lime and corals, breathing tropic heat
even as Perry Como is singing Bali Hai
to the empty market and children sleeping
on concrete. I can smell the morning
now with the fishermen coming in,
bringing their catch of tortugas, eels,
fish and clams. You are already asleep,
Inday, when the sun touches the hovels
and stalls from where dark smoke rises
like ghostly seaweeds floating at dawn,
above the polluted harbor, over the slums
and the withered palm trees, over your
head and the ebony crucifix
hanging from your neck.
Reversal is the way of the Dao. Laozi, Dao De Jing
We gaze in stillness at the dark
blue night in Chongqing and trace
the fading footsteps that we have taken
in this life, and the many lifetimes
on this planet. In the geography
of ancient towns and cities, we look
for the streams back to our birth,
each day like a wave on the Yangtze
as it begins to ebb into the sea,
its inhabitants of newborn eels
coming up for air, cormorants deep
in the water, blue herons standing
like statues on the shore, a rare
green parrot lost from an aviary
downstream, and we step on the map
of memory into time, beyond the slow corruption
of our bodies, our minds, our souls
to our infancy, and further back,
past the fusion of cells, bones and flesh,
and the womb of our mother, past our unknown
father, past this earth and other stars,
into oblivion and further back, past the wars
and the ruins, past Sumer and Cathay and Atlantis
and the lost continents, past the invention
of boundaries, and weapons, and the lexicon
of hate, past the human devices
of wealth, and fame, and status
and distinctions, that have split us
from within and from each other, past the poisons
of the milleniums, to our earliest
incarnation, beyond the Milky Way
to the starlight of the first morning,
to the beginning, inch by inch, drop
by drop, on the eternal river,
where we’ll find the source,
the spring, of the self, breath that’s pure
genetrix, primal energy, uncorrupted,
fresh, immortal, to that luminous
and peaceful dawn in the landscape
of eternity, back to the umbilicus,
back to the navel
and the very womb of the Dao.
— After Mark Frutkin’s “Reinventing the World”
Copyright © 2004 by Rene J. Navarro
Doing Tai chi chuan outside
In mid-Autumn: a deer is watching me
from the edge of the woods
as she is sniffing the wind
descending from the west.
A full moon above the pines
but she is playing hide
and seek behind the clouds
and trees. In the valley,
smoke is rising from a thatched hut.
It is just 5 in the morning
and there is no sound
of human presence here
on Dragon Ridge. The hermit
in the Immortal’s Cave
on the Eastern slope
has not shown up for days.
I listen for his footfalls but
there is only the rustling
of the wind in the trees
and leaves falling at my feet.
A jug of hot black tea is waiting
on a rock. Master Jiang told me
to sit and meditate
into the void. No, shifu, now is not
to block everything from my eyes
and ears and float
There is so much to feast on
with the senses. Why
go inward now when the earth
is so rich with its colors,
scents, tastes and sounds?
Li-Bai, Su Dong Po, Tao Chien,
Du-Fu, my mentors and brothers,
let us get together again. Send for
the best turtle soup, deer tendon
casserole, West Lake Carp, Shanghai
crab and chrysanthemum. Let us
get drunk on
the best Xiaoxing wine
and ride the dragon chariot
on the Milky Way.
I rehearse death every chance I get.
Slowly I turn my eyes inward to summon
the dragon from its lair, let it uncoil
from sleep. I wait for it to move,
Speaking to it only with my mind.
It has to be stirred gently for flight
Every day at midnight when it is quiet
And the skies are clear of aircraft.
This dragon does not breathe fire, it’s
too lazy to move from sleep, it has
been coiled for centuries. I bribe it with
a pearl that shines in the dark. I follow
its trajectory in space. It flies
among the leaves of the sycamore in
my backyard, plays with the light of the
moon reflected on the wet grass. Mine
is a young dragon, reincarnated a few times.
It’s full of anger yet, unresolved karma
from a previous life. Lustful too for
women’s flesh, though I cannot understand
why. I make it fly higher and farther
from my house, not too far though since it
is still too weak for distance runs.
Now I pull it back on its leash, a really
tired dragon needing rest.
Clearing the Life
December 3, 1993, 5 am:
at the end
of the year
I try to get
in order. With each
day, it seems to get
smaller. It’s too
crowded now, there
is too little space
to move, I have
to tiptoe around
and ends stacked
randomly everywhere. I am
junk mail, scraps,
clippings, notes and
on a styrofoam board. On my desk
sorts of things: along
with my dragon chop from
a Glue Stic,
slide viewer, cups, pens
that have dried,
vitamins I don’t
junk, what is not?
Why do we keep some
things at all?
I’ve been looking
at each item piled
inside boxes and stuff
on my back as I
the day. Here are notes
from a previous
life. There is
from 1970 with
quotes from books
I read, thoughts
on exile and my first
autumn in the US.
I know I don’t need
them, but I couldn’t
let them go
like the first
on my computer.
even remember why
they are here
other things in no
like a claim
on my time.
this rock with veins
and I can’t remember when
I picked it up from
what beach: it must
have been beautiful
on the surf shiny and wet;
now, it feels
warm in my hands
no more memories than
much of what gathers
dust on the
windowsill. I know
as I get older
I need these things even
less. Many that I enjoyed
are now dead
weights. These things
up in baskets
like the petty
that distracted me
as I walked
in the meadow
for fresh air.
do I really need
to bring with me when
my lease is up
and I move away
I wonder what
from his perch
atop my corner
he quietly observes
my comings and goings
in this piece
a few of these
have given me
when I seemed
the dark and
place to rest instead. A few
with friends who made
the journey easier, some
are maps of places
I have been to and
places I like to be. But
what do I keep a map
of Paris for
I may not see
of these things
I will give
away to people
who I hope will
embrace them as
I have like
Ursa Major and Ursa Minor,
teddy bears above
my bed. Many
I will have to throw
those old Times
on the rack…
for my life.
12/7/93, Weston, MA, 4:45 AM
Drawing the Characters
Q: What can I write?
A: Anything that will improve the page.
— Zen Koan
2 a.m. and I am writing more characters
in my notebook with a pentel pen.
There are verticals and horizontals
and diagonals … and drops and slides
and strokes I do not know the Chinese names
for. I study the length of this line: it’s longer
than the one above it. This character starts
hanging from a vertical, that one ends
where one line begins. Another
begins at the eaves of a roof. I start over
again and feel the pressure
on the pen and how it varies the shade
of the ink, a little darker here, little lighter
there, thicker here, thinner there.
The proportion strikes me for the first
time: balance, nothing weighted
down, nothing leaning this way
or that. I know I do not see
the perspective of the whole
character yet, not even each
drop. I notice that I have to learn
what it means to be light, to spread
the ink evenly like they show
in the manual I am following.
Repetitions, repetitions, as my teachers
used to tell me when I was training
in Shaolin and Tai chi: imitate and
follow, repeat the way they did
the movement and I did each
a hundred times, two hundred,
until my sweat dripped to the floor
of the old Buddhist Temple.
Now each page of my sketchbook
is covered with squiggles. There are
no erasures, no corrections. I can only
start all over again. I know a lot
more now. But I do not even have
an idea what ground I have yet to cover.
How about the Qi that each line
should manifest? How about the Shen?
How about the Life that breathes
through each stroke?
How did the ancients
write with brush and ink?
I was told not to write
anything unless it can
improve the page.
Po-Ya has nobody to listen to his music.
He sits on a ridge overlooking the river
And plays his zither mounted on a rock.
Po-Ya plays regardless.
Nobody listens to his music or understands
his love for this ancient instrument.
It is in playing the zither
That he feels most himself. Even if nobody
Listens. He plucks the strings,
And he feels how each note vibrates
In his being and brings out the Po-Ya
That he knows is his true self.
Chung-chi, a wood gatherer, hears
Him play and says, That is beautiful.
Po-Ya is puzzled that a man finally
Appreciates the music nobody
Listens to. Po-Ya plays a passage
From the “High Mountain”
And asks Chung-chi what he heard.
Chung-chi says he felt like he was
On Taishan, the sacred mountain.
Po-Ya plays “Flowing Stream”
And Chung-Chi says he heard
The roaring ocean waves.
The two become friends,
The lonely zither master
and the ordinary wood gatherer.
Days they would sit on the ledge
And share the zither music
That transported them to different places.
Po-Ya is appointed to work
In the capital, as happens
To people who are talented,
And there nobody understands
The music he plays.
He misses Chung-Chi,
The only man who understands
Whatever he plays. He resigns
And goes back home.
But Chung-Chi had died.
Po-Ya destroys his zither
And does not play again.
“High Mountain, Flowing Stream,” one of the most famous compositions in China, often played on a zither,
commemorates and celebrates their friendship. The ledge on which they spent days listening to the zither
is called Ku Cheng T’ai, Ancient Zither Terrace.
Even today, the Chinese visit the spot in memory of Po-Ya and Chung-Chi and their frienship.
Thanks to Bill Porter/Red Pine, who wrote about the story in his book “Zen Baggage.” He says that in China, the expression “chih-yin-chih-yu” means a friend who knows your tune.
Dragon (Winter 1994)
Snow is falling in transparent
sheets across the garden
of lilacs into the woods
beyond. The dragon is out
there, his tail whipping
the wind in gusts along
the rhododendron path.
He has been out since
dawn, tasting the melting
snow on his tongue. He hears
the elegant explosion
of snow vaporising
in an instant: it recalls
other quiet revelations
of the quotidian. A flute
music rising with the mist above
the darkening canopy
of trees in a deep
valley in the Catskills where
Rip Van Winkle slept
for twenty years. The morning
mist in Chengdu wrapping the sun
in haze as the rays hit the cold
wind from the foothills
of the Himalayas. The taste of cold
ripe cherimoya: sweet,
sour, bitter at once, flavors
of a childhood in a tropical
town north of Manila. The moaning
echoes of a frozen Waban
Lake as ice pushed
against ice. All the seasons
of his lifetimes
he has heard
of white cranes that take
him as far
as the North
Star, his senses
satoris to the
presence of God
By Rene J. Navarro
— first published in the anthology “Flippin’ — Filipinos on America” edited by Luis Francia and Eric Gamalinda (Asian American Writers’ Workshop 1994).
By Rene Navarro and Nadine Sarreal
October 1999-April 2000
Traditional renga was a group activity in which each participant displayed his wit by spontaneously composing a poem in response to the poem that came before; the more interesting the relationship between the two poems the more impressive the poet’s ability. [Wikipedia]
The black bear has upset the garbage bin again:
like a thief it came, like a ghost it went.
Wooden clapper, metal tubes: still and silent
Until the wind blows night song through them.
With the winter wind blowing, the pipes shake like bones
in the dark, as I listen to the footfalls of an invisible beast.
Damp earth soaks up his hot retreat;
All is whispered, but this memory of sound.
Memory is all we keep — of fear and love and pain.
The keepsake echo earth, lake and woods retain.
By the edge of the water, a yellow bird, black beaked,
Perches, waiting, head tilted at the dawn breaking overhead.
Yellow, golden bird: bright harbinger of light:
Your song brings the sun out of the clouds.
The sky seems to ripple in the morning wind
Mirroring the movement on the water of fish below.
It is an ancient trout: yellow, green, red, and blue,
Its sinuous body rainbowing colors in the dawn sun.
He darts beneath a lotus leaf and nibbles on the stem;
Light, dark, light, pass his calm unblinking eyes
Above the waters of the bluegreen mountain lake a blue heron
rising: its flight hardly rippling the surface dappled with light.
Into the thin air, he, swift and soundless, bears a message
To the emperor of the high wind: green growing blue sky.
His wings lift him above the pines and the oaks and maples
In magical ascension: his body dissolving in the autumn sun.
At a certain height, a heron forgets he is bird apart from non-bird;
He stretches his stick legs back and believes he is running.
A most difficult thing but God does that, too, sometimes:
runs instead of flies just to feel how it is to be a mere human.
God, heron, lake fish, unseen beast, black bear in the bin: merging.
I remember this wholepiece solitude when all beings come together.
Last night, in the halo of headlights, two deer nibbling the grass.
Today, hunters wearing camouflage are sneaking into the woods.
They smell of metal and fire, woolen caps covering their heads;
Orange feelings leak from their eyes and they laugh at themselves.
I wondered what happened to the deer that nibble at the grass
Or to the mythic bear who kept upending the garbage bin for food?
What do they make of us, two-legged creatures who smell of fear?
The deer now hanging over a mantle, and the bear, a rug on the floor?
I see Isabel walking on the shore of the misted lake, all 28 pounds of her,
Hands clasped behind her, eyes staring at birds shrieking in the distance.
When we see what exists, and we verify with our senses what is
Sometimes our minds slip back and look for what was, what has been lost.
It is a human trait, this journey back and forth, from the future to the past,
from the past to the future and the elusive present: what’s there to salvage?
The matter of proportion and the issue of timing, these weigh most
in action and inaction. When to move and how far?
I look up and there’s a crescent moon in the sky,
I look within and the same moon shines in the dark.
The white of that moon against the darkness within
Presses away my hungers and cools my blood.
A woman who, in silence, quenches the thirst of the heart,
And soothes the anguish of the lonely search for the deep life.
Beneath the darkness a quiet river flows
spinning into the navel of the granite rock.
Eyesight failing, so turn within where the view is a partial mirror
Of the path before you, a squirrel, nervous, and the green green iguana.
Close to the heart of stillness where the senses cannot go,
the pathways disappear and a whole universe pulses with life.
From the smallest and emptiest room of thought can burst
Open strength and courage to last a lifetime of struggle.
Strength and courage, as small as the mustard seed of faith,
that spark fire as they encounter life’s dark granite rock.
A pile of dried leaves stirs in the breath of wind, changes shape
When each leaf settles again, it has lost its beginning place.
What was the face we had in the beginning, before there was an I?
What was the shape of the leaf before it drifted in the autumn wind?
Pin a moment down, wrestle from it its truth and watch,
As you catch your breath, the shapes of fact shift and change.
The chimes are quiet at dusk, the breeze is still like the woods.
It’s the silence of flux, the moment before anything stirs on earth.
Time, not a circle, but a spiral, moving up and around an axis
So that tomorrow, we will meet again.
© Rene Navarro / Nadine Sarreal
Reprinted from Our Own Voice (www.oovrag.com), the literary ezine for Filipinos in the diaspora. Nadine, a Filipino fiction writer, was in Singapore while I was in Lake Harmony, PA at the time the linked poem was written.
Walking in the Woods
Fall Equinox. It is going to be hot
today I know from the fog that has stalked
the landscape behind the house
as if a blanket has mantled the earth.
Walking in the woods I step on the leaves
and the acorns and I relish the sound
of a nut cracking. I see the rock by the side
of the trail: I have lighted an incense there
to honor the spirit of the forest
and seek its blessings and grace for us.
I smell the faint scent of a skunk:
it must have been here before me
or perhaps it is just foraging
deep among the trees. At the end of the trail
there is a sign: Dismount your bike
and walk across the street Safety First.
I idle at the bridge and watch the river.
Upstream there is white water as it hits boulders
and fallen tree trunks; downstream
it is calm like a mountain lake.
The hares that I have observed before
are out sniffing and nibbling at the grass.
They always seem to come in pairs
like swans. I sit on a log and remember
the times in Xihu, the leaves
refusing to turn in late October two years ago,
as we danced through the movements
of the Sword Immortal
and soaked in the warm light
of an Autumn sun.
Rene J. Navarro
— from “The Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy” (unpublished)
Dream in Baopu Temple
It is in the clear light
of memory, when all the colors
of the sun have been refracted
through the dark prism of night,
that I see you, your face
hovering over me
in my half-sleep.
What is desire
but a sense opening
to scent, taste, feel, sound,
light. In your absence,
I distil a dream of a pearl
from my loins, blossoming
through/from every crevice,
pore and ground.
I see you so well
even if you’re far away
in the western mountains,
far from Baopu Temple,
because my senses
have brought you
into my space
Again, I distill a Pearl
from the nebulae
through the space
of my body,
every crevice, pore,
and ground. What is it
in my body that brings
you back to me
in the dark?
What alchemy distils
the earth, water, wood,
metal, fire into the potency
Early dark morning at the hour
of the Tiger I walk the dirt road
to Baopu Temple and feel
your absence, there
where you stood under the
tai chi sign before we went
up to light candles at the altar
above West Lake . On a hill nearby
Buddhist monks are chanting sutras,
the reverberations echoing
across the waters to the pagodas.
As I pass the rock where we sat,
I catch a glimpse of you doing
the Immortal Sword Dance
in the moonlight.
There is a spark of lightning in the sky.
I hear the Golden Rooster
crowing among the pines
ready to fly.
I offer 3 joss sticks for you
and the Taoist priest
rings a gong that resonates
in the distance. Where
is Ge Hong, the alchemist,
can he do his magic
to bring you back
here among the willow
Rene J, Navarro
— from “The Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy” (unpublished)
At the Loom
I count each thread in the loom
of the Milky Way. How do you
weave life and time?
How do you spin eternity
and the stars
in human life?
No beginning, no end,
to return again and again
to a point in the circle
of light and dark.
We hammer metal,
carve wood, dab paint or ink
on paper, swing the sword, and create
beauty and grace out of matter
and spirit. We instill our qi
in every movement,
phrase or shape, repeat
each gesture of choreography
with the body and after a thousand
times, we see an image
of energy birthing in the mist.
in my hand with the elusive form
of a dragon emerging from the water
and the sky, waves and clouds
embracing its endless body:
A life of waiting
to cross the bridge of magpies
to my Shepherd
as I sit weaving
the threads of swirling silk. I wonder
what will change the mind
of my father, who has sentenced
me to this loom,
Rene J. Navarro
— from “The Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy” (unpublished)
Building the Past
He lost her to the distance,
the geography of absence,
not unlike the descent
into a subterranean lake
or getting marooned
in midplane. To fill the space
in his landscape, he started building
an edifice from chips of wood
and fragments and memories,
the cocoon they held together
in the past, arm in arm, thigh to thigh,
eye to eye, two vortices
becoming two, shape-shifting
into the light. as they emerged
into the night, into the chaos,
into infinity, past the navel
of the Big Dipper to the
North Star. Now on this exile,
there are only the shards
of their union. Just bits and pieces
of their presence in this world
as he plucks that moment
with words, words, invocations
to the gods, chants of despair,
not even with blocks
of stone, pieces of marble.
Rene J. Navarro
— from “The Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy” (unpublished)
I lie on my stomach
in the dark and feel
the old man’s bony
on my back.
Island shaman, guru,
herbalist, warrior, priest:
where the hurt
the folds of flesh,
blades meet, behind
of nerves from
the spot. He knows,
he who can see the color
of pain, read
of my pulse
what anguish is wrapped
around me like emanations
from the earth
a summer rain.
My eyes closed, I see
layers of anger
over grief over hate
over fear fleeing
from his touch.
I smell his breath
heavy with the odor
of native cigar.
I lose him briefly
as I awake
I see his
and the spittle
on the corners
He is reciting
in the dark.
Rene J. Navarro
— from “Du-Fu’s Cottage and Other Poems”
A Boat on the Nile
— For the women of Egypt
The patient, a dark woman
whose looks do not tell her age
or history, lies on her belly
crying on the makeshift
treatment table. The acupuncture
needles vibrate on her back,
along the outer meridians
that reveal the secret
hieroglyphs that she has
experienced in life,
and suppressed. Her husband
is hovering outside back and forth,
in an eternal
ritual of the patriarchy, making
his presence felt, mad that he was asked
to leave the room. For an hour,
she does not stop
crying. She clutches
the black shawl, dark
as her grief. Her tears
could have salted all
the oases of the Sahara.
She does not say
a word. How can one have all
that grief in the world? Pain
that speaks in the language
of tears. A pain that runs on
from years enduring
the beatings and his
alcoholism, the abuse
she had to endure,
the prison of being
a woman in this land,
the grief that flows, deep,
like the waters
of the Nile, its waves
rocking us from below
Rene J. Navarro
At the Nursing Home with Dad
In Memoriam: Ricardo Y. Navarro, January 15, 1916 – December 31, 2001
I was visiting alone. Eighth floor, in his room
overlooking the valley. On the bulletin board
a note: Navarro/Speech Therapy. Daddy,
Daddy, I said, you had speech therapy
today, what did you do? They did all
the talking, he stuttered. They did
all the talking, he giggled, and kept mumbling
this line of mantra that seemed to echo
in the distant autumn hills of Rockland
while my mind raced back to my first year
in high school, 13 years old, and even now
I can still taste the slice of raw ginger
he told me to suck on while he and I
are at the grandstand and he is teaching me
public speaking, he is telling me
to raise my voice, but not to shout, to keep it
deep and low, to let it come from the belly,
as I recited a passage from Clarence
Darrow’s speech defending a union
leader, my father saying louder,
louder, I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you
in the half-dark from 30 feet below.
Rene J. Navarro © 2002
Originally published in “Father Poems” edited by Alfred Yuson and Gimeno Abad (Anvil Publications: Philippines).
THE OLD CALLIGRAPHER
His pink kimono split the sun
Into a thousand rays: white cranes
Homing to his onyx eyes. He sat
In a full lotus on the meditation
Pillow, smiling, pale lips
Pressed to hide the smile, and
Remembering the girl in spring
Long ago in this stone garden.
He had given her a scroll of rice
Paper with a pictograph
Of the sun rising and a sketch of
Cherry blossoms gently
Falling. Bowing, she slipped a
Ring into his priestly robe and
Left him to the Sunday crowd
That gathered to watch his work.
He glanced at the island
Mountains: five sacred peaks
In a sea of raked
Sand. He breathed deeply,
Drawing the landscape
In his mind. In a
Flash his eyes turned to
Gold, the islands and the sea
Eddied and glowed. And he was
Gone. Like washed ink,
His shadow in meditation remained
Etched on the bleached rock:
The first calligraphy of his
Footnote: The victims of Hiroshima did not know what hit them. To describe the Bomb, the word “picadon” was coined. “Pica” means flash or flicker, and “don” means loud noise or explosion.Certain victims left shadows. Boddhidharma, the legendary first patriarch of Buddhism in China, also left his shadow on a rock close to the spot where he meditated for 10 years. This rock is located near the Shaolin temple in Honan province. This poem was first read at the 40th Anniversary Commemoration at the Peace Garden in Bethlehem, PA.
CHENG-DU DAWN (1983)
Still awake, bats
Fly over the dark river
And a crescent moon.
They descend toward
The moon again and again
As if to touch it.
Beside the willows
An old woman draws circles
Her fingers stroke
Lute strings and peacock tails
In the damp warm air.
The woman listens
To the beginnings of light
In her flesh and bones.
Come, watch the ritual:
She unreels the Tao in silk
From cocoons of mist.
Deep in her navel
A votive candle flickers:
A flaming odalisque!
— for Len Roberts
from “Du-Fu’s Cottage and Other Poems”.
Published in “Our Own Voice” website: www.oovrag.com
do not speak the words
that are the gesture
you have to learn
maybe a thousand
times probably more
the eyes follow
the entry of the hands
into the space
the heart keeps
a slow count
as you breathe
through the pores
the feet reach down
into the earth
and the crown opens
up to the sky
as your mind empties
itself to receive
from the stars
and one day it may happen
a rainbow shimmers
between the muscles
the marrow and the blood
down your legs
there is a
in your eyes when you feel
for the first time
the pull of earth and sky
and you are in the middle
congruence as you draw
with your hands
your body listens
sound and color
and you taste
where we came from
and where we shall
By Rene J. Navarro
*** published in “Pinoy Poetics” edited by Nick Carbo (Meritage Press: 2004)
How did you do it, Li-Po?
Turning your back on the court,
The kingdom, fleeing to those
Crags of mountains inhabited
By deer, scorpions and tigers.
You watch the full moon
In an empty sky, a wine-gourd
Beside you, and write these
Lines you set, like peach blossoms,
On the flowing river. You whip your sword
Flashing with moonlight: I hear
The ping of dragon steel trailing
In the pines. Movements of sword
Dance: Circles of phoenixes flying
In the night, floating gossamer
Scarves of silk. Here, in
Du-Fu’s retreat, your laughter
Trembles with the water on the
Pond. I see the shimmer of your
Voice, bouncing from reflecting
Pool to green bamboo leaves,
From wooden bridge to the
Stupa on the hill.
— for Jose Garcia Villa
Seize me and circle:
Phoenix and Dragon together,
Enter into my navel.Enter.
O what Joy stirs
in my loins, deep,
deeper. Into the bones
Hissing: O radium light
Descending. Into the
of Pearl ascending.
It orbits the Heavens
now, bright, brighter.
It floats to Earth again:
Dark and still darker,
Here, there, pulsing.
O Radiance, I’m falling.
Ambushed, helpless, lost
Between ecstasy and dying.
Dream on Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep
I’ll sound your name on the ancient bells
in the temple of Doi Suthep.
I’ll write your name on a gold leaf and press it
on the Buddha’s heart as he sits prayerfully in the
I’ll whisper your name on the petals of the lotus
that I’ll offer to the altar beside the incense
smoke rising like dragons and phoenixes to the sky.
It is my way of worship: the way I hold your
face now in my hand like a piece of raw wet jade
picked from the river, the way I step
into sacred space with my bare feet, the way
I rest my head on your breast.
For Rene’s essay ‘Letter from Cyprus’ and his poems and renga (with Nadine Sarreal), go to www.oovrag.com — Our Own Voice, the literary ezine for Filipino writers in the diaspora.
up in the empty dark-
ness of a bamboo hut
in the hills far
from the old home
-town: At three, that’s
the first picture
in my memory.
on a cold morn-
ing, the sharp
passage of a fighter
plane, and wet
A month or two
later,perhaps a year,
patch on the side
of a hill and an under-
ground cave dug in the red
for if the shooting
came. There were green
furniture, a sofa and
chairs, I can still see
Perhaps it was
earlier: there was
the burst of light
from a cannon
and the resonant
Still later, towards
the end of the war,
my mother calling
my brothers and me
across the field
to eat the yams
with a thick coat-
ing of melted brown
In this landscape
there are no
clear faces, just objects
and places and sounds
and the long
walk barefoot on a rough,
with my older cousins
Dan and Letty
to the camp
where a Japanese
captain always fed
us a bowl of rice
I did not
was fighting, why
the bombardment and the
dogfights in the sky.
I couldn’t read
saying Japan or America,
which cannon or plane
to which side.
But the fear
Rene J. Navarro