Several years ago, I was introduced to Passage Meditation, a form of meditation created by the late Eknath Easwaran (1910-1999) in which practitioners memorized interfaith scriptures and poetry and recited it silently in daily sittings. So there I was, sitting in a church basement in Santa Cruz, California watching recordings of a white-haired, kind-eyed Indian man who read from the book of John, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the prayers of St. Theresa of Avila. One of Easwaran’s key teachings is to adopt a mantram—a short spiritual phrase—to keep in your mind and repeat throughout the day. He likens the repetition of a mantram to a parable from the Hindu tradition, in which the mind is compared to the trunk of an elephant—“restless, inquisitive, always straying” (Easwaran, 1977). In India, Easwaran describes, elephants are often a part of the religious processions through the narrow and crooked streets to local temples. On either side of the elephants are local market stalls and a plentitude of tasty edible offerings to the gods. Along comes the elephant, who cannot resist the bright bananas or sweet melons. As Easwaran writes, “No threats or promises can make this restless trunk settle down.” Instead, the elephant trainer gives each elephant a bamboo shaft to hold in their trunks, and the animal will walk steadily to its destination, serene in the colorful chaos.
This is the way that poetry feels to me: a bamboo stick to hold in my trunk as I move through the day, a combination of words or images more appetizing than the metaphorical mangoes or coconuts, a feeling of purpose and steadiness in a world that so desperately needs focus and dedicated love. And when I find a poet that gives me that kind of bamboo feeling, I grasp it with all my might. In this season, where 58 people lost their lives the day after I got married, which hurricanes and human hurt fill my ears, I cling all the harder.
As I carried Paul J. Willis 2016 collection, Getting to Gardisky Lake with me for the last several weeks, I found innumerable mantrams among the poems, grounding myself amidst Willis’ stories of the wilderness, the classroom, of aging and of loving. It seems there is nothing his poetry does not touch, from knowing your neighbors to kissing a lover, from hamburgers on the side of a highway to a baseball diamond of existential proportions. One is invited into the holy work of paying attention, but done so at a level so accessible, so intimate, so soothing. In one of my favorites of the collection, “Dunnegan Park,” Willis provides the reader with the zen of a Missouri picnic table, writing “Clouds drift across the sky in no particular / hurry today, no place to go except where we are.” As the pages turn, the reader inhabits the center of an oak, a silver eucalyptus in spring, the growing shape of a sour kumquat in California sun, the heart of a tired man, the moonlight ache of coyote children. Words seem to fail to describe the grounding human-ness of his work, the daily trudge of trying to do something important, to talk about something beautiful, and if possible, to remember that important and beautiful thing.
I can’t say I’m a regular meditator, and it’s a good week if I sit for even a few minutes or a poem or two. I say my mantram on the bus or in grocery store, but quickly forget in the midst of a hectic day. Yet, despite my hit-and-miss efforts of attaining enlightenment, I have a growing stack of beautiful words next to my meditation cushion which I hold dear—Easwaran’s collection of spiritual passages, a little Mary Oliver, a beloved international poetry anthology (A Book of Luminous Things), and now, Willis’ Getting to Gardisky Lake. They are my pile of bamboo sticks; I know that with their help, I will keep my path.
Rita Munro is Pacific Northwest native who now lives in Middlebury, Vermont with her husband. She currently works as a social worker at a local non-profit. She has been writing poetry since 2009 and is grateful for the support and community and she has found in her local writing community.
Here's another poetry review.
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