Eihei Dōgen Zenji—the Japanese founder of what remains one of the most vital sects within Zen Buddhism, the Sōtō school—wrote the Sansui kyō, the “Mountains and Rivers Sutra” at his Kyoto monastery Kōshōhōrin-ji in the autumn of 1240. A poetic rumination on the foundational co-dependence within all of nature, this sutra has long been considered the most significant essay in Dogen’s monumental work, Shōbōgenzō. One brief passage from it serves as an epigraph for Elizabeth Spires’ 2018 poetry collection, A Memory of the Future, now in Norton paperback:
There are mountains hidden in marshes,
mountains hidden in the sky.
There are mountains hidden in mountains…
mountains hidden in hiddenness.
Immersed in Zen Buddhist principles, A Memory of the Future meditates comfortably in the same zendo as the poetry of Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Chase Twichell, and Jane Hirshfield. Though not as satisfying as the best of this work can be, Spires’ poems exude their own particular fragrance as they bud into familiar Buddhist themes: the transient nature of reality, the permeability, if not nonexistence, of the self, and as indicated by this excerpt from Dōgen, the interpenetration of all phenomena.
Many of Spires’ poems are almost as pure as haiku, but their Zen facts-of-the-matter aren’t actually presented in that form’s traditional koan-esque fashion. There are few genuine paradoxes at the roots of these poems; her basic stance or philosophy is laid out modestly, while, occasionally, something of the wished-for poetic sublime may be lacking. One of the earliest poems, “Cloud Koan,” provides an example of this tendency:
Clouds have no history, nothing to tell.
Flying above them or through them,
we cannot penetrate their calm demeanor.
Perhaps half of Spires’ poems take this self-evidence for granted without caring to penetrate the matter further. They rest easily on a gnomic pointing to ‘the things of this world’ without shaking their very bones, as the spirit of Zen demands. When this occurs, one gets rather jejune poetic utterances such as:
Climbing the branches of a tree
Ripe and heavy with pomes.
Taking whatever I wanted.
There were always enough then.
Or the unoriginal and esoteric superficiality of this passage:
of the mind,
gray and cool
Defining the dividing line between the philosophical and the poetic offers a problem for aestheticians (although one may conjure up the best of Wallace Stevens and gasp anew at how profoundly he conjoins the two worlds). As we move through Spires’ more successful poems, however, we see these concerns merge in true Zen fashion—for example, in “Zen Sonnet,” in which a scene of domestic tranquility circumvents the conscious mind:
and then I stepped back from each thought and watched it
disappear a horse without a rider over a sharp-edged horizon.
The “sharp-edged horizon” over which this horse-of-thought gallops is neither there nor, any more, here. As the poet writes in another successful poem, “Mountains of the Heart,” it may “continue on, the seamlessness / of the present flowing, ever flowing, / past us like the barest breeze.” To return to Stevens: our normal sensation of being, suffused as it is with suffering—suffering emanating from our false feelings of solidity, thinking ourselves permanent when we’re really impermanent, other-dependent—can be transcended when we accept things as they are, not as we ‘ought’ them to be, when desire and self are extinguished, and we have a ‘mind of winter’ as opposed to thoughts about winter (this précis stems from his 1921 masterpiece, “The Snow Man”). Or, as Spires herself relates in “Light Like Water”:
The winter was unending, all void and impasse.
No corpse believes in spring.
Thirst was ever-present, but the word for thirst was gone.
Is Spires, then, a Buddhist more interested in enlightenment, or a poet more intrigued by life’s ephemerality, the breath of frozen air dissolving before our eyes, ungraspable by a hand of matter? In these frequently thoughtful pages, Spires finds meditation of a poetic variety more amenable than the cross-legged kind. This is a good thing. It is the poetry of our disappointments, confusions, and rare blissful transportations with which we yearn to commune, unenlightened as we carry on being, day after day, and ask the poets to set down before us, like a warming cup of tea.
A Memory of the Future, Elizabeth Spires’ seventh book of poetry, offers readers a Zen Buddhist gassho—the hands clasped, the deep, respectful bow—as a way to attempt to say the unsayable.
A Memory of the Future
By Elizabeth Spires
W.W. Norton & Company
June 23, 2020
RYAN ASMUSSEN is a writer and educator who works as a Visiting Lecturer in English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes for the Chicago Review of Books. He has published criticism in The Review Review and the film journal Kabinet, journalism in Bostonia and other Boston University publications, and fiction in the Harvard Summer Review. His poetry has been published in The Newport Review, The Broad River Review, Pirene’s Fountain, Compass Rose, and Mandala Journal. Having earned a Bachelor of Liberal Science degree (summa cum laude) and Master’s in Teaching (English) degree from Boston University, he is now pursuing a Master of Liberal Arts (creative writing and literature) degree from Harvard Extension School. In his spare time, he volunteers as a proofreader at Johnson's Dictionary Online (https://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com). His Twitter handle is @RyanAsmussen.