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Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven.

Michael McClure. Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven. Oakland: O Books, 2002. 103 pp. $13

In his foreword to D.T. Suzuki's Introduction to Zen Buddhism (1934), Carl Jung cautioned Westerners from engaging in so rigorous and alien a spiritual practice as Zen with expectations of an easy path to enlightenment. "Zen demands intelligence and will-power," he wrote, "there can be no easier conditions, no substitutions, no compromise." The English-speaking world was then in the midst of its first flowering of Zen literature by authors and translators such as R.H. Blyth, Arthur Waley, and Alan Watts. A few decades later Suzuki was lecturing to the New York art world, and interest in this provocative and enigmatic religion exploded following the publication of Kerouac's The Dharma Bums (1958), his flattering portrait of then-Zen student Gary Snyder.

Rising to the spirit of the times, in summer 1958 Chicago Review released its "Zen" issue. This number included "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Alan Watts's attempt to separate, among the flurry of arts and practices going by the name "Zen," the faddists from the purists--or, in Jung's sense, the "shortsighted" dabblers from those equal to the extremes of effort and commitment that Zen demands. In his search for authentic Zen literature Watts found some Beat poetry too didactic to be true Zen, in contrast to other more authentic works capable of delivering "the thing itself." Such "my Zen is purer than your Zen" bickering is, of course, as old as the patriarchs, but we were well-advised to attempt to distinguish the work of the self-conscious poseur, or the pedant, from that rare artist-practitioner whose work displays the acute presence of mind that is the hallmark of Zen activity.

Since the mid-Twentieth Century, the communities of artists surrounding Suzuki at Columbia, as well as the largely overlapping Beat and San Francisco Renaissance movements, have been havens where serious and sustained engagement with Buddhist language and practice could assimilate authentically into the American cultural milieu. This American form of Zen is far less culturally alien than it was fifty or eighty years ago. Notable exemplars in this tradition include John Cage, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and now, poet Michael McClure.

Michael McClure has had a long brilliant career writing poems revelatory of his visionary experiences. His published works record five decades exploring the range of consciousness and reporting back for others to witness. He writes like a naturalist reporting the data of his own sense experience with skill and incisiveness. The experiments with psychotropics described in "Peyote Poem" or the early essay "Drug Notes" still stand as the most complete and satisfying phenomenologies in the literature to date. When his subjects are the moment-to-moment phenomena of mind, as in "Stanzas in Memory" and "Portrait of a Moment" from 1995's Dolphin Skull, the resulting poems are more than lyrically beautiful, they are invaluable documents of consciousness, the reports of a talented and exacting observer.

In recent years, McClure has entered a personal pursuit of Zen meditation, the effects of which are now visible in his writings. Rain Mirror (1999), begins with a series of fifty-eight haiku poems, "Haiku Edge." The next book, a stylistically beautiful collection of "dharma devotions" called Touching the Edge (1999), includes direct phenomenal reports of the author's meditations. The latest collection, Plum Stones: Cartoons of No Heaven (2002), shows McClure's introspective powers are further enhanced by Zen meditation.

Buddhism may be new to McClure in the sense of formal practice, but Buddhist language has been evident in his poetic vocabulary since the early 1960s. One formal difference between the two recent Zen-inspired collections and all of McClure's previous works is (sadly) the absence of an author introduction or foreword. Otherwise, Zen has not brought any sudden reversals in style, nor dramatic changes to the feel, clarity, or individuality of expression in McClure's poems. In Plum Stones we meet many of the familiar totem animals that populate so much of McClure's poetry: humming-birds, wrens, eagles, lions, mastodons. The biologist, the naturalist, and the Buddhist are all equally and harmoniously present, offering the promise of a broader unified vision.

These poems are not about Zen. That is, they are not the didactic sort of poetry Watts criticized in 1958. The word "Zen" itself appears only once in Plum Stones:
 Walk through morning-dark fog
 on the path
 with money, keys, or beads
 in the hand.
 The sound of the stream
 in the dark,
 pours into Zen
 ("Plum Stone Eight")

Rather, the poems continue McClure's self-immersing investigations into organismic consciousness, studies which have grown both more focused and expansive by incorporating the centuries-old Zen Buddhist technique of conscious exploration:
 under the bed
 each one holding
 ten-thousand worlds of Manjushri
 seated on his white lion
 swinging the sword
 into deeper mines
 than our knowing
 ("Plum Stone Three")

Plum Stones, then, is the latest stage in an evolution begun with McClure's earliest published work. One distinctive thrust within his poetic oeuvre has been the longstanding effort to realize and communicate his radical transformative aesthetic--the vision of a proportionless universe. In his introduction to Hymns to St. Geryon (1979) McClure wrote
 The prime purpose of my writing is liberation. (Self liberation and
 hopefully that of the reader.) The bulk and its senses must be
 freed! [...] I do not see with my senses but with forms and
 preconceptions through custom. I will kick in the walls and make
 destruction of these things [...] Falsehoods of logic (there is no
 logic but sequence!) and proportion must be destroyed. I am huge as
 a star!

Plum Stones continues the vision articulated in St. Geryon with more complex and sustained imagery:
 on your lion throne
 a paradise of joy and pain
 and be your cat
 who smiles from the stone wall
 ("Plum Stone Seven")

Plum Stones is divided into three sections. The "Plum Stones" are fifteen numbered stanzas each three to four pages in length. "Zazens" are nine shorter poems each begun with a phrase taken from a "Plum Stone" and then projected into a new image. This practice was first seen in McClure's Rain Mirror (1999) where his "Graftings" poems were written from "bloom" lines taken from the long poem Dolphin Skull. "Wave-Mountains," the final section, includes shorter, more accessible McClure lyrics, some of exceptional beauty ("Thoreau's Eyes," "Jewel Light Bodhisattva"), and concludes with another haiku sequence, "Haiku Rows."

At first, the "Plum Stones" left me with the impression that they were fifteen little mysteries written in McClure style. Repeated readings have shown, though, that there is a coherent larger-scale structure working through the individual stanzas. In Plum Stones, McClure's poetic examinations of essential emptiness (sunyata a foundational Buddhist construct) are more alive and satisfying than any I have seen in the wisdom literature. This, of course, is not to be read as advertisement of the author's state of spiritual advancement, only a witness's account of the poet's skill at reporting on sublimely subtle experience. As he humbly writes, "I AM TRYING/TO FLASH,/BUT/THE/BEST I CAN MANAGE/IS/MY/LOVE FOR YOU!" ("Plum Stone Four").

Ultimately what arises from Plum Stones as the greatest move forward in the exposition of McClure's larger poetic vision, out of his deepened Buddhist sensibility, and from his meditations "SEEING THROUGH/DRIPS/OF/WAX/TO THE SNOW LION/UNDER THE MONKEY MIND" ("Plum Stone Ten"), is that the poet seems finally to have found a center to his proportionless universe, and it is a heart of compassion.
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Author:Damiani, Glenn
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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