14 Book of Equanimity Verses


The willows tell you everything
when their branches move
in the breeze.
But hurrying from place to place
with a small octopus
in each coat pocket
you want the answers written down
in blood as well as ink.



The President
of the United States
sits in his tent
skinning a mouse.
He doesn’t spare a thought
for the ghosts
of those big game animals
gathered outside.



Taking two slices of toast
out of the toaster,
getting my father-in-law
who has Parkinson’s
his morning pills—
the world begins again
with clear sunlight
and ants on the kitchen bench.



Lying on her back
in the great ocean
she raises her legs
and walks across the sky.
Friends on the shore
try to attract her attention
with all sorts of antics,
but she’s there and not there.



He doffed his hat
to the lofty poplar.
(Not knowing
is most intimate.)
The poplar nodded back.
And with that
the afternoon faded
into evening.



The rhinoceros
is not a rowdy beast.
His armour forms his intelligence.
We, on the other hand,
stand perplexed
unable to work out
where the rain of acorns
is coming from.



A cloud penis enters
a cloud vagina.
For those who desire
the pure sky
it’s a disappointment.
Showers are forecast.
The old woman from Tinopai
walks across the mudflats.



When the ice melted
the body fell to the floor.
He looked so good
suspended in that block
of coldness.
What a shame
his faithful servant
left open the freezer door.



Edison’s last breath
kept is a glass jar
then let out
ahhhhh . . . 
eighty years later
ahhhhh . . . 
and the stars still shine
above New Jersey.



It’s in the space between
the pillar and the lattice windows.
It’s drawn to scale
by a blind person in a dream.
Look—when the kingfisher flies
into a phoenix palm
all the colours of the Nile
carry you across the evening sky.



What is it?
Half light,
half dark.
Seeming to be there,
seeming to be absent.
The gunmetal glint
of awareness lost
in a flock of seagulls.



Although they shaved off
Hitler’s moustache
and gave Chairman Mao
breasts and a facelift,
the dead still recognized
their former oppressors
and call out their names
down the streets of the afterlife.



An assemblage of African
and Egyptian figurines
stands on Freud’s desk
facing his empty chair.
Ash from a final cigar
quivers in the ashtray.
The appointment book is closed.
No footsteps in the hallway.



The Master has made his exit.
It’s a rough, tough,
unsophisticated old world.
The demons can be charmed 
only for so long. And then?
Once more into the rapids
with a heavy pile of clouds
in the back of the canoe.

Richard von Sturmer was born on Auckland’s North Shore in 1957. He has published four books: We Xerox Your Zebras (Modern House, 1988), A Network of Dissolving Threads (Auckland University Press, 1991), Suchness: Zen Poetry and Prose (HeadworX, 2005), and On the Eve of Never Departing (Titus Books, 2009). As well as being a lyricist for several New Zealand bands, including Blam Blam Blam, he and his partner, Amala Wrightson, toured the country in the 1980’s as the performing duo The Humanimals. From 1993 to 2003 he lived and worked at the Rochester Zen Center, a Buddhist community in upstate New York. During that time his work appeared regularly in literary journals and anthologies. His poetry has been included in An Anthology of New Zealand Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1997), and Best New Zealand Poems 2003, 2006 and 2008.

von Sturmer comments: ‘The fourteen verses are from a hundred verse sequence, inspired by The Book of Equanimity, a Zen Buddhist collection of one hundred koans. The collection was compiled in Sung Dynasty China by Zen Master Hongzhi. Each koan was accompanied by a commentary and a poem. My own verses take up themes presented in the koans, sometimes in an oblique manner, and on a few occasions they include a line from the koan itself. For example, here is the koan to Verse 20:

‘Dizang asked Fayan, “Where are you going?”

‘Fayan said, “I am wandering around on pilgrimage.”

‘Dizang said, “What is the purpose of this pilgrimage?”

‘Fayan said, “I don’t know.”

‘Dizang said, “Not knowing is most intimate.”

‘“Not knowing is most intimate” is a good description of how to approach koans, these paradoxical dialogues or stories from the Zen tradition which are meant to throw sand in the eye of the intellect, to short-circuit our rational, dualistic way of viewing the world. They are, in fact, very creative devices, and I found that they afforded me great freedom while I worked on the hundred-verse sequence.’

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