Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Poetry Month Series: Linda Bamber

[In honor of National Poetry Month, Godine and Black Sparrow poets will be periodically commenting upon their work, their writing process, and the art of poetry.]

“Suddenly The City”

I live in seems interesting
as if I were on vacation here
and feeling indulgent
towards the human race, its way of
living in cities and
tearing up roads so the traffic has to be
re-routed around a collapsing white mesh barrier
as in this intersection here.
The people of this city
walking back and forth on the sidewalks
each one having gotten up and dressed this morning
look like this, this
movie, almost, of people crossing the street.
The questions,
is this scene in any way rewarding to look at?
e.g., architecturally, in terms of city spaces and human interest; and
are things diverse enough here? and
are these people, in general,
older of younger than I am? just now are
in abeyance. In their absence is this
pleasant sense that there are many cities in the world
and this is one of them.
It rained earlier. I think I’ll go see the monks
make a sand mandala on the Esplanade; and
who knows, later I might get a sandwich.

“Procrastination Over, I get to Know Some Students”
One is bashful
like a woman raised in a different tradition,
some downcast, sidelong, hand-to-mouth
(to hide a smile) tradition.
Honored to be talking of Ideas,
she has dyed her hair
bright pink – wrong, wrong,
as is the eyebrow ring
on this grad-school-bound great big
girl with great
mind-mouth coordination. Another
is slender and discontent.
She stands, I sit, she, impatient, shifts
long straight black hair. A stabled
horse. What’s this class about? She says. Nothing real.
What would be real is World War I
or II. I extend a carrot on a hand, which
she sniffs, but doesn’t seize;
snorts, wheels, leaves.
I am relieved
as when particularity returns
to winter days. Yesterday the snow was pock-marked.
Now great
sleet and haze.

I teach a course on Buddhism and American poetry, and Buddhist ideas are an essential part of my inner life; but sometimes I wonder whether any of my own poems would qualify for inclusion in the course. Perhaps the Buddhist ideas are more part of the process than the manifest content of my poetry. A Buddhist concept we are all familiar with is that happiness is in the here and now, however repetitive or mundane things may seem at the time. In the two preceding poems I seem to have written about moments that might not have seemed poem-worthy if I weren’t enough of a Buddhist to think that all moments are created equal. The first, “Procrastination Over,” concerns the teaching life (a topic that is almost universally avoided by American poets – although 95% of them teach!) All teachers long for more time for ‘our own work’ and at times resent our repetitive task. Didn’t we just teach a load of students last semester? Why does it have to be done again now? The same might be said, of course, of brushing one’s teeth, getting groceries, filling the tank with gas. How can we show up for the exasperating banality that characterizes so much of life? Each cohort of new students leaves after a few months, only to be replaced by a new cohort, and so on ad infinitum. “Procrastination Over” is about a moment when I stopped resisting my boring task and finally gave it my all. Of course what happened was that not only my students but life itself became interesting: “Yesterday the snow was pockmarked; now, great sleet and haze.” Attend to one thing fully, say the Buddhist teachers, and everything snaps into focus. “Suddenly the City” takes a slightly different approach, diagnosing the mental afflictions that make life dull: judgment and comparison. “Don’t compare,” says Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. In the blessed, momentary absence of comparison, I had an experience of my city and myself as perfectly okay. Just then, everything was of equal weight. Tibetan monks on the banks of the Charles River, in Boston? Nothing to comment on. A sandwich for lunch? How remarkable! Truly, for a moment there, I got it.

(Both poems above appear in Linda Bamber's debut collection, Metropolitan Tang.)


  1. A beautiful manifestation of being intimate with the mundane, the ordinary which is most of our life. When we are intimate, the self is forgotten and we are awakened by all things.

  2. Linda's poems feel like a part of me that I could hear if I listened. Just today I gave myself a recharge day -- decided to go on a great adventure and get lunch at some nearby small town coffee shop. That was a blessed moment. And the student poem reminds me of students I took the time to really notice. What makes this poetry get to me is indeed great mind-mouth coordination -- most poets have that -- better yet, her own secret sauce of wry (perhaps Buddhist) wisdom.

  3. It's not just poets who ignore their teaching lives -- most teachers do it. Linda Bamber is also the author of my favorite prose fiction meditation on the teaching life, "The Time-to-teach-Jane-Eyre-Again Blues," in Ploughshares.

  4. Long ago as I drove away from Boston on Route 2. I saw a sign for Chicopee and found myself seized by the beauty of the word and struck by the particularity of human experience. At the time I thought of it as an instance of what Dun Scotus called the "haeceitas" (the this-ness) of experience. It's a concept I learned from GM Hopkins, and indeed this poem, whose rhythms couldn't be more different from those of Hopkins, sends me back to the "dappled things" of "Pied Beauty" and its appreciation of "gear, tackle. and trim." If that's a Christian incarnational poem and this is a Buddhist poem, what's the difference? Maybe Hopkins inclined to elevate the experience and Linda Bamber resists that elevation to preciousness and insists on the mundane and colloquial conclusion: "who knows, I might later get a sandwich."

    I like "Procrastination...." even more—its idea of submitting to the demands of the profession and finding interest and even joy in their particulars. Still despite Linda's appreciation of the injunction "Don't Compare," it's comparison that electrifies this poem—the comparison of student to horse. But it's a different kind of comparison than Suzuki warned again: it's one that sends the speaker not away from the "haecetias" of this encounter but into its physical experience.