Early in May

Trillium flower just opening. Photo: Picture This

There’s something about trillium. They are a near obsession with me and I return to them over and over in my writing. It may just be the physical and emotional constraints of winter being lifted from the shoulders. But I think it might be something more, too. Just what that might be may take a few more poems to flesh out.

Early in May

First warm, sunny day of May, a bumblebee hovers over
blooming rhododendron. Bluets and clover dot the yard,
and dogwood flowers shine white against the pine trees.

I search the riverbanks for trillium, as I’ve done each year
since I was a teenager and came to discover them here
while playing hooky from school with my first girlfriend.

Today, early blooms pop out along the beaver slide down
to Sugar Island reservoir– tiny as a periwinkle, but white
as moonlight. The full-furled flowers are yet to come.

The sweetest beauty is in the birth of something new, 
the promise of what could be, rather than in fulfillment,
which is tempered by knowing, regret, salted with grief.

Trillium time is fleeting, a week or two and then no more,
the way a first romance fires the blood so fiercely it burns
itself to ashes before one can learn how to take good care.

But no matter, we learn better each year as spring returns  
to rekindle even so timeworn a heart as mine, making light
my steps as I clammer up the bluff again to our back door.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment


How the hell do I unmute myself? Zoom selfie: Dale Hobson

Macular degeneration: it’s a classic example of “Some blessings are harder to give thanks for than others.” Failing vision prompted me to retire as a web editor sooner than I might have otherwise. And my previous careers in publication design and printing would now be impractical, or actively dangerous. But I am now freed from being an obsessive workaholic and find I can bring a more reflective depth to my writing and a sharper appreciation for the people in my life and for such places and things as have come under my care.


The world gains an Impressionistic swash as my vision dulls.
The doctor shows me a Mt. Fuji-shaped blip, as small as 
a pinhead, warping my central sight. Half the rods and cones
in the whole retina cram into this two-millimeter focal point.

It’s inherited from my mother’s side: macular degeneration.
I cringe to recall berating her for not seeing the small flaws in 
a print job when she came out of retirement to help in my shop.  
My vision was fine then, but not fine enough to see her struggle.

Concealing my disability is easy so far–long as I don’t drive 
at night, long as I let Siri talk me through strange streets,
so long as no one notices I do my reading in 30-point type.
How many years did my mother keep up her brave front?

My eyes join my memory now in struggling with names.
I know it’s a bird out in the yard, but can’t see what kind.
More than a few feet away, human faces are anonymous.
Just to be safe, I greet everyone I meet like an old friend.

To be certain if they are friend or stranger, I have to come 
close enough to kiss them. In a way, it is my just deserts, 
for having been so long aloof and oblivious, half-hearted.
For a progressive, incurable condition, this is not too bad.

I discover I’ve always been blind–in worse ways than this.

Posted in Poetry | 2 Comments

False Start

Budding lilacs hooded with snow. Photo: Dale Hobson

I’ve written about my poetry “junk drawer” before, how it is sometimes possible to weld pieces together into something good (or good enough, anyway). But no matter how often those unlikely mashups occur, the junk drawer seems to stay as full as ever.

False Starts

Yesterday, snowdrops pearled the bulb bed 
and daffodils raised up their green spears.
The maples were russet with tiny leaflets,
the lilacs freckled with yellow-green buds.

But now it’s gone back to black and white,
each bud and bloom hooded with snow, all
the limbs like chalk on a blackboard of cedar,
the grass a white map drawn in rabbit tracks.

This cruelest month, season of dashed hope,
is, ironically, Poetry Month. Think about it.
It’s as if someone could see in my desk drawer
all those promising openings now abandoned.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment


Photo: Ben Osteen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

There is a cruel streak in American culture that recognizes the utility of keeping people insecure, that wields power by making sure that the bottom is as far down as possible, and that there is no sure way to avoid winding up there. This is one of the reasons so many are reluctant to engage with the homeless, as if misfortune were a contagious disease.


“Never give your money to bums and winos,” Mom
taught me, “they’ll just go spend it on another bottle.”
True enough, often enough, but then she had been
raised up in ungenerous times, the Great Depression.

“There but for the grace of God…” never occurred to me
even though, ironically, I was an alcoholic myself. But 
I was torn by my Puritan upbringing, which taught me
I should give to the “deserving,” but pass others by.

How can I tell? Which one huddled in which doorway
deserved a handout? I wondered, just as if I deserved
every middle-class advantage of American culture–and
which deserved nothing, just as if my own sins were less.

Some years ago, I visited David, living then in Manhattan.
His idea of a walk around the neighborhood was chatting
with all the homeless, most of whom he knew by name, 
and giving each, unasked, a little cash before he walked on.

I was dumfounded. This was not how the world worked.
I asked him “Why give to all? He asked me if I liked to ask
for help. “Well, no,” I replied. “Neither do they,” he said.
“I see the need; why make them ask when I know it’s hard?”

It was kind of a conversion experience. Afterward, I would
keep a little cash on my person, stopped feigning interest
in something across the street as I passed beggars by.
I made my living in public radio, paid by tin cup, mostly.

I recently learned that David had to be nudged toward
epiphany, too. His mom, refugee from pogrom, world war
and Holocaust, once rebuked him for passing a beggar by.
“What,” she said, “are you crazy?” and turned back to give.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

Open Winter

Map of global average temperature change: NASA Visualization Studio

I don’t often sweat the big picture. I’m more focused on the small and nearby. But some nights I don’t sleep well and then night thoughts connect the dots for me and I hear the voice of Afrofuturist poet and jazzman Sun Ra say it in his outside voice: “This Planet is Doomed.” All I can say is “Hope not.”

Open Winter

All night the wind worked its way,
transforming snow into snowmelt,
showing here a patch of muddy soil
and there a broken limb of pine.

The tracks that deer left in the yard
grow wide as if Sasquatch roamed
here. Ice fell from eaves, unremarked,
as icebergs calve off from Greenland.

I would say winter gives way, had it
ever really taken hold. I worry when
the weather goes strange, when the
wind chime bells all through the night.

And they say I’m right to worry, not just
for this winter in this place, but for all 
the winters in all the world. Our powers
might grow Biblical, but we are no angels.

The West and the North burn each year;
in the South what doesn’t drown flies off
on the wind. Some say pay no mind–it’s 
natural, or it’s Jesus, or just in your head.

Assholes. I feel an awful future coming,
like an asteroid that dogs Earth’s orbit. 
It’s more a matter of we know not when,
and but a slim chance that we know not if.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Old monk. Photo: public domain

A change from the usual–a little short fiction that arose as a prolonged daydream I had while I should have been counting my breaths as a novice meditator during my first three-day sesshin at the zen center.

The Tenzo Teaches Baka to Sit

Baka had come to the monastery as a promising young man, recommended to the abbot by his village priest, and within a few years he had progressed well along the dharma path, quickly memorizing all the daily sutras and meal chants, always showing proper respect for his elders and demonstrating compassion for the least of beings. He carefully carried spiders out of the dormitory and he kept a keen eye out for ants and bugs when sweeping the walkways. He chanted the morning service with great nen and was able to sit still for long periods in the zendo with a quiet mind. 

But as his practice developed, he began to notice the behavior of others, that they would become fidgety, that they relied on the sutra book to get through morning service, that they sometimes bunked off from work practice to look at girls. Some snuck food into the dormitory; some drank sake late at night.

It seemed to Baka that he was the best of the lot–the most sincere, the most dedicated of all his brothers. The jikijitsu never had to hit himwith a stick. Baka would return to the zendo for extra zazen after the day’s schedule was complete. He would sit sometimes for half the night alone in the hall, not moving a muscle.

Baka began to take over the heaviest jobs, digging out boulders to expand the garden plot, hauling firewood from halfway up the mountain. His brothers seemed pale and puny in comparison.

One day the tenzo came out of the kitchen as Baka was rolling yet another boulder off from the edge of the garden. Baka was happy that one as venerable and respected as the abbot’s friend, the man responsible for the community’s physical well-being, was observing the quality of his work practice. But the tenzo just smiled and shook his head, then returned to chop vegetables for dinner.

Another time, as Baka struggled under a huge load of hardwood he had cut up in the high forest, the tenzo again came out, smiled and shook his head as Baka went by.

The tenzo was old, near to ninety. He walked with a stick. He grunted when he sat down and he farted when he stood up. It was said he had a weakness for shōchū, which made him sing and then fall asleep. So, who was he to shake his head at Baka’s efforts?

Nursing his grievance, Baka’s mind wandered so much during the abbot’s teisho on the koan ” Nansen Kills the Cat,” that he failed to answer “hai” when called on by name. The tenzo, sitting on the other side of the dharma hall, smiled and shook his head.

Baka sat again late in the zendo, but found no peace. He had watched two visiting Tibetan monks once as they engaged in dharma combat, a ritual debate on the meaning and import of the sutras. Inside Baka’s mind he and the tenzo argued like that for half the night.

Finally, Baka went to the tenzo to ask him why he was so dismissive of his sincere and strenuous effort. The tenzo pointed out that a little more garden space had been needed, but Baka had dug up more land than they would ever plant. And he pointed out that the woodshed had been filled weeks ago, and that the wood Baka was cutting now would sit out in the rain and rot before it could be used. “Do just what is needed. Maybe work less, maybe do nothing sometimes,” the tenzo suggested.

Thinking of his many extra hours in the zendo, Baka considered that he might be the best at doing nothing, too. So, he challenged the tenzo to see which of them could sit zazzen the longest without getting up from the zafu. To Baka’s surprise, the tenzo accepted, and set the contest to begin the next day after morning service.

That morning they remained in the zendo while everyone else went on to breakfast, served for once by the tenzo’s assistant. They walked to facing places. The tenzo laid his walking stick by his zafu and they both turned to bow to the Buddha on the altar, then turned and bowed to their zafus, then turned again and bowed to each.

Baka dropped into a perfect half-lotus position in one smooth move onto his cushion. The tenzo grunted and slowly ratcheted himself down to his cushion, cracked his neck from side to side, rolled his shoulders, shifted his head back on his neck, went still, and then broke into a smile.

For the first hour nothing happened, same for the second, same for the third. Every now and then, a curious face would peek around the edge of the zendo doorway. The tenzo never moved, only kept up a serene smile.

In the fourth hour, Baka began to feel a little discomfort in his knees. After a while that began to fade, but in the fifth hour he began to feel some itching. He refused to scratch.

The tenzo just breathed in and out, unmoving except for that slight rise and fall, holding up his small smile like a flower. Hour by hour the day passed as the two sat and sat and sat. Baka’s bladder was complaining, but he would not listen. Little daggers of pain poked the small of his back. He could no longer feel his feet.

He kept his face stony and still as darkness fell, but his mind was jumping like a flea, responding to alarms from one part of his body or another, feeling resentment at the effortless stillness of the tenzo, feeling anger at his unbroken smile.

In the feeble flicker of the altar candle, the tenzo’s face appeared old one moment, young the next, plain as a fart one moment, an ethereal beauty the next. Baka blinked and suffered on through the endless night.

When the monks came in just before dawn, panting from running a fast kinhin around and around the outside of the zendo, they found the pair still sitting. Baka croaked that he couldn’t get up, couldn’t unbend his legs. He asked the jikijitsu to push him over onto his side to rest until feeling returned to his lower body.

The jikijitsu then pronounced that his old mentor, the tenzo, was the victor, and asked if he needed any help in rising. The tenzo’s smile was sweeter than ever, but he made no answer, having returned to the wheel of rebirth sometime in the middle of the night.

The abbot came in to pay respects to his old friend and told the monks, “Yes, I knew he was dying. He said he wouldn’t last much into spring. But he said he still had some teaching to do. He said Baka was sincere and hardworking, but that he couldn’t get out of his own way. But who knows? In 20 or 30 years, he told me, Baka might be fit to make the soup.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Freezing Rain Satori

Photo: Austin Kirk, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

You know how it is when you are going along a road you drive every day and you top a rise just as late golden light floods the long valley ahead. Sometimes a glamor is cast over the ordinary world, and in that moment, the light shines right through you. You might cling to such a moment, if only you could.

Freezing Rain Satori

It makes no sound in the night, the freezing rain,
as it thickens on twig and needle the way you dip
a wick over and over ’til it waxes into a candle.

Then, when morning breaks clear, all the candles
are set ablaze. The lilacs that bow to the ground
shimmer; look how the bent pine boughs shine.

Such a profligate abundance of light I blink to see.
Just this yard, just the world, but all transformed,
if only for a little moment before the rain returns.

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

Epiphany Snow

Snow on cedars. Photo: Greg Marks, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

I profess to not be a fan of winter, dreading its coming all fall. But I forget its allure, its beguiling purity and clarity until one morning it suddenly transforms everything.

Epiphany Snow

The first real snow falls on Epiphany, late,
after a dry fall and cool December. Six inches,
no big deal, but an epiphany nonetheless.

Snow boots are still in the closet, the shovel 
and salt tucked behind stuff on the back porch.
The inevitable finds me unprepared as usual.

I purged from memory the scraping of the plow,
forgot the way snow shines on sagging cedars,
how all things dull and dim can now be shining.

Out of the old year’s ending, this new beginning,
when what could be wrestles with what will be. Who
can say what may befall once the snow begins to fall?

Posted in Poetry | 1 Comment

An English Major Laments the Space-time Continuum

The weight of the world distorts the space-time-continuum. Photo: Rossi pena, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

After 911, I remember a child psychologist stressing how important it was, when children were watching the Twin Towers fall over and over again in the media, to explain to them that it only happened once and was not still happening. In cyberspace, the towers are still falling and will always be falling, everywhere, and so too with every other trauma. This is what makes it such fertile ground for obsession.

An English Major Laments the Space-time Continuum

Science fiction writer Ray Cummings explained time
thus: “Time is what prevents everything from happening
at once.” Physicist John Wheeler added as a capper: 
“Space is what prevents everything from happening to me.”

This tidy structure we left behind, preferring one
where the old rules don’t apply–cyberspace. 
There, everything that ever happened happens now
and what happens anywhere, happens everywhere.

In the old world the body inhabits, this is insane,
but in the new world the mind has colonized,
this is the allure, to savor every blinking meme,
preferring pixels to food, water, love and nature.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

No Cure for Leonard Cohen

All kinds of music gets stuck in the top of my mind: pop tunes, carols, hymns, blues. I walk to their refrain for half a day, then pass on to something else. But some music wraps around the brain stem, permeates the convolutions, gets in there for keeps. 

No Cure for Leonard Cohen

His songs dig hooks into memory–
deep, dark, rich, complex as chocolate,
but unsweetened by sentiment.

Transcendence and despair do duets,
celebration and regret. Beauty sheds
her merely pretty clothes; pain uplifts. 

Behind one devastating line, the heart
is hid. His half-destroyed voice demands it:
Chase the holy; seek it in the broken.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment