Lucien Stryk’s first book, Taproot, was published in England in 1953. Its last poem is called “Testimony.” Listen to the stanza that concludes poem and book. I read this now just for its manner, its stance, and I read it thinking of the earnest young man pressing his prophetic thought into the page. You’ll hear something busy, oracular, strident, ambitious, the poet wanting to write poetry with a capital P, rhetoric consuming him and getting his poem into trouble.
Draw back the final veil, purge
The stricken eye of past’s begetting:
Time now to rise deep-lunged, swinging
Hammers on our grief and shaping
It in brass; sheaving tongues
Like knives and arms like rods:
Time to crack the past across our
Thighs like stick and hurl its foulness
To the sharp auspicious wind:-
Blow songs like pollen so they find
Great growth, like shocks of grain burst up
From breasts and throb in throats of men.
Well, Lucien wouldn’t now want us to dwell on this. Suffice it to say that this is not natural voice, not Doc Williams’ “speech as she is spoken.”
Leap ahead two decades to his breakthrough book Awakening (1973). This is the conclusion of the title poem:
I write in the dark again,
rather by dusk-light,
and what I love about
this hour is the way the trees
are taken, one by one,
into the great wash of darkness.
At this hour I am always happy,
ready to be taken myself,
This is remarkable writing. Decades of life-growth, by way of several books of Zen translation and a few books of his own poems, have come to this simplicity, this purity. Young poets are often afraid and vulnerable, and adopt various strategies to try to mask these uncertainties. But here, listen, Lucien says “I write in the dark again, / rather by dusk-light”-he corrects himself, there’s a whole new aesthetic here, the poem becomes an eye that focuses itself as we see with it. And now all nature, including himself, is not imposed upon, but is received: “the trees / are taken, one by one, / into the great wash of darkness.” And the poet is ready to be taken. He happily, and humbly, waits. This is all immeasureably far from the lecturing, impatient, even hectoring mode of that early “Testimony.” This testimony readies us for whatever enlightenment, even at dusk, may be available to any one of us.
The spirituality manifested here, the growth, is not a permanently-achieved state-of-being, I think, except, it may be, for saints. (Illuminate Walt Whitman would still curse a mutt that wouldn’t stop barking even though it knew him.) We gust in and out of balance, of calm. Here’s the second poem in Awakening. It directly follows the serenity, the quiet of dusk and the “great wash of darkness” achieved in the title poem. Here’s “Away”:
Here I go again,
want to be somewhere else-
feet tramping under the desk,
I study travel brochures,
imagine monastic Hiltons,
the caravansary of my past.
Apples, cheese, a hunk of bread,
the road: what’ll it be today?
I ask myself: the Seine,
Isfahan bazaar, three claps
of the hand, and Yamaguchi,
Down, down, and breathe!
My feet go faster faster,
suddenly fly off.
Calm, breathing slowly,
I bow to Master Takayama
who smiles all the way from Japan.
Stryk’s master smiles as Lucien laughs at himself in this poem. The poet wants to be away, to tramp the road, to be anywhere but in the here of now. We’ve all been in this agitated state, are probably there now.
So what I want to praise in Stryk, and even come to emulate, is the immense calm of his best work. Many years ago he was good enough to write an essay for my American Poets In 1976 anthology. Much in this essay-now collected in his The Awakened Self: Encounters with Zen (1995)-has stayed with me over the years, including the incisive phrase: “the hateful evidence of our will to impress.” This is one way of describing what is hectic in us, what will falsify our poems, and what is so entangled in our personalities that we can hardly locate it to cleanse ourselves of it while we’re off and running to Isfahan bazaar or to Chicago with our opinions, our programs, our brittle and self-deluding impositions on the Tao of poetry itself. “The hateful … will to impress.” Not just desire, but will, a difficult opponent.
Lucien has often spoken simply and directly about this. Talking about poetry, about all life, he says, “Surely it is fit time to step back, far back, to a pace more natural, an air less noxious.” He says we’re “deaf to the song of cranes.” He says that “the serene hour, tranquil life, is hard earned.” When I think of how much he earned by the time of the Awakening collection, when I read several of those poems, I become subdued within his somehow intense equilibrium and calm, the “sufficient perspective” that Emerson called for, of “The Edge,” for example. Addressing Helen he says, “Near sleep, after loving, we felt / part of a stillness with the dark / and all its creatures, / holding to the edge of where we lived.” Once more, those four lines: “Near sleep, after loving, we felt / part of a stillness with the dark / and all its creatures, / holding to the edge of where we lived.” There is an abiding stillness here beyond contraries which reminds me of a moment in the “Duckpond” sequence of this book that I love: A duck flies up. The watcher is reminded that “three men were shot up / at the moon.” Then he asks, “what / if they don’t make it? If they do?”
But as the central example in Awakening of this immense equilibrium, I’d like to read one of Lucien’s best-known poems, “Letter to Jean-Paul Baudot, at Christmas”.
Friend, on this sunny day, snow sparkling
everywhere, I think of you once more,
how many years ago, a child Resistance
fighter trapped by Nazis in a cave
with fifteen others, left to die, you became
a cannibal. Saved by Americans,
the taste of a dead comrade’s flesh foul
in your mouth, you fell onto the snow
of the Haute Savoi and gorged to purge yourself,
somehow to start again. Each winter since
you were reminded, vomiting for days.
Each winter since you told me at the Mabillon,
I see you on the first snow of the year
spreadeagled, face buried in that stench.
I write once more, Jean-Paul, though you don’t
answer, because I must: today men do far worse.
Yours in hope of peace, for all of us,
before the coming of another snow.
When snow comes again for Jean-Paul, he will again have to purge himself of the stark fact and nightmare of cannibalism with which he lives. The poet’s understanding and compassion here, his broaching of this subject to himself and to his friend at Christmas, stuns me. The poem’s language and story are clear. There is no posturing. There isn’t a trace of evidence of the hateful will to impress or to sensationalize here. Stryk achieves the transparency in this poem toward which he worked for decades, achieves a voice we follow without knowing we are reading poetry. Haunted himself by the awful history he heard from Jean-Paul, Stryk ends in realistic, valid prayer-the communal perspective of “today men do far worse” and then the “hope of peace, for all of us, / before the coming of another snow.”<SPAN style="mso-spacerun: yes"> The poem is a seeing-through to the hope inherent in deepest comradeship, one that expects no answer. For now, here, Awakening ends. This is the “true sound of brevity,” in W.S. Merwin’s phrase. This poem, all the book’s best work, Stryk collected, could only come to be after a long quest for lucidity of spirit. He has moved stones from one field to another and back again, and back again, until the stones have become snow, light, story. This was / is a life’s work. The young man of “Testimony” who said we had to be “swinging / Hammers on our grief and shaping / It in brass,” who said we had to “crack the past across our / Thighs like stick and hurl its foulness / To the sharp auspicious wind”-well, what kind of comfort could he have been for Jean-Paul. Now, awakening, not awakened but awakening-he has smelled his friend’s vomit the way the honey-gatherer Lucien interviewed, the man whose job it was to clean latrines and chamber pots and spread this human waste on fields, smelled the illnesses of his clients-and can now be there with Jean-Paul, a comrade against soul-sickness. The poet has listened, has suffered, has written for Jean-Paul and for us. This is, in Karl Elder’s phrase, “ultimate regard.” Thank you, Lucien.
Lucien Stryk says there’s a writing hour
when he’s always happy even
ready to be taken
at dusk-light fully aware
so far I am not ready at any hour
may the time come when Time is in me
to pass through to the stars
I would take love with me
but that may not come to be but
; love can be left behind
I have sometimes felt a continuum
of being both & both being the same
Evelyn Underhill says that all mystics anywhere ever
Buddhist Christian Jew somehow
by fire fear water faith know
eternity is now
those three words are hers Roethke uses
them exactly in “The Abyss”
is that where the stair is Emerson’s doctrine
of perpetual revelation
Lucien I mind how I still hear your voice
from thirty-five years ago
I’ll keep it always against the abyss
eternity is now