Light years away from the planet “poem as fortune cookie, the poem that closes with a sweet, reliable, didactic message,” there is the poetry of Norman Fischer. He has been publishing for more than thirty years. Once associated with the Language poets of the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1970s, Fischer went another way with his intensive training in Zen Buddhism. A Zen Buddhist priest, Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, and the founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, (an extraordinary resource for poetry, dharma talks, and practical information about zen practice).
Over the past few years, Fischer’s writings have taken on an astonishing and impressive variety of forms and directions, from his superb translations of the Psalms, Opening to You, to his Buddhist reading of the Odyssey, Sailing Home, to several volumes of poetry, Success (2000), Slowly but Dearly (2004), I Was Blown Back (2005) and Charlotte’s Way (2008).
Fischer’s newest collection of poems, Questions / Places / Voices / Seasons (in a beautiful large format), is built, as the title suggests, on multiple styles, approaches, voices, and locations. Indeed, it is a celebration of the multiplicity, otherness, and indeterminacy that are at the heart of innovative poetry and of Judaism (as a set of textual relations based on an ongoing and endless questioning and conversing) and of zen meditative practice. In fact, in addition to the pleasure of reading these poems, a major value of Fischer’s poetry is his inadvertent, unintentional investigation (for 30+ years) of poetry as a means of experiencing a purposeless pursuit, a renewing location for a beginner’s mind, and a writing and thinking and reading for its own sake.
While there is much to commend in this new book — and I suspect that each reader will experience a different affinity with the book’s various sections — my personal favorite is “Charlotte’s Way,” set in the Muir Beach terrain where Fischer lives. The book presents us with the kinds of questions that withdraw content and call into question our habitual assumptions of knowledge, as at the beginning of “Questions,” “Why is today not yesterday/ Why am I I and you you?/ Why is here not elsewhere,/ Why does a period end a sentence/ And would a sentence end otherwise/ Or would it roll on endlessly,/ Is it rolling on still?”, or later in the same section of the book, where Fischer asks, “When I call who answers?/ When I answer who asks?”.
In “Charlotte’s Way,” there is a sinuous continuity, with each new section of the poem beginning with the concluding phrase of the prior section. What make “Charlotte’s Way” so impressive — and perhaps marks this long poem as central to Fischer’s endeavor as a poet — are the lucidity and integrity of its perpetual motion in and out of statement (or arrival) and drift (or a renewal of thinking in an unanticipated direction). What we have, then, is a dance of consciousness, which is not to be valued so much because it “belongs” to Norman Fischer but is to be cherished as an instance of the grace and unpredictability of consciousness which is a common-wealth:
The words are fluid in the mouth and so blessing takes
Fountain of all life, bending the knee in trickery
For without trickery there’s no groove within the world
Without deception and ambiguity the world would just lay there a sleeping princess
Like a cream cake upon the table
Instead the world goes up and down trembles and bursts forth all red and raw
Is personable, a diver, interested always in fate, technique, all sorts of operations
The fun should be unsettling – we call it an experiment never an exercise
To do something to or with the body’s not right –
The body’s right
It begins and ends there (here)
Hank Lazer, "Recommended by Hank Lazer," in "Twenty-One Poets Recommend New and Recent Books of Poetry," On the Seawall: Ron Slate's Website (March 29, 2010).