In January, I visited Joan Sutherland in New Mexico. We went to Bosque del Apache—a wetlands off a lazy arm of the Rio Grande—to see snow geese and sandhill cranes. The birds were wintering down from the Arctic and the Platte River. I wanted to step into the primeval conditions of birds, water and sky.
I heard of the Bosque through Jim Harrison’s poem, “Counting Birds” which mentions the uncountable numbers of geese and cranes there. As twilight came on, it grew cold and the birds arrived—wave after wave out of the endless storehouse of birds—the cranes with their legs sticking out behind them on a flat glide path through columns of snow geese floating down like maple seeds in spirals.
In the morning, before the dawn was in full production, they left in clumps. By sunrise, there were just a few hundred outliers floating and standing in the shallow waters.
We went back to Santa Fe and began translating stories in the Chinese koan collection, The Book of Serenity, a project for Josh Bartok at Wisdom Press. I felt drawn into that ancient world. We worked on the koan of the dog, the first koan I ever threw in my lot with.
A monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“Yes,” replied Zhaozhou.
“Then why did it jump into that bag of fur?”
“It knew what it was doing and that’s why it became a dog.”
Another time a monk asked Zhaozhou, “Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?”
“All beings have Buddha nature. Why doesn't a dog have it?”
“Because it’s beginning to awaken in the world of ignorance.”
Zhaozhou is weird in a satisfying way, stretching language and the mind. He is watching the world emerge from darkness into form and describing in real time what he sees. The line about the dog having Buddha nature says literally, “It knew and therefore it dogged.” Then I dreamed about that koan and as I was waking, it shaped itself into a poem.
I dreamed I found a lost poem of Stanley Kunitz
on the cover of an old book
with a lot of white space and black text at angles.
In the dream I was married and I read the poem aloud over the table at the meal.
It was about a person who got an interview with God and spoke their question across
the swirl of hyperspace and night.
The person said, "What does it all mean, all the…and you… grief… and wanting impossible things?"—the question standing for other questions such as:
the snow blossoms on the cotton wood trees
and the thousands of snow geese falling out of the twilight in stages
while the great sandhill cranes glide underneath,
each to a precise place in the water shining
with the last glow of sunset at Bosque del Apache,
but the translator is holding in memory many things such as
the lost papyri of the Phoenicians
and the place where the polar bears are leaving for
so in the language that crosses the turbulent dark,
only two words remain:
the question arrives as, “The dog?”
God is interested and tries, with the means at hand,
to show the whole pattern—
the response travels back through immensity and comes out, “Woof.”
“Woof,” says God, “Woof.”
and that will have to do.
My wife was not convinced by the poem,
but when I woke up it was still here
in my chest,
though most of the words could not cross over into waking.
iPhone foto of snow geese at Bosque del Apache: Joan Sutherland.
Plaster of Paris print of Snarfly the blue heeler: John Tarrant.