The lead to the poem came, like much else, from conversations with Hiromi Ito, herself a major figure in contemporary Japanese poetry and for over twenty years a neighbor and close friend in southern California. I had recently written and published a series of poems, The Treasures of Dunhuang, many of which were my own takes on images of the Buddha from the great painted caves of Dunhuang in western China. My first sighting of those was in an exhibit of that name at the Metropolitan Art Museum, Tokyo, in 1996, reenforced by a visit to Dunhuang in 2002. What struck me then was the surprising twist given to images that we thought of as familiar — much like images of Jesus when one sees them in out-of-the-way regions of the Christian world.
(1) When the Buddha walks. his feet are so close to the ground that there is not even a hair’s space between his soles & the earth;
(2) the imprint of a wheel appears on the soles of the Buddha’s feet;
(3) the Buddha’s fingers are exceptionally long & slender;
And likewise they contend that animals / Wander about head downwards and cannot fall / Off from the earth into the sky below / Any more than our bodies of themselves can fly / Upwards into the regions of the sky; / That when they see the sun, the stars of night / Are what we see, and that they share the hours / Of the wide heavens alternately with us, / And pass nights corresponding to our days.
The text presented here is from Marthe’s Reed’s Ark Hive, forthcoming posthumously from The Operating System. A poetic approach to life in south Louisiana, it’s no wonder that Reed quotes poet C. D. Wright at the start of the work as Wright’s work covering south Louisiana could no doubt be seen as a necessary prerequisite to Reed’s own project. In the opening pages, Reed approaches her predicament as if she were a researcher placed in a foreign land, situating herself among her surroundings, in the midst of a condition of place that is both physically distant and so very different from the places she had previously lived. From there, she leans into language, the language of water, of floods and earth reclaimed, only to be lost again as the seasons change in places that are far away, the words occasionally scattered across the pages like the silt that drives the Mississippi water to the Gulf of Mexico.
[editor’s note. In the wake of Marthe Reed’s sudden and unexpected death earlier this month, I am opening Poems and Poetics to a commemoration of her work and spirit through the posting of an excerpt from a new book now awaiting publication. I had known Marthe Reed first as my student at UCSD San Diego and later as a dear friend and greatly admired poet.