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Poems from Slowly But Dearly

By: Norman Fischer | 01/30/2004
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Norman Fischer:
Poems from Slowly But Dearly
Slowly But Dearly
Norman Fisher
Chax Press 2004-01-30 08:00:00 2004
ISBN 0925904414
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Poems from the book, “Slowly But Dearly.”


in tall grasses
we are thinking
of what we are in
sunshine wondering
where we came from
among flowers listening
to sounds of birds, black —
birds trilling lasciviously
extending themselves toward us
beside the pond we are dutifully
imagining what our life will be like
after we are dead and will have no wish to
think or feel or worry about anything anymore
in the sky we fondly speculate about dear loved
ones who are lost far away probably also looking
for us among the tall grasses of our displaced thinking
we who are still thinking beside the pond as the frogs
croak and the cicadas shriek and the owls strangely (because
it is day) hoot as they never have before under the clouds in the trees whose
branches are knocking together in the breeze among the shade of the trees beside
the creek winding by where the willows are gesturing flagrantly in new bud we
are calculating how we’ll spend our remaining days our lifetime storehouse of
gathered information and music sensation and grief: how strange that in these
purported places we mimic
a colorful life we’ve never lived worry about a determining death we’ll never die
scheme out desires we’ll never fulfill sighs we’ll never sigh loves we’ll never love
and dreams too painfully real for our impassioned slumbers


I’m quoting notes from previously
as if surrendering to someone else’s thoughts
as if blinded by the paintings of light
that sweep across the room in a day:
chipped furniture and the books that lie
half-eaten in their pools of grump on the
table. No one around to hear me rant.
No one cares to solve my problems.
No one cheers me on
or groans for my protection.
Late at night an empty sky, darkened room —
I wonder whether
more or less threatens me now than before
whether I’ll still be talking even after I am dead
or whether the silence at the end of the sentence
after the dense and final rounded period
will overtake me ‘fore
I’m done. That’s the project: to confirm
and conform, make a strong and full shape,
a job like any other, as the ones one loves
march off in single file singing swaying and hurling flowers —
one must go on cheerfully amidst the many voices
face flushed, arms waving, lungs pumping,
teensy eyes peering out all round at the tunnel, tape, and tin
of weary world’s enrapture. Ah heart!
How to hold two things at once in one’s hand:
the feeling all’s fleeting and the laugh
in the mind to love what’s here well
as extremest form of self-defense. Not
only caring, but curing, not only curing
but moving still along, looking for that path
that goes along the river brown with rushing run-off
of childhood and mystificatory initiation,
times of innocence, rude death, and endlessness. In here’s
where wonder began which got lost along the way
in an effort to be someone, make use of experience,
negotiate from that position.
Now older (presumably) and having known many others as they’ve
turned and fired through the numbers
one is used and has been used to tertiary greeting, feed, and
a customary allotment — still the steel
of feeling relaxes all at once and tears
come from nowhere.
Where’s portion
to greet pinion
and where’s force
to bear
weight of access to open
hefty sealed doors of history’s
Here’s about how to prod, ask questions, poke, ponder,
plod on, not wearing one’s self out
but laughing too at one’s expert advice
and many senses of self-repetition, like daily newspaper,
ever the same yet earnestly seeking newness.
Where do you get to
there from here, how limber up in
advance of waning, when deliver
at whose behest? My theory of prose
goes like this: never mention the
subject about which you speak
never limit characters to specific locations
never end paragraphs with decisive statements and always
render certainties with multiple examples.
The rest is fluctuation.


A little lean at night but cold again in the morning
these things curtail you and cause you to unfurl
against the windowpanes like wet noodles in a downpour.
Everything you wished for, like the ending of all in all,
the completion and final infolding of desire into flesh and thought
didn’t seem to come about, not now, not later, no, not even never.
This is why you languish around the pump gazing up at the sky
(or sty, as the case may be) counting your blessings: or anyone’s.
It is the one great cause of your final utterance,
the statement you will stand by for all time
or at least until a better one, one that will pay more, comes along.
To say anything at a time like this is already to say way too much.
You take your alligator gall pills and lie down
for an hour with a sick headache.
This was not part of the plan.
It all depended on a particular pattern of air
that was going to announce itself at just the right moment.
There was going to be a critical mass, a critical move, the exfoliation
of identity and memory into literary depth but instead
there went another one, a life, plink, plink, plink
while somebody was channel surfing.
Cambodia, El Salvador, Peru, Vietnam, you name it, the world
alert, bleeding, and needlessly by your side at all times.
It’s all in the pronouns. Pick one up for the duration but don’t bother
to paint it for if you do: O the bonds of attachment are hard to break!
Here, have another and another.
Language fails us, we search and do not find.
There are so many unsuccessful searches,
so many dashed plans and unanswered appeals for funds.
I fear that in harboring these things I too will be guilty of
Consubstantiation. In the boiler room.
In the police station. In the bowels of the hospital.
Workers are tapping quietly
against the burning panes.


What I have to offer you
Finished and condemned
Is a note in a bottle scratched out
In an indecipherable language.
Raising the flag into the cool air
and coming back again to what
no one believes in, no one can even indicate:
a flash in the pan of some sort,
sparks of lightening or from a flintstone,
the sensation of falling and catching yourself
and falling and catching yourself again you sometimes feel
in a dream. And yet there’s a way in which
(as we say to one another occasionally)
we do look at each other with a feeling of relief,
as if everything in the world one needed or could possibly endure
were actually present, yet quiet, with a warm curl
of a smile, like the ocean around sunset,
in motion, but subdued and mellow
and about to disappear or at least transform
into liquid moonlight in short order. Our hearts are
worn on our sleeves, or maybe they are pinned
to our lapels like those red ribbons that
signify “Yes I know that many are dying
untimely all the time even as we speak and I
care about it, I’m trying to cope,
but know there’s very little I can do.”
I sometimes wonder whether I experience anything at all;
when I try to catch it so I can dust it off or stuff it into
a drawer or something it all seems to go cold in my hand
like old smoke that’s flown around for quite a while
and has now settled into a little damp powder,
a film on a rock or a log.
Together we can appreciate these things
although we can’t ever really know that
or say so
yet we want to
and try
try desperately
to have one another
as something
as such
and fall on our faces every time in the awkwardness of our gesture
or the guttural almost animal tones that issue from our throats
at the behest of our constantly inappropriate clunky desire.
I’m not complaining mind you
or trying to stack up evidence in order to prove my point,
win the case finally, and be declared free and immune at last
with a one-way ticket out of here and $500 in cash.
No, it’s just that for better or worse like a lot of you out there
I’ve taken my seat on that spunky little train that could,
the one that requires you to have a name a body and a form of address
in order to embark, but none of those things do you get to keep
as you get off and find yourself strolling very slowly down the platform
in the dust and flame and smoke with a lot of other enthusiastic souls
equally diaphanous and silent and luminescently tranquil
and there isn’t anything I’d rather do between now and the meantime than
consider the question, look at the sky, dot my “i’s,” cross my “t’s,”
and fall in love with all the leftovers.


In a place that’s no place
Relentless question of location
Of distinction in extension
Unable to find any clear way home
Having been surprised by the unexpected
Having not ever arrived at the usual
Nor been aware of removal from there
Having fallen through a painted doorway
Into the in-between places of disposal
Lost there or elsewhere in sentences
Wondering what to review or reveal
Lost again in temporary displacements
Intermediate realms of non-location
Having fallen into a gap or hole
In the middle of anything happening
Left out in the rain or unmaintained and neglected
Because there is so much that is happening
Always and can’t stop to look in a direction
At the nagging nothings between the clouds in the hall
Piled up aimless and lost and being a pilgrim
Having wandered up and down without haste or destination
Looking for the place that is the holy place of restfulness
That was lost in the pile of the restless world
The bundle of the world’s restless important lessons
Unable to see anything in a straight line in front of the eyes
Because of anything that’s there blocking the view
The anything that’s not there gone also again
Outside of a location that namable and certifiable
An operation we do not deign to consider or construct
To disinherit or defer to in the midst of stillness
Neither transparent nor apparent neither inherent nor dismayed
Asleep always in the detritus, the unpleasant unfinishedness
Because of the slippage of language’s interpretations
Cannot meet nor touch nor speak nor be objects of consciousness
Occurrences of experiences, lessons in any degree
Someone reenters space in a crowd at an airport
Loses a sense of distinction among the dressed and separate bodies
Enhanced in the wholesome embrace of purported essences
Finding the one who’s lost in something as simple as
A drink of water at the fountain beside the newspaper stand
Walking there to find a place underneath the feet
Beneath location if location’s in the mind
A homeless resting spot where gravity’s manifest
Where the body dissipates and one is completely gone
As one without any other to be another in the face of it
A home gradually insistent on being there wherever one is
Dependent on everything at once and without price or taxation
Denied to no one belonging to nobody who you are in any particular place
Interior word unlocked like a door unhinged in an earthquake
So that what’s said’s misunderstood at all points and times
Now and then and into an eternity which stands as a separate possibility
Letting loose the hands of the clock dangling at the ends of the arms
Organizing clouds into imagined kinetic potentialities
Normal use of the hands or feet to lift or walk with
Setting out in paragraphs an everyday unspeakable agenda
To be present in the plain honesty of situations
With almost no constructions underneath the wraps
Having found no place to be outside of the unexpected
Having heard no voice to respond to outside the ambient sounds
Yet having been wherever one needed absolutely ever to go
And having responded thoroughly in being whatever one needed to be
In the face of what matters which cannot be told


oh sorrow of talking
like two soft animals
running full speed toward one another
and bursting apart
in a shower of exclamation points!
we only lie down in the dark
and even then it’s hard to sleep
because of all we wither at
dying on the vine of a storm


And no answers, please, to any of my questions
And no grooming for my bears, no curling of my hairs
No hortatory exfabulations or bustling bromides
No conciliations or ramifications
No aimless twitching attempts at sense that look like
Logical lines of patterned argument running all the way out to line’s end
No: just to hold the question as the question in all its discomfort
Perhaps in the hospital
Or better yet in a cell
Cell of silence
Cell of the body, the simplest possible thing
The shedding of rains of tears for ourselves
Ancient noble impersonal sorrows
Ocean of coldness and darkness, motion and play
As this single thing or moment stripped of thought
But present — shining like a toy
And replaced — flashing like water
— wet, bracing, necessary, passing
(for Fannie Howe)


What seems separate, weighty, out there
Is actually already dissolved because
The moving into it
Is a giving up of everything
That has already been lost anyway
So it’s easy to do
Everything works together
Even griefs
Nothing more clever
Than the mind to tangle things up in
Without which we couldn’t ever do
Or even ever appear


Tonight it’s quiet or in the quiet
Or, at least, the quiet
Is all around us. What is it
I’m worried about when I
Worry about anything? What is it
I tangle up in, wanting to go home?
From down here I look up at myself
In the little bright square of window
Staring down at me in bemusement
Querying what’s it worth. But that’s
A question snaps shut on itself
Thoughts with teeth or claws
To scrape away to the very core. What
Cares contains its value, a half life,
Mixed, no doubt, yet fair.
It’s always fair or anyway
It’s always what’s there…
And it’s not our fault.


I’ve changed
Shrunk probably
Noticing the prominence
Of my skeleton
This word
I wanted to fondle
That I threw out into the world
That never had a meaning or referent
Except to stand for all I do not know and fear
Now I can feel what it wanted to tell me

From “Subject Matter”

II: the subject’s self-definition is never analyzable
Nishitani’s strategy in zen aporetics
of the koan, loose lipped with ripples
playing about the edges
no girding of forces no lunch and no retreat
so abusive to evoke Harold Bloom’s hand
drudge resistance of expression then he would
handle this
the endless shopping and improvements
toward “kenosis” and “metanoia”
breaking toward a radical discontinuity
toward horizon’s meaning
(or meaning’s horizon)
the social praxis
like an assembly line (lone
poet contemplating waterfall as flute plays)
of sexy cars in Dearborn
out of the ordinary no doubt according to thought
piled up in fleecy adjustments
of what did I mean by what I have said
or what did you understand by what you have interpreted
or have you configured yourself anew based on what you thought to include in your
interpretation which was original
or previously meant in other contexts fuller arguments
as if a text assembled from parts, parts of a person
(Sung texts discussing T’ang materials that did not exist previously suspect
certainly a loop and a twist to be making
transhistorical or extrahistorical claims while
based on spurious history repeated solemnly with a straight face)
as if a person leached from out of gathered materials
locatable streaming out at you with heavy context
(Kathy Acker dead in Mexico)
flipped through pages and pages of or online
“However the key to the transmission paradigm
was the incorporation of the Confucian sense
of ancestralization including
motifs of succession”
and consciousness itself (to mention the unmentionable
which is not “Western” nor “Eastern,” neither modern
nor ancient and yet only appearing in any way on the basis of
expression a particular form of difference
bowing and chanting sitting immobile and so forth
picking up on a particular sense of life isn’t all
theory) is an endless series of face to face meetings
in rooms with particular appointments (red rooms)
tangled and tangled vines entangling: what you thought
was confusion turned out to be exactly the ticket
which is to say there’s no confusion like confusion
nothing to get rid of all dressed up with
everywhere etc. “here’s looking at you, babe”
and anchored in a debate whose terms
flap in a furious wind
deficient in historical accounts
language debunked by pantomime which turns out to be
an even more degraded form of language (a question
rather of how the little girl holds her doll
whether she is going to squeeze it and break it or drop it
or will she set it aside altogether and grow up)
more likely entirely made up
not to be dismissed in a single sitting
sky grows bright and dark by turns all day
radical critique of
“my whole point about this system
is not that it is a misrepresentation
of some Oriental essence — in which I
do not for a moment believe — but that it operates
as representations usually do… representations are
formations, or, as Roland Barthes
has said of all the operations of language,
that the cars do roll off desirable and spanking new
is itself no cause for alarm although it is quite persuasive
the world over
our mode of freedom and exhilaration a basic right
or rite — to roll down the highway with my suitcase in my hand
toward setting or rising sun or moon
mode of conduct or contact
amazingly founded on ancient dead ones made up later
mummified or purported to have existed in the way they did
scarce and being used up entirely even in our youth
and at the same time destroying all in its wake
if you want to look for blame there is plenty of blame
you better look for it or it will eventually find you
me in the grip of it unable to release
or even notice smell of green grass newly cut
or dry wood heated and smoky with pitch
“misheard the term due to faulty comprehension
of spoken Chinese”
had been quarreling over and the argument unfair
but how make it stick so serious and colorful like a rug
semi-serious so made to be in it by the shape of the language
folding up so much of the history I lived through
cut while shaving and bled
polarization and valorization of zen
strangling terms and limp lingo to be repeated
and repeated with a coercive meaning
how allow the person’s tears
time repeats material repeats itself
amazingly founded on ancient dead ones made up later
is itself no cause for alarm though it is quite persuasive
is semi-serious so made to be in it by the shape of the language
or of time itself
the same day relived a million times in one time
how allow the person’s tears
(hard to say complexity ambiguity contradictoriness)
and the book before we read it already clear
(and less clear after we read it far less clear)
“a text purporting to contain knowledge about something actual
…is not easily dismissed” but what about a text
that contains non-knowledge about nothing or pseudo-knowledge
about something that isn’t actual?
“zen.. is particularly clear and adept
in recognizing the need to subvert deliberately
any attachment to or fixation with
the symbol-making process” in other words words
only mean something for the moment but not seriously
which is what words do do as words or groups of words
organized either paratactically or hypotactically
pulled up all at once with a parbuckle and — oops! —
rolled back down again to the bottom
which is why we read it
to hear our own thought echoed back
and I am standing feeling the wind and rain once again
(which does not suggest actual wind or actual rain
and even the word “actual” has nothing to do with
wind or rain it has to do with talking and listening to talk)
more a moral force than just some convincing words
particulars in their astonishments
any abstraction kissed in elocution
the pleasures of thinking — and what isn’t thinking
or mediated by blessed with thinking
organized around structures in air
(“everything solid melts in air”)
known as the person — person’s locked
(there he goes saying all that stuff again
that everyone’s always saying again
amazingly founded on dead ones made up later
mummified or purported to have existed in the way they did
of spoken Chinese
semi-serious so expected to be folded into the words I used
and that would be the function of words actual words not actual
winds or trees
and in defense of which standards
interior gateways and encumbrances
looks like barriers and critiques
the person’s swimming in his eyes up to here
and “koans are a kind of religious expression
that has an element of vagueness and mystery
based on nonconceptualizing nearly all religious symbols
to some extent to cultivate opacity
ambiguity elusiveness and enigma in order to create
an indirect communication
triggering a subjective
of truth” such as it is in this day and age
semi-serious in spoken Chinese scarce
and all but used up even in our youth
but able to bounce back and at the same time
destroying all in its wake
experience not language but language is experience
not just one thing at a time but everything at once
two streams of photons don’t pass through
(not suggesting anything can fit not suggesting random parts)
for honestly I’ve forgotten how to cook
brought the trope to bear finally on the weather
concealed the obvious
which once revealed ceases to be the obvious
and finally set fire to the house

III: the past is subject to change

October 17, 1997

Dear Leslie,

I was astonished at your letter and have been thinking about it all day. As long as I have known you and your work, known of your time in Asia and its impact, I had not quite had a feel for the shape of it, how it’s conditioned you. This sense of the engraved quality of early experience — space and time and incident, before there are words to digest and file experience away — comes out quite strongly. So that the passion and torque of the experience comes across as almost lodged in you, stuck in your craw — it spurts out — in the language long years later — is the, accounts for the, power of your words and of your person too. And it’s very curious that this sources with cultural displacement: that you see the world first
through Asian eyes but you’re not Asian, so it’s foreign, or you are foreign in it , not in the sense though of alien, but fresh, and so otherwise not foreign because you don’t know the difference, there is no cultural map in you yet, it’s just what is there for you to be in at that age when everything gets embedded. So it’s foreignness that is natural, freeing — because you are immune to culture altogether — then coming home is painful because it’s not really home at all yet you somehow have to answer for everything, and be someone, and none of it is yours. Being foreign has been just to see, and being native becomes painful. Not the kind of painfulness you can see in Asia — poverty making you realize that you’ve got to do something to overcome that, to escape (becoming enlightened), but a despair in the midst of a life that hems you in without anything definite to hook onto. Anyway, this is how I understand what you say.

For myself the situation is quite different. In a sense there’s very little Asian input into my work — even, oddly, into my religious practice. Being monolingual, having lived really in a very constrictive situation growing up (with parents uneducated, in a small town, in a very conventional and faithful Jewish community, going nowhere even on trips), crowded in on myself, but with a tremendous appreciation of death and its necessity and strangeness and the feeling that it didn’t add up and needed to be addressed. Seeing in language and thought, which was not something I’d known about or had any familiarity with, a way out of all that, I encountered eventually, through existentialism — Buber and Kierkegaard — Zen writing as something that made sense and was liberative, as somehow logical conclusion to my Western dilemma. Before I’d thought — the world is out of whack and senseless, God is elsewhere, so nothing can be done and this is terrible! With reading Zen I thought — the world is out of whack and senseless, God is elsewhere, but why worry! This is freedom! It seemed like such a simple stroke and appealed to the simple-minded in me. In the early years of my Zen practice certainly I was a Japanophile, but it was fairly superficial and passed quickly. After nearly thirty years of daily Zen practice in the West, full time in a temple most of that time, I feel as if Buddhism isn’t Japanese it’s Western and very familiar, not foreign. Suffering and the end of suffering — I can appreciate this as something useful and practical, as a Jewish person, with the long history of that tradition.

Writing in the present moment out of silence and against the dilemma of language — words undercutting themselves constantly — which makes every
word an irony — which is my project — comes naturally out of the increasing impossibility of being able, with my limited means, to figure anything at all out, draw any conclusions whatsoever, hold to any serious point of view (other than hope for clarity and kindness), which seems as if it is the one thing that is certainly true and beyond debate or worry — that one doesn’t know but that things are — and the fact of not any longer being organized as a fixed defendable person but instead relating to experience as it arises. Just now, and then again now, whatever it is. So I had to get rid of any idea of thought or of story (though that creeps back into it, in an odd way, as an endlessly present pattern) and just respond to the music of language, allowing everything in, and listening for the shape of it. I think I have a good ear, I hear something that is distinct and feels
true. A gift of gab that reminds me of Ginsberg or Perelman or Bernstein — maybe it’s the Jewish glib (people of the word, people of the book) and the endless debate with God that is language itself and that goes nowhere — by definition! — but must take place.

I do zazen every day and my mind usually gets still or if not still then slow and thought is just there and passes. I notice that I care about writing poems but that once they are written they seem to disappear. It’s the writing and the having written that counts, that clears the air, that opens necessary doors, and that one does this and will do it. Clears the mind and deepens it, (WC Williams: “I write for relaxation, relief. To have nothing in my head— to freshen my eye by that till I see, smell, know, and can reason and be.”) yet the poems as written on the page and gotten out into the world for whatever effect they may have is important too though I increasingly can spend less time on that part of it. I am constantly wondering about everything — the potential of writing more and more deeply constantly on my mind. But then I let go of that too and am always surprised by what happens.

yours, Norman