Today's poetry for today's world

Erik Muller                    


Erik Muller has lived in Oregon since 1969, teaching English at community colleges in Coos Bay and Eugene.  He is a founding editor of Fireweed and since 2002 the editor and publisher of Traprock Books.  He writes essays about Oregon poets, including Richard Dankleff and Vern Rutsala, among others.











              for Tim Applegate


Your heart in middle-age found the Way.

You came to dwell at the foot of a mountain.

Did you ever meet the old woodcutter,

talk and laugh and never return?

In later age my heart twists many ways.

I do not wander trails alone like you.

Finding beauty, I stop and point,

Knowing anything I say falls short.




We may have no river like the River Han,

Swollen by tributaries, running beyond heaven and earth.

Along the North Fork of the Middle Fork of the Willamette

Spring shimmers in water, air, fragile leaves.

Stand here now, help me count the greens,

Describe ten-thousand supple moves

An undammed river makes, flowing from that deep

pulsing heart in the mountains, Waldo Lake.




You did not know the way to the temple,

Walking beneath mountain clouds,

Until you heard the bell, the splash of water.

Then you knew you could climb free of your dragon self.

In Oregon, fire lookouts top rocky summits,

Mostly abandoned, some carted off years ago,

Concrete footings mark the site—

Breezes playing about my head, wide outlooks few will see.




Did you think your prince heard you,

Urging him to govern wisely, earn fame?

You addressed him from the mountain,

Whose trees touched heaven that night of rain,

Should I find a high platform

To tell my president to end our wars

In deserts where bones litter yellow dust.

Would he listen any better than your prince listened to you?




As years passed, you asked for peace,

Freedom from ten-thousand matters.

You always asked and answered the same:

What can be better than coming home?

Today ponderosa shade cools my brow.

Up here the moon will rise unobstructed.

When I drive back along the Middle Fork,

A fisherman is standing in churning water.




Through river valleys, up mountain peaks,

Wang Wei, you were a genial pilgrim.

You sought peace and claimed to find it,

Desired to carry it back to capital and court.

Help me be quiet, like you, in body and mind,

Sensing the quick shiver of wing or leaf,

Heartened by the voice of a street-corner song

Or by a credible call to action at city hall.



 ***In response to and using lines from Wang Wei,

translated by Witter Bynner, The Jade Mountain, pp193-95.








Here is a man lazy

about knowledge who

can name only a star or two


Here is a man pawing

through riverside pebbles

thinking he knows what

he wants but won’t know

until he finds it


Here is a man who places

in your hand a single

black-lacquered pebble

bright as a star


A man who

does not know what

kind of stone

it is or what he means

to tell you








With a tool you might get

at Office Max to pry staples

from a cardboard box


my surgeon’s nurse bends

to her work, saying sorry

with each staple pulled


for I am no cardboard box

and the scar still raw

not yet hard and knobby.


Sorry, she repeats, while I watch

her hand moving down the row,

each pull a shrill pain,


the high note of a flute

just about inaudible.

I breathe out, OK.


Now as I look at the scar

as a possession not quite mine,

a fair prize affixed to me,


my tattoo, my piercing,

I think about the surgeon’s

hand inside the incision


removing what he expected

and found, then an officious

machine planting staples.


Happiness, my happiness,

it wraps around my life,

something he did not touch.


It can never be taken from me.

Nor can I ever say to you

as with this scar, See, here it is.




Published in Cloudbank #3, 2010.




Writer's Comment: I think there is a prevailing "Oregon poetic" of clarity and directness, and for me these qualities are made even more worth having by my reading of Chinese poetry in translation.




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