After reading Braided Creek, I thought I’d like to read something else by Jim Harrison to see how much of that book was Harrison and how much was Kooser. When I saw Harrison’s “Zen-inspired” book, After Ikkyū, I naturally had to buy it.
Harrison’s introduction explains “zen-inspired:”
Of course, the reader should be mindful that I’m a poet and we tend to err on the side that life is more than it appears rather than less. I do not remotely consider myself a “Zen Buddhist,” as that is too ineptly convenient, and a specific barrier for one whose lifelong obsession has been his art rather than his religion. Someone like Robert Aitken Roshi is a Zen Buddhist. I’m still a fool. Early on in my teens I suffocated myself with Protestant theology and am mindful, in Coleridge’s terms, that, like spiders, we spin webs of deceit out of our big hanging asses, whether with Jesus or Buddha.
I suppose this was appealing to me because that’s probably the way I’d have to describe myself, though I never “suffocated myself with Protestant theology,” or any other theology, for that matter. Despite years of reading and meditation, I am not a Zen Buddhist, no matter how appealing I find the underlying philosophy.
As I read the work, though, I often found myself wondering if Harrison hasn’t been more influenced by American Indian shamanism than by Zen Buddhism. If it is Zen, it’s Zen with a strong American West influence.
Although I shared much of Harrison’s philosophy, I wasn’t always inspired by his poetry, though he did make me want to read Ikkyū. I think I liked his poetry best when it was most contemporary:
It was Monday morning for most of the world
and my heart nearly exploded according
to my digital high blood pressure machine,
telling me I don’t want to work anymore
as the highest paid coal miner on earth.
I want to stay up on the surface and help the heron
who’s been having trouble with his creekbed landings.
He’s getting old and I wonder where he’ll be when he dies.
Of course, I retired from teaching when the stress of the job began to wear on my health. Now I find photographing Great Blue Herons more important than most of what I do, and certainly more inspiring.
If I wasn’t always impressed by the poetry, I did find Harrison’s philosophy and good-old-boy sense of humor and language appealing:
It wasn’t until the sixth century that the Christians
decided animals weren’t part of the kingdom of heaven.
Hoof, wing, and paw can’t put money in the collection plate.
These lunatic, shit-brained fools excluded our beloved creatures.
Theologians and accountants, the same thing really, join
evangelists on television, shadowy as viruses.
I must admit that if I were to spend eternity in heaven, I’d generally prefer the company of dogs I’ve owned to the company of many of the people I’ve had to work with, but one of the advantages of not subscribing to a particular theology is that I can imagine heaven any way I want to.