Oyster Boy Review 18  
  Winter 2003–4
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Ancient Teachers

John Martone

I often feel their presences in this room. Palpably and sanely, with no hint of dissociation on my part. Nor do I have any expectation or desire to see them bodily. But they are here.

The other night, moving thru Samperi's poems, copying them, I felt as though he stood behind me, looking over my shoulder. If not the touch of his breath, certainly the atmosphere, that spirit was here. Perhaps that's to be expected from having so many of his books around, their pages stained, my places kept in one volume with a ten-year-old airplane boarding-pass and a holy picture from my sister's funeral of St. Anthony holding the infant. That's a picture you could find in one of Frank's poems.

And there's a postcard from Robert Lax on the wall above my head.


His diaries are stacked beside me. Not long ago some words seemed to come directly from him out of nowhere, in his manner. I call it an "ars poetica bit"—the gist of every poem—


A joke, coming to me, who has no sense of humor. And the following:




Another bit of fun. I thought I should send these to him, but procrastinated, and a week later I learned he was dying that day, or around that day. When I heard he'd died, the man who told me dwelt on Robert's sense of humor.

My Anchor Press volume of Gerard Manley Hopkins lies with its white cover face up on the shelf behind and to my left. And this morning, bright as it is, Hopkins counsels me without a word about solitude and inscape. In his Jesuit cassock and collar, he studies the water elm outside my window and the weedy patch in a neighbor's yard. Once the elm clearly held a human face. No need ever to talk to him. He's right here: in the words. Part of the words themselves, accentual stress.

There's no want of company . . .

Even as I write out Samperi's words, it comes to me . . .

he has ancient teachers, and with them he silently converses.

For a long time it bothered me that I try to take after Frank and Robert, or Hopkins or Larry Eigner (who came in a dream last night), but no longer. It'd be just fine—more, a privilege to be taken for any of them, like one of those "followers" of Giotto whose work you've unknowingly seen but about whom you know nothing, some anonymous student of Basho or his student Chiyo-ni. What pettiness to worry about being "original" in the presence of root and fountain!

It's fine to be a "medium" in that sense, a means of passing on life, a maker of protective charms, a practitioner of Daoist "spirit-writing." It would be wonderful to write as perfectly as a Shang-dynasty tortoise shell that's been heated until it cracks. To make an anonymous poem! To write as diatoms do, obscurely elaborating the intricate structures written in their genes. To write as wind and water have on eroded stone, the Chinese scholar's guai shi—strange stone, what this earth is.

This kind of imitation, repetition, recitation of spell or charm is the recovery of nature. There's nothing strange about it. It heals. Staying with Frank and Robert is taking medicine.

It took a long time, and I never expected the spirits to come from the books like this, to surround and inhabit me, or me find a home here. Such a home as anyone can have—words being no protection from wind and rain, being exposed.

—August 2002, May 2003