Sunday, April 06, 2008

BillyBlog's Favorite Poems, #25 ("A Buddha in the Woodpile" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

Late last century, I visited San Francisco and made a holy pilgrimage to City Lights Books.

One of my souvenirs was a signed poster featuring a poem called "A Buddha in the Woodpile" by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The poem, which appeared in The Best American Poetry 1999, was about the infamous Waco Siege involving David Koresh in 1993.

Sadly, my poster, which was rolled up somewhere, has disappeared, and I don't think I can blame my neighbor who stole my wind chimes.

Some day, it may resurface, and I will rejoice. The poster is out of print, and I must live vicariously through the re-reading of the poem on occasion. I like it a lot, even though it may not be considered Ferlinghetti's best.


by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

If there had been only

one Buddhist in the woodpile

in Waco Texas

to teach us how to sit still

one saffron Buddhist in the back rooms

just one Tibetan lama

just one Taoist

just one Zen

just one Thomas Merton Trappist

just one saint in the wilderness

of Waco USA

If there had been only one

calm little Gandhi

in a white sheet or suit

one not-so-silent partner

who at the last moment shouted Wait

If there had been just one

majority of one

in the lotus position

in the inner sanctum

who bowed his shaved head to the

Chief of All Police

and raised his hands in a mudra

and chanted the Great Paramita Sutra

the Diamond Sutra

the Lotus Sutra

If there had somehow been

just one Gandhian spinner

with Brian Willson

at the gates of the White House

at the Gates of Eden

then it wouldn't have been

Vietnam once again

and its "One two three four

What're we waitin' for?"

If one single ray of the light

of the Dalai Lama

when he visited this land

had penetrated somehow

the Land of the Brave

where the lion never

lies down with the lamb--

But not a glimmer got through

The Security screened it out

screened out the Buddha

and his not-so-crazy wisdom

If only in the land of Sam Houston

if only in the land of the Alamo

if only in Wacoland USA

if only in Reno

if only on CNN CBS NBC

one had comprehended

one single syllable

of the Gautama Buddha

of the young Siddhartha

one single whisper of

Gandhi's spinning wheel

one lost syllable

of Martin Luther King

or of the Early Christians

or of Mother Teresa

or Thoreau or Whitman or Allen Ginsberg

or of the millions in America tuned to them

If the inner ears of the inner sanctums

had only been half open

to any vibrations except

those of the national security state

and had only been attuned

to the sound of one hand clapping

and not one hand punching

Then that sick cult and its children

might still be breathing

the free American air

of the First Amendment

The universality of this poem lies in the fact that it can, if you remove the Waco specifics, stand as a metaphor for any situation in which a government has zealously overreacted with tragic results. I realize Koresh may be regarded by fringe groups as a martyr, but it is sad to think of the innocents who were with him that would likely have survived if the government had acted more responsibly than the man they were pursuing.

And I think the recent news involving a government standoff with polygamists in Texas may have been playing in the back of my mind when I was reminded of how much this poem meant to me.

Previous "Favorite Poems" for National Poetry Month:

#26 - "Separation" by W.S. Merwin
#27 - "The Flea" by John Donne
#28 - Poem Twenty from Pablo Neruda's Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair
#29 - "Magpie's Song" by Gary Snyder
#30 - "Eunoia" by Christian Bok


buddhist amulet said...

great poem

Unknown said...


Anonymous said...

I, too, saw a poster of this poem. It was in a bookstore in Charleston, West Virginia. I don't remember the year. But I do remember that few poems have had the impact "Buddha" did on a first reading.

Anonymous said...

There is a high school classroom Napa, CA with this poster on the wall. I read it every day.