Poems from Lucien Stryk

(taken from Where We Are: Selected Poems and Zen Translations)




Coming out of the station he expected

To bump into the cripple who had clomped,

Bright pencils trailing, across his dreams

For fifteen years. Before setting out

He was ready to offer both his legs,

His arms, his sleepless eyes. But it seemed

There was no need: it looked a healthy town,

The people gay, the new street dancing

In the famous light. Even the War Museum

With its photos of the blast, the well-mapped

Rubble, the strips of blackened skin,

Moved one momentarily. After all,

From the window one could watch picknickers

Plying chopsticks as before, the children

bombing carp with rice balls. Finding not

What he had feared, he went home cured at last.

Yet minutes after getting back in bed

A wood leg started clomping, a thousand

Eyes leapt wild, and once again he hurtled

Down a road paved white with flesh. On waking

He knew he had gone too late to the wrong

Town, and that until his own legs numbed

And eyes went dim with age, somewhere

A fire would burn that no slow tears could quench.



All right, let them play with it,

Let them feel all hot and righteous,

Permit them the savage joy of

Deploring my inhumanity,

And above all let them bury

Those hundred thousand once again:

And say this: if Captain X

Has been martyred by the poets,

Does that mean I have to weep

Over his "moments of madness"?

If he dropped the bomb, and he did,

If I should sympathize, and I do

(I too have counted the corpses),

Has anyone created a plaint

For those who shot from that red sun

Of Nineteen Forty One? Or

Tried to rouse just one of those

Thousand Jonahs sprawled across

The iron-whale bed of Saipan Bay?

I too have counted the corpses

And you, Tom Staines, who got it

Huddled in "Sweet Lucy" at my side,

I still count yours, regretting

You did not last to taste the

Exultation of learning that

"Perhaps nine out of ten of us"

(I too have counted the corpses)

Would not end up as fertilizer

For next spring’s rice crop. I’m no

Schoolboy, but give me a pencil

And a battlefield, and I’ll make you

A formula: take one away

From one, and you’ve got bloody nothing.

I too have counted the corpses.




Of the survivors there was only one

That spoke, but he spoke as if whatever

Life there was hung on his telling all,

And he told all. Of the three who stayed,

Hands gripped like children in a ring, eyes

Floating in the space his wall had filled,

Of the three who stayed on till the end,

One leapt from the only rooftop that

Remained, the second stands gibbering

At a phantom wall, and it’s feared the last,

The writer who had taken notes, will

Never write another word. He told all.


[Lucien Stryk’s Where We Are: Selected Poems and Zen Translations was published in paperback by Skoob Books in 1997, at 8.95 ($12.95). Now in his 70s, he is an internationally known poet and translator, the author of fourteen books of poetry, the first of which were produced in England. He has brought out two spoken word albums of his work with Folkways Records and is represented in several major anthologies of contemporary poetry.

His translations include On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho and Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. With the late Takashi Ikemoto he translated Zen Poems of China and Japan: The Crane’s Bill and The Penguin Book of Zen Poetry.

He has also published a book of essays, The Awakened Self: Encounters with Zen. He is editor of World of the Buddha: An Introduction to Buddhist Literature and the anthologies Heartland: Poets of the Midwest (I and II).

Among many awards, he has received the Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award, the Islands and Continents Translation Award, and, twice, the Society of Midland Authors Poetry Award. He has held fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Translation Center, and the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. A former Fulbright Scholar and visiting lecturer in Japan, Stryk was a Presidential Research Professor at Northern Illinois University, where he taught poetry and Asian Literature until his retirement in 1991].