A Few Still Words

 A retreat Chapbook

Rohatsu, 2022

Ken Ireland

Pilgrim's Progress

In the Cave of Sister Mary Kevin, Ursuline

Why Did Bodhidharma Kick Up His Heels?

In defense of really bad poetry

This One Precious Human Life

A Dream

Drape All the Mirrors

Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary's)

by Lucille Clifton; translation, Ken Ireland


Outside My Window

Pilgrim's Progress

Will my heart ever warm to these foreign gods?

No matter that we shaved our heads for a while.

No matter that we wore socks that felt more like gloves

than the fingerless mittens that mother stuffed our hands into

when the pond froze over.

There is still some mystery the heart cannot speak.


Sometimes I feel as if I've been snowed into that one room school

my grandpa talked of,

huddled around the stove, a gang of kids

jostling for attention like best grades,

playing with tongue tangled words in a Sanskrit yeshiva,

parsing phrases as cold as Tibetan snow.

I aim for the precision of the shovel

I used to dig out the family car

after the blizzard,

cutting square white blocks to toss before the plow.

I train my body to own the rhythm of

swinging forward, bending down from the hips,

throwing my arms towards the ground.

It feels like falling.


When the conversation overheats,

almost as loud as at auntie's Sunday table

before we were hushed,

I hear my own voice inflected at the end of sentences,

if I can get to the end.

I still believe the end matters.


The snow will melt soon enough,

and return again

when the Sun swings low.


This picture was taken on the Maine coast where my father spent many years. It is at least 100 years old (shorter than a kalpa, but older than me). It got me thinking, in a very personal way, about Buddhism here on 'foreign soil'; I remembered that poignant line from Puccini's Madama Butterfly when the abandoned Cio-Cio-San sings to her maid after chucking out the household altar: "The Buddhist gods are fat and lazy, the American gods and swift and sure."

In the Cave of Sister Mary Kevin, Ursuline


She might have even been as Spartan as Father Ignatius

if her taste had not run to plastered walls, a few modest chintz prints

and poignant photos of helpless children.

You could have fed a child in Haiti for that price, Sister.


Alok asked me about priest-craft—

appeasing hungry ghosts with big bellies,

tight mouths, and one might presume assholes,

not to mention pussies. Forgive me, Sister.


The antidote contains no eyes, no ears, no tongue,

no body, no mind, no assholes

no thought, no perception, no old age, no ending of old age and death

—and no sex. You know that practice, Sister.


I knew, or at least said, more than I ought.

Phil told me that the rite was no more than sleight of hand:

chocolate, cardamom tea, ripe kiwis,

none of it really satisfying or nourishing.


Hungry ghosts think it’s dinner.

Anything looks like dinner when you’re starving.

Big bellies and big ears arise simultaneously –

evidence, your pictures of starving children in the Sudan.

Trick them. Stuff them with dharma.

No bellies. I know about greed first hand.


If you’d had just a little more imagination, Sister,

I might have discovered a unicorn in your garden,

a mythical beast. But no. It had to be a nasty tigress.

Her bad breath nearly killed me.


But right then and there

I stuck my head into her mouth,

to fulfill the requirement for courage,

no fear, no lipstick, no kisses.

Then I heard a small voice demanding attention –

Don’t be an asshole. Don’t arm your daemons.

No Crusades, no swords,

No preaching, no stones, no death.


And we were saved.

Thank you Sister.


Why Did Bodhidharma Kick Up His Heels?


All boys of eight

Should don white gloves

Clean as traffic cops,

And bow before giggling girls,

'May I have the next dance?'

How else stem the rush of hormones, and

Pray for ease

As tiny couples shyly move

In the line of direction,

Marching to the measured pace

Of Miss Comer's spinster sister's piano waltz?


With luck, the beat of

The Dragon's dance

Will stay in China where it belongs.

In defense of really bad poetry


I once knew a girl whose father was filthy rich.

He built row upon row of tacky boxes 

that mar the views on the outskirts of San Francisco,

a wilderness that chokes out coffee houses, bars and brothels,

all the places where freedom and language get down.


He passed his declining years trying to rhyme

2 x 4,  pencil and Uncle Sam,

verse that would make Ogden Nash blush.


Once she asked me and some friends to her hot tub.

We all had big dicks that she tried to rhyme with fun.

We were naked and she wore a bathing suit.

I was thankful her father had trained her well

in the art of really bad poetry.


This One Precious Human Life

“One theory says you won’t remember dying any more than being born.” – Franz Wright


At noon

they sat the lama down in front of TV.

Some real experience of life

outside a meditation crib

seemed like a simple request.

Remote control in hand,

he flipped to All My Children.

Stop. “Stop!

“Oh watch out!” he cried inside.

“Amanda, you can’t hide your lies, silly bitch.

“Jake knows David is the daddy.

“You’ll never get away with it.

“How can you be that stupid?”

Where did that thought come from?

These families, really?

Westerners, really.

Love your momma.


Flip more.

One Life to Live.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

Better title—

Too Many Lives to Live.

"No—Oh no, David, don’t kiss Oliver!

“Please don’t!

“That Path leads in only one direction—

“All the Teachings agree, male or female,

“male and male, female and female, no difference,


“Good luck. Looks like trouble ahead.”

Real tears for imaginary men.


Can’t fast forward.

The lama begins to slump.

General Hospital

ends badly.

Gunfire. Ears. Ouch.

Dominic hustles Sonny into some big black car.

Max, Milo, and Jason escape. Whew.

Joey wasn't so lucky—

Oh dear, bodies scattered all around.

Joey asks a vagrant for help,

who snaps his neck as quick as a skilled headman.

“Is the homeless demon posing Joey's body

“for the final fire?

“He walks away, tosses a coin,

“‘Keep the change.’

“What can that mean?”


“Can I see some reality less intense,

“perhaps more real?” the lama asks.

“How many times can I do

“Powa with full blast visualization—

"high pixel resolution, all that compressing,

“surround sound?

“I'm tired out,

“and lost count.”



from the base of the spine

to the middle of the heart

the remarkable

bodhichitta starts to show up in all its glory.

Lama, loud and clear,

“Cookies and milk all around!

“Ordinary Hope is dead.

“Three cheers for Samsara.”


*I don't even own a TV, but I confess, I have seen All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital, and Guiding Light. The story lines used in the poem are real as real can be.  Trust me, but if you can’t believe it, check out. It’s online at  http://www.soapoperadigest.com/. As real as real can be. The lama’s inner voices are all made up.



A Dream

I don’t know if it’s possible

but I’ll continue to dream it,

juggling the fine points when I have to

to lend it a kind of reality.


Some kinds of hope are just virtuous dreaming.

I’m dreaming back to last night,

glimpsing at men walking down the sidewalk,

wondering what they dream of.


The carpenter hadn’t hammered the last nail—

I heard his banging for the first time in many years

when I thought he too had vanished.

What was it that disappeared before

I noticed something missing?

Was that a dream?

How could I have missed it?


Are we forced to

carve a purpose out of nothing?

Did we dream it like a vision, or did it dream us?

(This is, I guess, a technical question, and no one can be expected

to provide more than a best guess.)


I juggle the timing of the wash cycle

so that I can try to keep a date

with my dreams.

My future doesn’t seem to be pretending to be something, someone—not me.

I didn’t patch it together with

tinsel, latex, fabric, and strut on the

stage when heels weren’t optional.


Yet I’ve hit that same impossible note.

I knew that hope wasn’t dead forever,

even though I tried to murder it.

The carpenter showed me how to fit

a flight of stairs with a return into a tight corner.

Now anyone can climb up under

the rafters and look out from

where the roof opened to the sun.


Dreams are timeless and yet

we imagine we can walk through them,

one step following another, just like in real life.

Today I win the lottery.

Later I hold you in my arms.

Then you disappear, vanishing like that carpenter,

gone, gone—a ghost, or perhaps a dream.


Is it possible to glimpse the sun through you?

(I don’t know and the sun ain't saying.)

But I climbed that flight of stairs one foot after the other.

I can retrace my steps if I must prove it.


I feel so alive—certainly more alive than yesterday.


I glimpsed the sun

through the hole you opened in the roof.

Drape All the Mirrors



Julia Wilson Carroll


a poem for my aunt


I sit by the phone and wait for word that she has died,

ready to cry.

But the news is still the same: she is resting comfortably.

If she has lucid moment, yes,

I will tell her that her nephew from California loves her.


When we last spoke I was 10.

If that is how she remembers me, I will not complain or correct.

She only complains that the fall had blurred her eyes.

She could no longer call the pitch strike or ball.

Keep your eye on the ball, you are the best aunt in the world.

My last words.


It was just a spill that an ordinary person could have walked off,

but it shattered her back and pelvis.

Unable to speak, she pointed to the legal paper she had prepared.

The priest was called. He forgave, prayed and left.

An intern hauled out the tubes while my father stood

expecting her last breath.


15 days later, nurses and doctors admire the body’s desire to survive

while she lies waiting patiently for her hereafter now.


There is no looking back, no food, no water, no death.

I will drape the mirrors and exaggerate stories of no hitters.


Judy Carroll died in hospice care, Tuscon Arizona, noon May 13, 2006

Blessing the Boats (at St. Mary's)

by Lucille Clifton

Translation, Ken Ireland

For my dear friend Bonnie Johnson. Please join me in praying for her safe passage between this and that.

may the tide

that is entering even now

the lip of our understanding

carry you out

beyond the face of fear

may you kiss

the wind then turn from it

certain that it

will love your back


may you

open your eyes to water

water waving forever

and may you in your innocence

sail through this to that



bendición de los barcos

(En el puerto de Santa María)

por Lucille Clifton


puede la marea

que está entrando ahora mismo

el borde de nuestra comprensión

llevar a cabo lo

más allá de la cara del miedo

puedes besar

al viento y después aparte de él

seguro, confidiado de que te

vas a querer igual.


que puedes

abrir tus ojos al agua

ondeando el agua para siempre

y que en tu inocencia vas a

navegar a esto a aquello.


Outside My Window

dedicated to Chris Wilson, head of practice at sesshin, a generous, guiding spirit and friend

The constant light rain

clears momentarily. 


A bird's three bare notes—

infinite variations

flood over me.


Red Camellia blossoms


upside down.


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