Black Marsh Eclogue

Sam Hamill

Although it is midsummer, the great blue heron
holds darkest winter in his hunched shoulders,
those blue-turning-gray clouds
rising over him like a storm from the Pacific.

He stands in the black marsh
more monument than bird, a wizened prophet
returned from a vanished mythology.
He watches the hearts of things

and does not move or speak. But when
at last he flies, his great wings
cover the darkening sky, and slowly,
as though praying, he lifts, almost motionless,

as he pushes the world away.

More by Sam Hamill

The Orchid Flower

Just as I wonder 
whether it's going to die, 
the orchid blossoms 

and I can't explain why it 
moves my heart, why such pleasure 

comes from one small bud 
on a long spindly stem, one 
blood red gold flower 

opening at mid-summer, 
tiny, perfect in its hour. 

Even to a white-
haired craggy poet, it's 
purely erotic, 

pistil and stamen, pollen, 
dew of the world, a spoonful 

of earth, and water. 
Erotic because there's death 
at the heart of birth, 

drama in those old sunrise 
prisms in wet cedar boughs, 

deepest mystery 
in washing evening dishes 
or teasing my wife, 

who grows, yes, more beautiful 
because one of us will die.

True Peace

Half broken on that smoky night,
hunched over sake in a serviceman's dive
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa,
nearly fifty years ago,

I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks
who stopped the traffic on a downtown
thoroughfare
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up
the lotus posture in the middle of the street.
And they baptized him there with gas
and kerosene, and he struck a match
and burst into flame.

That was June, nineteen-sixty-three,
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine.

The master did not move, did not squirm,
he did not scream
in pain as his body was consumed.

Neither child nor yet a man,
I wondered to my Okinawan friend,
what can it possibly mean
to make such a sacrifice, to give one's life
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction.
How can any man endure such pain
and never cry and never blink.

And my friend said simply, "Thich Quang Dúc
had achieved true peace."

And I knew that night true peace
for me would never come.
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief.

Half a century later, I think
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc,
revered as a bodhisattva now—his lifetime
building temples, teaching peace,
and of his death and the statement that it made.

Like Shelley's, his heart refused to burn,
even when they burned his ashes once again
in the crematorium—his generous heart
turned magically to stone.

What is true peace, I cannot know.
A hundred wars have come and gone
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones.
Mine's the heart that burns
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul.

Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I've learned?

After Morning Rain

A few small sails, barely moving,
dot Fidalgo Bay. As the sun burns away
the last pale clouds, a confluence
of robins descends to explore
my neighbor’s garden—
brown grass, muddy beds and the last
fading roses of the year.

It is September, the end of summer.
My backyard maples turning orange
and red and gold. From my high window,
the great mountain looks
painted on the horizon line,
small mountains at its feet, then
headlands and the Salish Sea below.

I can read no more today
about the agonies of this world,
its desperate refugees, the men
of arms and gold whose death tolls
are as numberless as the stars.
I’ve grown weary, impatient,
as I’ve grown old.

After this morning’s rain, I dream
only of a woman’s gentle laughter,
her fingers on my arm as we sip wine
in the evening, telling tales,
lighting the heart’s small fires
that will get us through the rains
of autumn and dark winter.

Alone at my window, I watch
a silent world and find it
welcome, my own silence welcome.
Longing has its own quiet place
in the human heart, but love
is sometimes rapturous, noisy,
almost uncivilized, and knows
no boundaries, no borders.

And what am I but its solitary
pilgrim—lost, found, lost again—
on the long journey whose only end
is silence before the burning
of my body, one last moment
of flame, a whiff of smoke
washed clean
and gone with the rain.