The Buried Buddha

The wooden Buddha was wrapped in canvas
and buried beneath a certain spot,
and there he dreamed abstractly
for twenty wild years while children
with red armbands cracked the cellist’s
knuckles with pliers, axed the faces
from statues, made monks kneel in dunce caps
and watch their temple whip the sky with flame,
and when they dug the Buddha up to sell,
his skin had turned to black.
Squat upon my windowsill while all
the world swirls by, he lifts one open palm
as if stopping traffic, and seems at peace.

But traffic doesn’t stop, and Buddha himself
was trafficked to me in China in 1984,
that year that felt like science fiction,
now so long ago its edges curl.
In my hotel the courtyard swelled
with cameramen and Kung Fu movie monks
who let me join them kicking Chinese hacky sack,
sneering just a little at my paltry tricks,
and then the old man stepped into the circle,
nipped the feathered disk with his big toe,
flipped it up and caught it on his forehead,
bucked his neck and nabbed the thing
between his bony shoulder blades,
his beard whipping like white clouds,
his robes folding like multifoliate time.
But when Frankie from New Jersey,
bearded, brash, black belt in karate,
asked to spar, the old monk bowed
and turned one hand down in refusal
then gestured to the youngest in the troupe,
handsome, bald, who calmly pushed away
three kicks then grasshoppered
right over Frankie’s head, curled into
a saffron ball out of which one fist
licked like lightning from a spinning cloud,
then stuck his landing on the other side
while my friend fell like a chainsawed oak.
Afterwards, Frankie’s eye was clouded,
his brow purpled with blood and rage
as the young monk kowtowed on his knees,
but I could see the other monks were pleased.

Thirty years of air breathed in then gone.
Now those monks are starting up dot-coms
or in the market selling dolphin meat quick-silvered,
deadly beneath the squeaking cellophane,
or filling in the splintered Buddha face of history
with gaudy paint and plaster.

And as for me, I used to live inside a plaster box
I rented near the double-murder park,
with grit filtering through my window screens,
and I’d walk out for 2 a.m. truck food eyeing
the addict in the alley doing his zombie shuffle,
the woman pushing her shopping cart
right down the yellow center line of the street.
On Saturdays, sad for our battered planet,
I’d hike away from the city’s grid and up
into the mountains’ folded rhino skin,
the unbuildable areas with washed-out roads.
But now I live by the Pacific
where Rastafarian palms are shaking dreads
as a spirit wind blows our smog inland.
I try to hurt the world
as little as I can: I pass like breath,
and though I know I’ll be out of air one day,
of sex and poetry, that one day the holy
engine that keeps my body pneumatic
will shudder off, today is not that day.
Today the cat on the roof is dreaming
squirrels, and orchid blossoms like children
press their faces to the glass,
and when I come home my Buddha waves
his small black hand to me, and I feel so lucky
I half believe I won’t mind blackening
beneath the earth, with beetles
in my pockets, a red worm in my ear.

From Beast in the Apartment (Sheep Meadow Press, 2014) by Tony Barnstone. Copyright © 2014 by Tony Barnstone. Used with the permission of the poet.