Step - sweep - tap,
the monk advances.
His garnet robe
grazes the floor.
As still as the Himalayas
that rise above his gompa
he stood while we viewed
ancient tonka paintings.
Why now this curious dance?
I let the protective silk veil settle
back over the delicate pigments
and turn to watch the ritual
that now engages him.
from devotional oil lamps,
motes of dust billow from his toes
like the stylized oyster clouds
above the painted Buddhas.
Before his foot,
a large moth flees
buttery and translucent
in the flickering light.
Advance matches retreat until,
the moth senses the threshold
of the courtyard
flusters his wings, holds fast.
Toes curl in thought,
the veins of his temple
thrum beneath a crescent scar,
the monk reaches for an offering bowl,
redistributes the water
among the rest
and scoops the moth inside.
Above a row of sandals
and hiking boots
the monk uncups his palm
from the brass bowl.
The moth, denied a nest
of precious kangyur scrolls,
samples the wisdom of the wind.
1) What first sparked this poem?
My friend worked in Delhi India for six years, as director of the Fulbright program. She repeatedly invited me to visit her, but due to work constraints I could only go in monsoon months, which she had warned against, being too hot. Finally, in her last year, I went anyway, and she arranged for us to travel to Himachal Pradesh, where the Himalayas determine the Chinese border. Because of the political sensitivity of the area, we had to obtain a special restrictive innerline permit for the trip. Unlike so much of India, the land is underpopulated, vast and mountainous, and the culture is Tibetan Buddhist, not Hindu. I was intoxicated with the exotic culture, and sparse beauty of the land. Every fall hard-scrabble switch back roads (met twice by the edge of glaciers) wash out and every spring when the snow recedes, teams of people rebuild them by breaking rocks with mallets and basket-carting the gravel. The mountain side temple at Key is approached by one of these switch-back trails and the last ten minutes of ascent are by footpaths.
I was privileged to experience the ancient art, exotic beauty and religious fervor of several Buddhist Temples and monasteries. I intended to take excerpts from the diary I kept of this trip with the idea of distilling the experiences into poems.
2) Tell us about this poem's life.
The pilgrimage to Key was a day trip off the main circuit road of Himachal Pradesh. I wanted to include everything, the vast panorama of the roof courtyard offering views of alien rock formations, ice capped mountains in July, the intense colors and intimate detail of the religious paintings, the tabby cat with two silver earrings, the huge prayer wheel requiring full body thrust of both arms to set into motion. We were invited to have a lunch hosted by the monks, rich brown molasses bread with sharp flakey yak cheese. (and the ubiquitous dreaded rancid yak-butter tea!) I began this poem about Key with too many details, needed to hone my focus, and kept coming back to the monk and the moth. They seemed to be the perfect vehicle to illustrate what kept inspiring me throughout the trip - that amidst cultural and spiritual diversity, the human spirit is called on to solve the same problems over and over, and that we solve them best by accepting that we are a part of a bigger whole.
3) How long did it take to go from inspiration to published?
I wrote this and three other poems about my experience in India when I arrived home. Through my friend I met several academics, one a professor of English Literature in Chandigarh. He edits a literary magazine called Remarkings and showed me the most recent issue which featured a critical overview of Doris Lessing, who happens to be one of my favorite authors! Learning that I wrote poetry, he invited me to submit to his magazine for publication. "Not many Indians get to travel into Himachal Pradesh! Your perspective on your experiences could be of interest." Due to my delay in getting a short bio together, it was actually not until about a year and half later that Key got published, along with two other poems.
4) Are you satisfied with this poem?
Mostly. Some small visual connections, such as likening the dust stirred by the monk's feet to the stylized clouds in Buddhist paintings are the kind of images I enjoy playing with.
5) What, in particular, do you, the poet, like about this poem and why?
The monk's dance, my initial interpretation of it and subsequent reevaluation after observation, describes a type of experience I kept having over and over. I kept seeing what seemed incomprehensible or mystical, only to discover a more universal meaning and experience, often humble, humorous or both. The ironic contrast of the monastery as a repository of ancient wisdom of the kangur scrolls from the 10th century and the monk's simple solution (to redistribute water in the brass offering bowls so he would have to tool to scoop up the moth) was a nice balance. Also to my western mind, disturbing the offering bowls on an altar seemed a bit scandalous, however practical!
For 18 years Gemma Mathewson was director and teacher at an Early Childhood program called Nursery On Notch Hill. Recently she has coordinated special projects for I-Park, a 450 acre multidiscipline artist retreat in East Hampton, CT and illustrated a German fantasy novel, Sargon's Schatz. Her enthusiasms include open mic poetry, hiking, and world music. Her work has been published in USA and India, and used in collaboration with "Plays and Poetry" by the East Haddam Players and in contemporary compostition with Nihan Yessil. She is a lifetime insomniac and omnivorous reader. More of her poetry can be found at her blog, The Museum of Rain.