In This Place: Tom Montag’s spare, sweeping retrospective

3PictureBookMontagInThisPlaceA week before I visited the National Gallery’s new Andrew Wyeth retrospective, I had gotten my hands on Tom Montag’s new In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. In This Place is a retrospective of sorts, too, though by a man who is sometimes called a “minor regional poet.” Montag’s regionalism, though, is like Wyeth’s – a particular window on human conditions and feelings. I thought of Montag’s poetry often while walking through the show.

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In concentrates on Wyeth’s windows, and most of the show’s studies and paintings are of windows from only two houses, the Kuerner Farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson House in Maine. The inexhaustible subject matter Wyeth finds in two houses reminded me of the cover photograph of In This Place: the front of “the big red house” where Montag and his wife Mary have lived for upwards of forty years in their Wisconsin farming village. Like Wyeth, Montag finds unlimited inspiration from a handful of things within a fixed geographic radius. He has written over a thousand pages of observations, for instance, for his blog, The Middlewesterner, just from things he observed during his daily drives to and from work.

Five years after Wyeth’s death, the NGA show asks, have we begun to see beyond his realism and beyond his insistence on a limited, regional subject matter? Part of the narrative of Wyeth’s show is the universalism in his regionalism as well as the renewed critical appreciation for the “detachment and nonbeing” undergirding Wyeth’s realism, as Charles Brock puts it his essay “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” appearing in the show’s catalog (66). I hope In This Place generates a similar appreciation for the universalism and detachment in the corpus of Montag’s poetry.

The partly negative connotation of “regional” persists, of course, and Wyeth would have sympathized with Montag becoming known as a regional poet. In her essay “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” also published in the show’s catalog, Nancy K. Anderson quotes Wyeth as saying, “People like to say Robert Frost is a bucolic poet. Just as people say I’m a painter of rustic scenes – that has nothing to do with it!” (26). Wyeth and Frost were great artists, Anderson contends, not because they were regionalists, though they were, but because they effectively used the natural world to suggest significant feelings and thoughts that moved their audiences. Explaining the name of the Wyeth retrospective, Anderson writes that, as “a keen observer of the natural world, [Frost, like Wyeth,] used exterior prompts for interior purposes – looking out triggered looking in.” The same is true of Montag.

Exclusive interview with Tom Montag, author of the Big Book of Ben Zen

There’s a quiet beauty in these simple poems that brings me back to them again and again. Part of why the Ben Zen poems work, it seems to me, is their setting. Here is a vaguely Chinese character who speaks like a Zen master and is transplanted to the upper middle west. The references to his surroundings never cease to surprise. His Zen-like – or at least foreign – point of view seems to highlight the holy and wise in what we consider common or dull.

What we have is all we have. If you see it as common or dull, I think Ben would find that the dullness is within you, not within the world as it is. We are a collection of atoms held together by desire more than anything; when we forget this, we lose our sense of awe. Without awe, without wonder, yes, the world might be common and dull. Ben is blessed, or cursed, with curiosity. With curiosity, nothing is dull; yet conversely curiosity has an intensity that tends to tire us. In our weariness we pay less attention. The paradox is resolved by one’s commitment to return to wonder again and again and again. Yeah, sure, the world is dull both when you don’t understand it and when you think you do, or let me put it: the world is dull in ignorance and in certainty.

I’ve seen aphorisms and koans reduced to verse, but rarely with the sensitivity to the placement of each word these poems exhibit. You credit Ben with the poems’ words, but may we credit you with the words’ arrangement within the poem?

If the words seem well-placed, I did it. And if they’re poorly put, those would be Ben’s. But I tease. Actually, some of the poems are things I said in conversation, with a sudden recognition, “Oh, that’s Ben.” Some of them, yes, I had to work them pretty hard so they’d make the sweetest sounding sense they could. And a third category of these poems I don’t have a clue about – Ben gave them to me; I don’t know what they mean; you, the reader, will have to struggle with them as I do. An example of the first is: “Why should I pay extra/For what I don’t want?” An example of the second is: “You can’t come out of/The ocean, Ben says, if you’re/Holding onto rocks” which started as something considerably more complicated and less clear. An example of the third is the poem is: “Your metaphor,/Ben says,//Is more/Than what you’re//Here for.” I don’t have a clue what that means. I try to figure it out and lose myself in complication.

You seem to capture the connection between Ben Zen and the middle west when you suggest that the middle western farmer and the Buddhist monk would each “understand the other’s silences.” How did the connection occur to you?

The connection lies in the heart. Both the monk and the farmer are charmed by the world. Both plug into the world directly. Both see its essential simplicity – either it rains or it doesn’t rain; and, as my farmer father said, “I’ll be a hell of a long dry spell if it don’t.” Both the monk and the farmer are parsimonious with their words, and neither would use a word as big as parsimonious. My father might say “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” The terseness of both monk and farmer sometimes makes them appear inscrutable.

Both the monk and the farmer understand they are part of something larger than themselves. The farmer sees the seasons cycling like a four-cylinder engine, hears the tromp tromp of the generations, knows that cornstalks become rubble to nourish the earth, and that we do too – dust to dust.

Both the monk and the farmer have a sense of investment in the world, of ownership, and yet at the same time they recognize they are not in control; both know that control is an illusion. That “Nothing matters/& everything matters,” as Ben says.

Ben reminds me of how you describe yourself in “Poet in a Business Suit,” an essay in Kissing Poetry’s Sister. Ben relates well to the world around him, but he still stands out. Sort of “in the world but not of it.” Do you see parts of yourself in Ben?

The short answer is Yes. I think there is a little Ben in all of us – each time we wonder at the paradox of love’s letting go and holding on; each time we turn a rock over to examine the underside; each time we swallow our fear and behave like gods rather than animals; each time we surprise ourselves with our own true greatness.

You have defined a poet as anyone who spends his life “grappling with pattern and similarity and emblem.” Using that definition, is Ben something of a poet himself?

Ah, yes, Ben is a poet. In fact, thirty-three pieces in Big Ben are marked “Ben’s Poems.” Ben sees pattern and similarity and emblem; which means he also sees that which is random and different and invested in emptiness.

Dylan Thomas once said, “. . . a poet is a poet for such a very tiny bit of his life; for the rest, he is a human being, one of whose responsibilities is to know and to feel, as much as he can, all that is moving around and within him, so that his poetry, when he comes to write it, can be his attempt at an expression of the summit of man’s experience . . .” You, on the other hand, suggest that a poet is always a poet, whether he writes poetry or not. Despite appearances, somehow I think you and Mr. Thomas are saying the same thing.

I think being a poet is like being pregnant – either you are or you’re not. There’s no part-time vs. full-time in poetry. Being a poet is how you approach the world.

I think the difference in the way Dylan Thomas and I frame the question is this: Thomas refers “being a poet” to the act of writing the poem. I am talking about the habit of “seeing,” which is what makes poetry possible in the first place. Some people go through life without asking what it means. Poets are asking all the time; they are turning over rocks, looking behind walls, climbing up on top of things to get a better view, sniffing the most god-awful thing to see what it smells like. They are always asking themselves, “How is this like that?” These are habits of mind, an approach to the world, a way of being in the world – in other words, a life, not an act.

You see yourself as a poet. What does that do for your work and for how you look at things?

Unfortunately, being a poet, I think of everything as possible “material” for a poem or essay. It means sometimes, maybe, that I appropriate chunks of life that are not entirely mine to do with as I choose – they belong to someone else, too, wife or daughter or a woman who doesn’t want her family’s story told in public or a girl in a far village on Reindeer Lake who believes that a writer should talk to people in town if he is going to write about the town. It means I always have a notebook in my pocket. It means I am never un-self-conscious, for I am always reflecting on my experience. I evaluate it even as I’m living it. This is a curse. It means I am continually sorting and weighing, tossing and saving.

Being a poet means I am never satisfied. Excellence is almost enough, which means I am often disappointed and essentially sad.

Being a poet means I am often alone even in a roomful of people. It means I don’t want to be like other people, and couldn’t be if I wanted to.

Being a poet means that no piece of work is ever finished, that I set a poem or essay aside so I can go onto other things, but it’s not “done,” it’s only as good as it’s going to get in the time available. It means that all my works are only one work, a single piece of cloth I’m weaving, whatever the title of the book, whether it is a poem or an essay.

Being a poet means I wake up at 4:10 a.m. with my mind working already, and I have to get up and get going to keep up.

Being a poet means sometimes I am observing when I should be acting, that I am writing it when I should be living it. It means I cannot be as direct and simple as the farmer and the monk, that I cannot plug straight into the universe, that I have to process everything.

And, yes, sometimes being a poet means I’m tough to live with, though that’s a question you should take up with my patient wife if you’ve got time for the long answer on just how tough it is. She’s a wonderful woman, to put up with me these many years. She is the blessing I’ve been given, my solace in this world.

What does a typical day of a full-time poet look like?

When I’m home, I rise between 4:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. and post my daily blog entry to The Middlewesterner. I check the news at some e-news sites from Pakistan to the BBC and CNN, then see if any folks on my blog roll have posted for the day. Then I write (or re-write) until about 9:00 a.m. when I get the mail. I write again until lunch, respond to e-mails, and start working on my next day’s blog post. While I’m eating lunch, I check my blog roll again.

When I “retired,” the deal I made with my wife was that I’d take over a lot of the chores she’d been doing while I worked full-time and she worked part-time – laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning. These tasks I do in the afternoon while I try to get some more writing done, answer e-mail, and finish the next day’s blog posting.

Mary can get home from work any time between 5-7 p.m. When she does, we have supper – something freshly made that afternoon, or left-overs, either. We both like left-overs, which frees us from the tyranny of cooking every day.

If Mary arrives home early enough, we try to walk for an hour before or after we eat. Afterwards, I try to write some more, then get to bed between 9:00-9:30 p.m.

When I retired, I promised the printing company I’d worked for that I’d come back and help them out in the bindery when they were especially busy. When I go in for that, I work from 3-11 p.m. and get to bed sometime after midnight. The next morning I like to sleep til between 6:00-7:00 a.m., yet sometimes I still wake at 5:00 a.m. or so and get at it. These demons of mine are beastly.

When I am out visiting my Vagabond communities, which is one or two weeks per month, I try to rise about 4:30 a.m. and write until my first appointment, usually an interview about 9:00 a.m.; or until I go downtown for breakfast or coffee and eavesdropping. Ideally, I’ll do only two interviews or tours per day when I’m out doing my research, because I start to lose my focus when I do a third, a fourth, or once even a fifth interview in a single day. Time between interviews is spent writing up my notes and observations, creating the “Vagabond Journals” from which a book is to be fashioned five years from now.

I usually have a quick lunch by myself when I’m out in my focus communities. Often I have supper with my host/hostess in the community. If it has been an intense day, I’ll retire as early as 7:30 or 8:00 p.m. If I have a presentation to do in the evening, it will be later than that when I get to bed.

My most productive time of day is usually three or four hours starting about 5:00 a.m.

Congratulations on having eleven of the poems from The Big Book of Ben Zen included in the America Zen anthology from Bottom Dog Press coming out this fall. When you consider the eleven poems they chose, what do you think they were looking for?

I know they were looking for recent expression of the Zen spirit in America, not only from true practitioners but also from Zen’s fellow-travelers here, like me. I’m listed in the same table of contents with such luminaries as Diane Di Prima Tess Gallager, Sam Hamill, Jane Hirschfield, David Ray, and Anne Waldman. Yet most of us are lesser known, the David Budbills, not the Gary Snyders. In terms of my poems specifically, they got work that snaps with that haiku-like realization yet doesn’t take itself too seriously. They got work that recognizes the connection between the Zen monk and the middle western farmer. They took poems from my Ben Zen series and also some from my series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” Until the book is published this fall and I actually see it, I don’t know if I can say more than that. I do think I may use America Zen in workshops on how to write the short poem.

Do you have a favorite Ben Zen poem?

Oh, help me! Do you have a favorite child?

I point to this poem as representative of what Ben, and The Big Book of Ben Zen is about:

You can’t always go
To the cave of a thousand Buddhas,
Ben says, and you can never
Come back the same.

These poems point to other facets of the endeavor:

I push the mountain,
Ben says, and push

The mountain and
Still the mountain

Pushes back.


You are welcome,
The holy man said,
To all the wood I have.

I have no fish either.


The more I know
The more I know

I know nothing.


How like a poet, to die
Trying to embrace the moon.

How does Ben fit in with your other poetry, and with your work as a whole?

In one sense, Ben Zen is one voice among several voices in my work – I have written series of poems in the voices of a Civil War soldier, an Iowa farmer, and a woman widowed on the tall grass prairie about 1880. In that sense, then, Ben is just another voice.

I turned toward the short, zen-like expression earlier as well – in the collections This Gathering Season and Between Zen and Midwestern, and Ben’s manner of expression informs my current series, “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.”

In another sense, however, the Ben Zen poems are a leap. They are more playful than I have been. They seem sometimes more like aphorisms than poems, and that’s a legitimate charge against some of them. In the other voices, I knew who was speaking, that is, I had a clear picture of the persona pretty much at the outset. With Ben, the portrait was continually being painted and re-painted; each new piece added another detail and augmented my understanding of the fellow.

I think Ben Zen is of a piece with my other work, but it shows a different facet, the way light changes when you turn the diamond.

As I say, Ben’s mode of expression informs my “Plain Poems” series; and – strange as it may seem – it informs my prose work as well. Now in my essays I am sometimes given to summing up that sounds not unlike Ben. It may be that Ben has taught me now important every word is, even in prose. I like to think I’ve been a good student.

What are you doing now, and what are your thoughts about your future work?

The poetry I am working on is a series called “Plain Poems: A Fairwater Daybook.” For five years I kept a journal of my drive to work each day. The challenge was to write one good sentence each day. I had no plans for it when I started it. Yet after I finished 2001’s entries, I challenged myself to go back and find the poems in those entries, one per day. Did I find poems? Oh, yeah. At this point, I’ve drafted poems for the first half of the year. As I have time, I’m continuing to work on the second half. What do these poems share with Ben Zen? They aren’t zen-nish poems, particularly, but they are informed by knowing what Ben taught me. How could it be otherwise.

My other project is prose, “Vagabond in the Middle,” an attempt to understand what makes us middle western. It grew out of my memoir of growing up on an Iowa farm, Curlew: Home. The strength and resilience of those people I knew at Curlew, was that special to them, or did it belong to others in the middle west? What are we made of? And how would I find out? I have selected twelve focus communities, one in each of the middle western states; I’m going to get to know these communities, the people in them, their history, the current conditions and future prospects. I know it sounds like sociology, but in reality it is almost like poetry when these people speak. So far I have interviewed 160 people, I’ve visited all of the towns once, many of them twice. I’m about a year and a half into the five years I’ll spend getting to know these places. I’ve got about 150,000 words of journal entry, all those interviews, and a pretty good sense that the project will succeed.

What does this have to do with Ben Zen? Certainly I am finding beauty in the most ordinary places. The commitment to watch the ordinary for these flashes – perhaps, again, that’s something I learned from Ben. The other thing is that I cannot go into a community with expectations. I must be open to what comes to me, to whatever presents itself, whether I think it’s what I’m looking for, or not. As soon as you set expectations, you close yourself to all sorts of wonderful surprises. My biggest challenge in the project is staying out of my own way, and to some degree Ben has taught me how to do that.

Have you had any Ben sightings since your last published Ben poem?

Ben has gone off. He hasn’t been seen since I put the Big Book together. That’s typical for me, I guess. Once the Civil War poems, my farmer poems, and the “Married to Prairie” poems were published in Middle Ground, those voices stopped speaking through me too.


He looked at the old house, then turned and said, “We’ll be married before it needs paint again.”

She squeezed the bristles under the spigot, and her hands ached with white water. Dark hair stuck out from the front of her paper cap; she pushed a tuft behind an ear with the moist back of her hand. A general shadow from the front cedars contorted itself across the cellar doors. She looked for her sweatshirt.

“What else you got planned,” she said, without curiosity or even inflection. She kept his calendar, after all. It worked like this: every January Brad would choose between the funeral home calendar and the real estate agent one, and he’d pin the winner on the living room wall with a thumb tack. He kept the days blank, and Linen would move the months for him when she was by herself. Still, the old calendar usually was showing September or October when he put up the new one. (After dating Brad a few years, Linen quietly accepted his view that Thanksgiving and Christmas sort of took care of themselves.)

Brad’s path was slow and narrow and cleared of all social obligation. He was a maintenance man, and his life was a hard rhythm against a tuneless cycle of repairs at work and home. Linen lived by this rhythm because she had none of her own. Her mind would drift to accompanying his rhythm with new instruments and music she might find within herself to play. She knew their relationship could improve, but she knew also that improvements had sharp edges for Brad and took him some getting used to. She knew he would file down an improvement in his mind until the idea became as dull as any maintenance item — until he could get his hand around the idea as comfortably as he could a paint brush.

She glanced up at him now. She was pushing her hair again, this time with dry hands rubbing against the thickening paint in her hair. What does he see when he sees me? she wondered.

“What?” He met her eyes. “You put the tops on the cans out front, right?”

She walked around front. The high, white shine was off of the house, and the low autumn sun threw vague shades of orange and pink against the boards, suggesting an uneven coat. Linen turned and studied the sun as a moviegoer might look back at a malfunctioning projector. She looked at the house again, this time longer than she had ever looked into a man’s eyes. Dusk was coming, and the boards were becoming as indistinguishable as the years.

[In response to “A Line Waiting for its Story,” posted on December 27, 2004 at The Middlewesterner.]

Posted December 2004


The poet among us

Click here to read my interview with Tom about his calling as a poet and about his book, The Big Book of Ben Zen.

The cover is nice, but I prefer to judge Tom Montag’s The Big Book of Ben Zen by its paper. The book is mostly paper, and the words seem comfortable with that. They aren’t saddled with the entire book’s weight. They are free to range and return home. I am moved to say:

Some of the book is ink, but
Most of the book is paper.

But Ben is up ahead of me:

Not all of the notes,
Just the right ones
And the silence.

Ben Zen’s silence, and the space that suggests silence, remind one of Zen poetry. As Lucien Stryk says in the preface to Zen Poems of China and Japan, his joint translation with Takashi Ikemoto, silence carries its weight in a Zen poem:

[Zen painting’s] brush strokes, however few, serve to make the mind aware of the space, suggested not so much by the absence of objects but by the manner in which the objects are absorbed. And in poetry perhaps the most important things are to be found in the silence following the words, for it is then that the reader or listener becomes conscious of the calm within.

Ben isn’t trying to be anything, mind you, especially Zen. His bowling buddies gave him the “Zen” appellation anyway; maybe his Zen comes out most on the lanes. Ben’s poems likewise are most Zen-like where they are least like Zen poems – in their form. At this point, I owe the reader a very brief introduction to, or refresher in, Zen poetry.

Zen poetry can be said to fall into two categories: an older group of poetry which elucidates Indian Buddhist scriptures, and a body of poetry peculiar to Zen and more familiar to the West. Ikemoto describes a poem in this latter category as a metrical commentary on a koan, which is a question posed by a Zen master to his disciple to help him awaken to his real self, also described as his original self.

Older Zen poetry in this latter category generally took the strict forms of classical Chinese verse or of Japanese waka or haiku, each of which, like the West’s sonnet, for instance, has certain more obvious and less obvious conventions. But Zen poetry can take any form, because, as Ikemoto points out, “verse form has nothing to do with Zen poetry.”

Good Zen poetry has a certain dynamism unrelated to the poem’s form. Using Western literary terms, I may look at Zen dynamism as a step beyond irony, the way a farce is a step beyond a comedy. Unlike irony, dynamism may make no sense at all, since Zen dynamism is, as Ikemoto describes it, a “life-activity beyond all that is relative, life/death, good/bad, rich/poor, etc.” A famous Zen poem, for instance, ends with the line, “Today the very ice shoots flame.”

[book cover]I think The Big Book of Ben Zen, as well as the earlier collections of Ben Zen poems from whichThe Big Book is largely drawn, is what happened when poet Tom Montag planted some Zen seeds in his native Middle Western soil. Montag doesn’t achieve Zen dynamism in many of his poems, but he doesn’t set out to. He is looking for wisdom and truth, poetically and forcefully expressed. His poems inherit Zen poetry’s directness and concision, as well as its fresh and sometimes parable-like discoveries of truth and life in the world’s unlikeliest places – Blake’s “world in a grain of sand.”

As I suggested earlier, Ben Zen may be said to be most Zen-like where Zen poetry generally is least so – in the poems’ form. Consider the sensitive arrangement of the words in “Ben’s Poems – 7”:

Telephone wires
Sing in wind.

Corn listens,
Hums along.

Here to me is the kernel of rural America, cleanly picked out of a seed bag of potential stimuli. The two stanzas set out and resolve a tension between the horizontal and the vertical in a landscape familiar to even an urbanite from her drives in the country. The extra line of space between the stanzas may suggest the distance between the telephone poles, and somehow the bigger space makes the wires more taught and ready to sing. The space also seems to suggest the distance between the wires and the corn, between the stimulus and the response, between close observation and poetic reflection.

The form, especially the space, in “Ben’s Poems – 7” above can be said to serve a Zen-like end. Stryk’s introduction again:

In Zen poetry the phenomenal world is never treated as mere setting for human actions; the drama is there, in nature, of which the human is an active part…

Or, as William Carlos Williams, another non-Buddhist American poet who approaches the Zen spirit, has it, “so much depends / upon // a red wheel / barrow…”

There is something like Stryk’s drama in the following poem’s concise rise of action, climax, and denouement:

More and more

I am here

Less and less.

Ben exists, sandwiched somewhere between the thin membranes of “more and more” and “less and less.” The poem waxes and wanes, and Ben is washed up and left by the resulting tide. Could this be the discovery of the formless self, hidden long ago in a sea of comparisons?

Even where Ben Zen is aphoristic, form gives freshness to the thought:

The more I know
The more I know

I know nothing.

For Ben, an aphorism is like nature itself — common as a rock, but as full of life as what may lie under the rock. Just rearrange things, and a fresh perspective may lead to satori (enlightenment). Or, if it does not, at least you can laugh at the poet. Ben laughs, too.

Ben’s words sometimes sound like the Middle Western farmer’s homespun wisdom. Montag points out that Ben might be a Buddhist monk, and he believes that the monk and the Middle Western farmer “each would understand the other’s silences.” In ancient China, one of the four “recluses” esteemed by Zennists was the farmer. Zen artists long ago used the farmer as a vehicle to achieve sabi, a feeling of isolation suggesting detachment. Montag, who grew up on a farm, finds the world itself as well as a suitable mood in the farmer’s life. Montag celebrates the farmer in his essay, “Who is Poetry For?” from Kissing Poetry’s Sister:

Poetry is for this farmer who speaks only what he has to, who knows the weight of words and how to measure them.

For Ben, part of the farmer’s measurement is made in the poem’s form. Consider:


No more than
The horse can circle

No more than
The ox can plow.

The form suggests a definition of “desire,” and the definitional aspect of the poem survives and colors the farmer’s aphorism.

Sometimes the poem’s form simply dissolves the syntax into seeming nonsense. Here’s the last of five stanzas in a Ben poem:

Are or as
Empty as.

Does the stanza stand alone? It follows this stanza: “The day as / Full as you”. But this preceding stanza barely prevents the poem — and the reader’s life, too, perhaps — empty or full — from flying apart. The final stanza asks us to examine each word — each phoneme, maybe. The dissolution of syntax, along with the breakup of the mold our syntax forces our thoughts into, would perhaps meet with a Zen master’s approval.

I think writer and Zen student Natalie Goldberg would approve. She writes:

We think in sentences, and the way we think is the way we see. If we think in the structure subject/verb/direct-object, then that is how we form our world. By cracking open that syntax, we release energy and are able to see the world afresh and from a new angle. . . . Actually, by breaking open syntax, you often get closer to the truth of what you need to say.

(Writing Down the Bones, pp. 62-63.) So what is Ben saying? Or perhaps a better question: where does “Are or as / Empty as” take you?

Ben is a mystery, even perhaps to the farmer. He is the Poet, a figure who is at once misunderstood by and engaged with the community around him in Montag’s more autobiographical prose (e.g., Curlew: Home and Kissing Poetry’s Sister). Like Montag, who interviews and enjoys the same people he wishes to reach with poetry, Ben is equally at home by himself or with his adopted community. Ben is like Basho’s spiritual forefather Kamo-no-Chomei, a 13th-Century Japanese poet who, while living in the mountains, never lost sight of his interdependence with the people in the nearby town. “Trivial things spoken along the way enliven the faith of my awakened heart,” Chomei wrote.

Montag’s poetry reflects a deep-seated concern for his fellow man as well as a quiet and self-effacing humor of the sort a sensitive Western ear may find in Eastern poetry. Is the humor (or the quiet, or the compassion, for that matter) Zen or Middle Western? It is both, and neither: it is Ben. As Ben says towards the end:

What I’ve
Is Ben.

Because there is an end of sorts, or at least a parting. Like Basho before him, Ben gives us several poems that vie for the title jisei, the poem written from the perspective of the poet’s imminent death. My own choice:

Ben’s request –

Please take care
The unicorn.

I take it back — there’s your Zen dynamism.

Tom Montag’s Morning Drive Journal

[For an explanation of “Morning Drive Journal,” click here.]

December 23, 1998

Weather and love are always and only local. Oh the storm may blow in from the mountains or down from Canada, but it means something to us only when it’s here. Like love, there’s a lot of weather we don’t notice, that we take for granted. It is fiery passion that explodes in us, the throb of excitement, the sear. That, we think, is love. The tornado is weather, but so is the pale blue day. A slight breeze in the leaves, just a faint rustle of the leaves, so quiet you’d hardly notice. A thousand days of quiet commitment is love, as much as the hard-charging stallion of passion. I recognize both and I have reconciled them within myself – love the passion, love the quiet commitment; love the winter storm blowing, love the quiet day.

It must be a little warmer this morning. Thermometer in the garage says it is about 10 degrees above zero.

The sun at its southernmost point rises behind the house next to the old school; this is from the vantage point of the driver’s seat of the pick-up at the stop sign, corner of Washington and Main, Fairwater, December 23, 1998, 7:35 a.m.

I taste myself in the air today. And though I do not see it, I taste the hawk as well.

The sky is pale blue. There is a faint pink glow of haze again at all the world’s edges, soft, delicate as a girl’s desire, blushing shyly. The blue of her eyes. We just keep rolling into morning, seduced.

Snow banks have drifted into the ditch on the west side of Highway E. Now you cannot deny it is winter. The snow banks look like the blue heart of winter. They look like the cold shoulder of God. They look like the wall upon which all hope is dashed. Yet I have come too far to give up now.

May 13, 1998

Another fine day, after a little rain last night. The mourning dove flies from our driveway. The wind ruffles the surface of the pond. Blue sky. Here we go.

Great piles of stone have been dumped in the canning factory’s field north of town. Perhaps they will put stone along the paths of the tires of their irrigation unit?

The field of peas is already thick green. There is a hint of corn in another field. Blossoms are off the trees in the orchard of the farmstead north of Carter Road. The old horse is out to the far end of his pasture this morning. This is not usual. What is it a portent of?

The fields south of Five Corners are still wet, still untilled. The weeds overtake them.

[Copyright © 1998-2007 Tom Montag. Used by permission.

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