Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Chilly Buddha Hall: Remembering Philip Whalen

By Richard Wirick

I needed a break from the symbolic logic I was studying as a freshman. It reduced all discourse to truth tables, little grids whose premises yielded conclusions whose validity depended on the initial premises’ truth functions. Berkeley was godawful enough of a place to be in those days, shocked into apathy after the Kent and Jackson State shootings. It was like getting to town after the circus had left. The logic course, a mine-sweeper for the philosophy major, made the curriculum feel monochromatic, trade-schoolish, vocational. I felt like I was studying diesel mechanics or dental hygiene.

And the prof didn’t like me. He was the great logician Ernest A_____. My papers veered off into metaphysical implications of logical properties, an area—though I didn’t know it yet—called philosophical logic, which happened to be his specialty, and which of course he wouldn’t tell me about until I stopped getting D’s on his quizzes and learned the fundamentals. When I sat across from him and watched him touch the cover of my blue books, I thought of the Holden Caulfield line where the headmaster “[T]urned my paper around and around in his hands like it was some kind of turd or something.”

So I need a break from the quantitative. I needed a Blakean interlude, a genuine surface explosion from the imaginative sun. Of course, Bill himself had had the same revulsion at geometry, homeomorphs and symmetries and undergirdings, rational superstructures and their champions: “The atoms of Democritus/And Newton’s Particles of Light/Are sands upon the Red Sea shore/Where Israel’s Tents do Shine so Bright.” True dat. I needed to grab Dionysus by the horns and get down in the suck.

My roommate had gotten us tickets to a reading at the College of Marin: Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, clearly a supergroup of Beat show musicians. The campus had a small chapel in a pine grove off Highway 101, deep in the foothills of Mount Tamalpais. The air in the sanctuary was damp and salty for a place so far inland; it reminded me of the “chilly Buddha halls” and Yukon River roadhouses Snyder had celebrated in his newly released Regarding Wave. Though I’d carried the brick-like, unwieldy On Bear’s Head around in my backpack, Whalen’s was the work I knew least. And there he was in front of me, staring at some point in the chapel’s rear where the whale-ribbed nave rose up and left dangling above us all kinds of strange detritus: white paper lanterns and bones of mountain rams, dried rattling kelp, glass balls from Asian fishing nets that cornered the knotted hemp and kept it afloat.

The poets, chummy-seeming and circled around a little altar of incense, nevertheless seemed destined by the hosts—the old Panjandrum Press—to go in the order of their fame. Ginsberg started with his majestic, wintry “Open Window On Chicago,” his voice an incessant, hypnotic Shaman’s drum, and finished with “Please Master,” his sado-masochistic plea to his guru to strip off his blue sweat pants and blow him and finger his ass. We were rolling. Our sinuses cleared. Little hash pipes blinked on and off like fireflies.

Snyder went next. He read his merchant marine poems, all seemingly set on the deck of the freighter he took to his Kyoto sabbatical, “digging the earth as playful, cool, and infinitely blank.” His voice was the opposite of Ginsberg’s—circumscribed and delicate, as modest and composed as his tidy, calligraphic handwriting.

Whalen went last, bald and great-bellied, blazing in his crinkled robes and maize and scarlet sashes. We waited. He swung the mike boom toward his head, spectacled and freckled, wreathed with smoke. We waited, waited. His stare still held on the chapel’s rear. Absolutely nothing came out of him. Pure silence.

Then he uttered a few clear, pure syllables, and suddenly, all around us, people joined the chant he had begun. It was a sutra, a Buddhist prayer, its cadences and rhythmic hum as loud and deep and even as a cloud of bees around our heads. And there were only a few of us who weren’t chanting: the sutra was the calling card here, the ticket to the party. But it struck me as what we called in Christian churches a welcome hymn, or “welcome table”—secret and exclusive in its diction but purely selfless, a gesture of entreaty and inclusion.

He had been so sonorous in his chanting, but the verse he recited was even more stunning: strange and funny and fresh and playful. For someone so rejecting of maya, the world of illusion, he wrote almost entirely about the familiar, the stable, the domestic. It was a poetry of whatever came into his field of vision, of Things Presenting Themselves, quotidian-lists as flat and glibly descriptive as anything one found in the overly worldly O’Hara or Koch or Jimmy Schuyler.

Listening to him recite—all clearly from memory—was to hear a holy voice as uncompromising in its spirituality as that of Dante or Pierre Emmanuel. But unlike these fellow “religious” poets, Whalen steered away from descriptions of systems, explanations of beatific states or journeys. He was not just a Buddhist but a Zen Buddhist. Which meant wisdom was reached by surprise, that literal truth and recitation of facts alone transcended the spiritual clottedness of facticity. Repetition of minutiae was the cutting tool, the knife that sliced through those same facts lying fallow and undescribed. Such is one of the paradoxes of Zen. Such is the ethical touchstone of Whalen’s prosody.

I knew Whalen was a slow-working, exacting craftsman: none of the Ginsbergian “first thought is best thought,” spontaneous composition for him. Listening to him reminded me of an earlier formalist (Yeats); more properly, it brought back all formalists’ recipe for veiling verse’s hard labor behind a cultivated effortlessness, something Auden captured later in a poem title: “The truest poetry is the most feigning.” And the way Whalen trilled his hard consonants made me think of Yeats on the old, scratched Caedmon recording; like the Irishman’s, the Zen poet’s voice cultivated a weariness, as if to stress how only hard work and hard forms can push the ephemeral toward eternity:

I praise those extra Chinamen
Who left me a few words,
Usually a pointless joke or a silly question
A line of poetry drunkenly scrawled on the margin of a quick
splashed picture—bug, leaf
caricature of Teacher
on paper held together now by little more than ink
& their own strength brushed momentarily over it

Their world & several others since
Gone to hell in a handbasket, they knew it—
Cheered as it whizzed by—
& conked out among the busted spring rain cherryblossom winejars
Happy to have saved us all.
[“Hymnus Ad Patrem Sinesis”]

The poet delivered his lines like a pugnacious football captain. He was never mythological or symbolic. The voice coming through the incense and flower scent was the straight stuff. But its effects were echoing, mysterious, hallucinatory; as back-lit and off kilter as the “plainest” image in a Magritte painting. Whalen is nothing if not a nature poet, but again, his pastoral is one of falleness, the eye turning back on itself as the describing spirit, the age-old force of human continuity and permanence.

His intonations said a lot about the world that night, all of it simultaneously. He saw whatever drifted by as goofy and puzzling and worthy of our affection, of our scrupulous, passionate observation. But what his poems “said” is that within all that burns something deeply separate—our own yearning, the mind’s longing for release from what it can only see. The animate and inanimate illuminate each other, but for all its radiance the inanimate glides away; “floating and gliding,” his old roommate Snyder once said, “sliding by.” The animate stays. The longing goes on.

Richard Wirick is the author of the novel One Hundred Siberian Postcards (Telegram Books). He practices law in Los Angeles.