Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

Distinguished Entries 2002

John Alspaugh

Deadspeak - Cloud of Unknowing - Whirling Dervish

"The living dream but the dead are awake."
          Robinson Jeffers, "In the Hill at New Grange"



The lacquered scales of the diamondback -

It's skin stretched out on the adobe hearth.

It's little maraca tail now a keepsake in a coinwell.

On the dresser, the bleached fanged
Skull - a pronged white fist.
It, too, severed from the long arm of its body,
Shorn by a garden spade,
Its flesh eaten away by insects -
More fossil now than skeleton
Reminding me that death
Cannot be killed.


In a room without doors
In a room without windows
The sun might be rising
Or the moon could be high.

Doors let us pass into other rooms.
Windows allow the light in.

In death, these portals
Are nailed shut.
Only our spirits
Are able to leak through
The cracks between worlds.


Tall wind-riffled palms, scattering morning sunlight.
A small yellow bird, drinking, trills from the pond edge -
Its black throat alternately warbling with song, pulsing
With water.

Bright, mossy braids spill over the fountain
While under the surface -
A white koi hovers
In green translucence.

10 a.m. Already, over the hot clay tile
Two dragonflies dart in unison, one
A black shadow.

A dead beetle jiggled and swarmed by ants -
The round black eyes eaten into hollows

And only the pool stares back.


The material world
Must pass into another.

This is all we can pretend to see
Of the future.

The gardenia blossom, foxed and wilted -
Its essence rising up from the garbage pail,
Seeks a mind to behold it.


The world speaks to us
And what we hear are those vibrations
We are attuned to. Some of us are more sensitive,
Capable of hearing the very lonely, or even the dead,
Who have been known to hold onto horizons like clouds
Performing tricks of magic with doorbells, telephones,
Refrigerators, and such.

So perhaps it is from loneliness that
The dead do reside apart from yet
Alongside the living, sometimes finding
A fissure, a crack, a seam, a way back in
To visit or assist us
By playing their quantum tricks.


My brother, a poet, claims that only I
Can hear his voice.
He told me this while I was standing
Under windchimes barely tinkling
Near a shadowed north wall of shivering ivy.
I distinctly heard his voice.

"But you're dead," I said.

He responded with silence....

So I wrote this.

I had no choice.

"The term satori ... means the fundamental experience of being suddenly and violently seized upon by the truth."
                                                  Eugen Herrigel, The Method of Zen

T H E   C L O U D   O F   U N K N O W I N G

The two-inch tall netsuke
Of carved wood stands on its own -
A Zen Buddhist monk holding a staff,
The woodgrain enveloping him in its cloak.

For years, he has stood, balanced on a precipitous bridge
In the threshold of a wall mirror,
Looking out upon a world
Reflected in duplicate behind him -
The rustic wood-framed mirror
Full of termite holes and wormed grooves.

Around him, fine lead-coloured beads
Have fallen out of myriad holes
In the mirror's frame
And now lay peppered on the bridge about his feet
And on the far plateau
Of the table top below.

Perhaps the dried eggs or droppings of termites,
They have lain dormant, scattered.
But gnawing larvae lodged inside the mirror's frame,
Have chambered each a twisted channel,
Their existence I ascertain
By raising up the holy man.

For the first time in years
I heft him in my hand.

Memory tells me he feels
Considerably lighter, then I see
The fresh cavity in his base -
A new tunnel through the uncarved soles of his feet
Where a horrible, glistening, maggot-like thing
Slithers by and wriggles deep.

With a sewing needle I probe,
Then shake the netsuke like a saltshaker,
Tapping it against my palm
Until not one, but three termite larvae
Tumble out.

These writhing bits of rice -
Amber-headed with tiny caterpillar legs -
Sprawl, helpless outside the wooden womb,
But I'm threatened by their being,
So I mash them one by one
Between forefinger and thumb
Then once again spy into the tiny burrow,
Appalled to glimpse more pale wormy
Bellies writhing inside.

After tapping, striking, clapping, knocking
The monk against the solid wood table
I eventually dislodge a dozen such creatures
That were lurking, devouring him
Like a cancer.

Yet all this time, he has maintained
His austere carved countenance,
Sculpted hollow
From the inside out,
The hands that made
The hands that made him
Are still at work.

"O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?"
          William Butler Yeats, "Among School Children"

W H I R L I N G   D E R V I S H


In this warming season, on the plains
At night, the armless torsos of tornados
Rear up, and the black ceiling
Of sky drains out - the belly-
Dancing funnels whirl,
Spun by the souls of those about to die,
Of those who do not yet know
Their time has come to wave goodbye
But they don't know how,
Or why.


Everywhere I turn, the world turns with me -

A garden of black shadows wavers, adorns

The bright white wall at sundown.

Among the calla lilies -
A dark aberrant flower:

The cobra
Poised on its
Threatening to strike....

But the stiller I stand the more I sway.


Dust devil across the desert, the late sun and
Dancing wind weave a giant
Cobra of sand.

I walk toward it, but it backs away
Like a frightened horse
Keeping its distance until I get too close

And it dissipates.

The sun goes down.

The world turns into night.


Twirled lariats of DNA, I see the universe, too, is spun.

A spiral stairway to ascend, a chambered nautilus to shed.

Everywhere I turn, it turns, so I turn
And turn again, until dizziness itself eludes me -
Nebulous, as large as it is small, flung outward from my making

Like electrons and comets.