DIRTY LAUNDRY (100 Days in a Zen Monastery) Robert Wilson & Miriam Sagan New World Library

This book, a joint diary written by husband and wife while he spent 100 days in a Zen monastery, constantly left me asking, “What’s the point?” What seems like a potentially rich scenario — examining how spiritual experiences influence one’s relationships — quickly becomes a flat recitation of gripes. The point seems to be that even monks have emotional problems, that even monasteries are full of political infighting. In fact, spiritual experience seems almost absent — most of the entries focus on the mundane and the worldly. It may have been that the spiritual experience was such an ingrained part of the day that it was only the worldly which stood out. Or it may have been, as the diaries read, that the spiritual experience was mostly absent from day to day life.
Two things might have helped the situation. One would have been a simple glossary of Zen terms. Most of the religious activities are referred to by their Zen names, and never explained. So we never get much sense of what the monks are doing, are instead left to decipher entries such as “Quick vacuuming in Roshi’s room for soji. Sesshin-style oryoki breakfast in the zendo” and “Roshi left zazen during second period, so I’m still doshi at service.”
The second, more fundamental problem is the briefness of most of the entries. For the most part, Winson and Sagan skim over the events of the day, a style much better at capturing the worldly moments than any moments of enlightenment. Perhaps the books is intended as a sort of koan itself, a riddle who’s meaning needs to be deciphered through deep contemplation. Or maybe it really says nothing more than monks are human too.

G. Murray Thomas

HENNAMAN
By Derrick I. M. Gilbert
Riverhead Books

I have long defended performance poetry, often in the context of slams, but in general as well. I have especially claimed that the best of it works just as well on the page as the stage. I point to poets such as Jeffrey McDaniel, Ellyn Maybe, S.A. Griffin, and Patricia Smith, daring the critics to read their works in print, and then tell me they aren’t great poets. However, I still have to concede that there are poets whose work only succeeds in one format, be it print or performance. Derrick Gilbert (aka D Knowledge) is, unfortunately, such a poet. I have seen Gilbert enthrall an audience many times, but in a book, his poems fall quite flat. Gilbert’s poems are built on word games of repetition and listing, games he can wrap his delivery around, building tension and significance. On the page, however, they are just repetition and lists. Lines like “Filled with all my/ Passions/ Dreams/ Fears/ Pains/ Joys/ And/ Really/ My soul” and “Super-stars appeared/ Showing off/ Shining/ Radiating/ Glowing/ Exploding” just don’t have much impact in print.
One problem with these lists is that are just that: mere listings of items or actions. There is no poetic statement, no imagery, little crafting beyond accumulation. This problem of bald statement is pervasive throughout HENNAMAN, is many other ways as well. Many of Gilbert’s poems are political poems, especially dealing with issues of race. And here, bald statement definitely rules the day, rather than poetic nuance. These are speeches, dressed up in word play, but they are not poems. Gilbert finds no room for subtlety or ambiguity, two keys of poetic expression. Instead of examining the multiple shades of our dilemmas, he makes easy points about obvious targets. Once again, this does work in performance, especially when the crowd vocally agrees with him.
A little more ambiguity does creep into the love and sex poems, but he still usually has an obvious point, which he makes in an obvious manner. Gilbert does have his strengths, primarily, as I have said, his talent for wordplay. These poems have a powerful flow, as Gilbert slip-slides his way through his streams of words. And he uses that play to deftly draw us into his emotional state, whether righteous indignation or flowering passion. But those are the strengths of performance, not print. And Gilbert has already been presented in that format, on his Qwest CD, ALL THAT AND A BAG OF WORDS (released under D Knowledge). I would have to recommend searching out the CD, over HENNAMAN.