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Tuesday, April 18, 2000

The art of hearing what lies behind words

HEART OF BAMBOO: Poetry and Music in the Zen Tradition, by Sam Hamill, Elizabeth Falconer, Christopher Yohmei Blasdel. CD and Listener's Guide (32 pp.), Copper Canyon Press, 1999; $12.

"The roots of poetry inevitably return us to music," Sam Hamill writes in "Listening in the Zen Tradition," one of two essays that make up the Listener's Guide to this new CD. "All poetry aspires to the condition of music. Poetry and music share a common root: Both begin in deep listening."

What is "deep listening," and what does "listening in the Zen tradition" mean? Is it that somehow the words and music bring us closer to the heart of inner stillness and peace, where we can truly be moved, a place where poetry can change our lives? Hamill thinks so.

How often do we stop to listen to poetry, to hear the music of words and the silence beyond them? How often do we let ourselves be changed?

In "Zen and the Art of Listening," the prolific American poet, translator and publisher writes that he "practices" poetry as one practices Zen, and that he turns to ancient classics to "refresh his future."

In a very real sense, then, this CD is part of the practice. Unrehearsed and unplanned, the musical sessions here are spontaneous and heartfelt, the result of lifetimes of learning and listening. It's a journey back to the poet's literary and musical roots. It's also a joining of voices past, present and future, a reminder that we are all connected, and although "we are strange birds in strange nests, the song is all our own."

"Editing by Ear" the second essay in the guide, discusses Hamill's early "ear" training in music and poetry and relates his 30-plus years of experience as a poetry editor. He views editing as another aspect of his Zen practice -- ordinary, necessary, daily life work.

And yet, he notes, poets and writers would "themselves a great deal of embarrassment by simply learning to listen to what they write," the way a good editor does. Hamill points out that "edit" is a verb, "a delicate and deeply subjective dance."

On this CD, Hamill pays homage to ancient poets and the songs they sang through his translations and original verse.

Ever dancing between the traditional and the modern, in his own poems Hamill weaves together common threads and classical images such as the mountain cuckoo, Kannon and cicada into verses that are contemporary yet timeless. Honoring the process, Hamill has essentially edited a musical anthology, combining works culled from ghost poet-prophets and masters with poems of his own.

Award-winning writer and shakuhachi master Christopher Yohmei Blasdel accompanies Hamill on the shakuhachi. In fact, it was when he heard Blasdel playing that Hamill felt he had found a "soul mate." He says that he created many of the poems and translations in his book "Gratitude," around which this recording is centered, with Blasdel's shakuhachi in mind. The title piece is an homage to "Brother Christopher," played to the melody of the ancient masterpiece, "San'ya."

The next piece is a suite of Hitomaro's "waka" from Hamill's "Only Companion." Here, accomplished koto master and composer Elizabeth Falconer joins Blasdel in haunting accompaniment. Although the two musicians were classically trained in Japan, both bring to their music an embodiment of traditional Japanese aesthetics as well as the music of their own journeys in the modern age.

Beautiful Zen poems of Ikkyu and Ryokan comprise the quietly sensuous next suite, followed by Hamill's poem about looking at Hiroshige's "shunga" -- the highly stylized, larger-than-life graphic rendering of sexual acts. Interestingly, it is not the erotic image that engages Hamill as much as the image of the artist's hands at work creating the image.

"After Han Yu" is Hamill's freestyle homage to a great T'ang Dynasty poet who wrote of the perilous reality of aging. Hamill humorously bemoans a liver ruined by sake and tequila, and the list of very unpoetic ailments provides a nice realistic counterpart to the romantic image of the ageless poet wandering the hillsides.

"Talking to Myself" is a meditation inspired by an American Zen teacher, and "True Illumination is Habitude" pays homage to Kenneth Rexroth and the poets, and poems, that informed and inspired him. "A Lover's Quarrel" is a meditation on lust and the idea of home, inspired by the poetry of Theodore Roethke and the music of John Coltrane. "Midsummer" brings nature to the domestic world in a profound encounter with a deer.

The final piece, "Lives of a Poet: Four Letters to Hayden Carruth," is a multilayered rumination in verse, allowing Blasdel and Falconer a chance to swing both classical and modern at once, integrating rhythms and sensibilities, providing a nice endpiece to the CD. The traditional instruments of shakuhachi and koto respond well to the CD's modern turns with their own musical inspirations melding jazz, bebop and more.

"Heart of Bamboo" is a poetic exploration of the various threads of connection that run through poetry and history, love and friendship, art and the natural world. Silence and gratitude are what endure, and Hamill expresses the latter in his homage to the masters, to whom he turns to find "the ancient order, the path that winds through the heart to lay it open for all who will follow behind."

"Heart of Bamboo" is also a celebration of the future, a tribute to a friendship among contemporary masters sharing "the struggle for song . . . in a suffering world not of our making." It's as if the artists breathed the same deep air of connection into their performances, making these songs both for the present and for the ages.

Copper Canyon Press can be reached at www.ccpress.org

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