Kneeling in the Dojo
Master Binh's Garden
One block off Richmond Avenue behind what seems
an ordinary storefront lies a garden
first revealing itself as only a few bonsai
in dishes—shallow, clay, weighted with pebbles—
placed at the edge of a pale wooden fence,
then beyond the fence, small shrubs, wild roses
blooming white, plum, coral until you can see rising
at the garden’s center a rock mountain sculpted
stone by stone so that water spills in rivulets
into the pond beneath.
The water’s surface is broken by lilies,
the golden motion of fish, large, darting,
which teem, break for a moment into air, then glide,
descend among falling nuggets of bread tossed
from the Master’s palm, empty now, extended in shadow
as if to offer his guest all he has crafted,
this his heart’s architecture, and you are grateful,
though you know soon you must rise, return
to the storefront, the avenue, the afternoon traffic.
The garden is only temporary.
Reading The I Ching Under Magnolia Trees
You are Chên, thunder the dragon, dark yellow, a great road
spreading out, bamboo, green and young, reed, rush, the horse
whose white hind legs gleam with speed, a star upon his forehead.
You stand in the East, prince of the Spring, the eldest son.
No. You stand just across the room, your white gi shining
as you run, fly above the stacked mats, throw your body full force
into the canvas bag suspended before the mirrored wall, and I watch.
I am Sun, wind, wood, the white, the long, the high, advance and
retreat, the undecided, odor, the gentle, the eldest daughter.
It is said that thunder, wind arouse, strengthen each other.
I am next, and somehow it seems all wrong to heave this body up,
weighted with flesh, family, a thousand things, for you
the young man my father once was, who came late to be
the eldest son, his brother’s death a mystery, an anonymous
blockage suffocating the heart.
The Creative is heaven, the father. It is jade, metal, ice. It is
deep red, an old horse, lean and wild. It is the man who flies toward
heaven as though on six dragons, in their breath the gift of water.
If I could fly like wind I would ascend, move beyond the mats, the bag,
to meet you in the mirror, our bodies, our faces, one
until I could become the son for my father. I love you,
but when Sun becomes Chên, white springs up in her hair,
her eyes, and she, bereft of stillness, is vehement.
And you, my husband, are Kên, keeping still, the mountain, a bypath,
little stones, doors and openings, fruits, seeds, doorkeepers,
watchmen, fingers, black- billed birds, trees firm and gnarled.
You are protection, the youngest son, a man who waits
for my return these Saturdays, late morning. I imagine
you read on the concrete porch, coffee, cigarettes beside you,
newspaper, ashes scattered at your feet.
The Receptive is earth, the mother. It is cloth, a kettle, a cow
with calf. It is black soil, the body of the tree from which all
branches spring. It is an opening. It is not one but the multitude.
What begins as desire becomes knowledge, and the magnolia trees
we curse litter the grass with leaves, thorny pods which open,
spill blood-red seeds underfoot. These out of habit we crush,
ignore or sweep away. Their sweet odor, almost forgotten,
rises now from the stone walk, the debris of our love
for a moment majestic, a mountain forming in the mind’s palm
where we learn to climb by keeping still.
“I dance with fire to stay alive,” Robin Davidson writes in this small fiery book, which has such a large reach. A hidden garden, a dark chapel, an urban dojo—these are the spaces that come alive in this work of harsh luminosity, of spiritual alertness.
The title of Robin Davidson’s masterly chapbook Kneeling in the Dojo seems to me a metaphor for the lives lived in these poems, indeed for life itself. Here is a place of longing, of our life-long desire to unite the body and the soul. But these moving poems are not abstractions; they live in this world—in a very specific August garden, under magnolia trees, on a university campus, in the Rothko Chapel, on the dojo’s hard floor—anywhere humans struggle—futilely, painfully, joyously—“to live as long as they can.”
Behind Robin Davidson’s meditative poems seems to be a soft chant or a contemplative’s continuous hum gathering the body’s efforts and the mind’s fits into a taut, crystal sound. We discover that moving in the background is a restorative and abandoning silence, that the poems are discrete moments of ascent and descent, beautiful embodiments of discovery and disappointment that are all the more stark for the paradoxes they risk—contentment and desire, union and rupture—a conclave that offers us, in gorgeous lyrics, the prolific insights Davidson has assured us are only, remarkably, temporary.