Friday, October 25, 2019

Brindle Bull: The Search for Enlightenment

Commentary by Mixed Genre/Haiku Editor Kaye Linden

Some writers possess the skill and passion to transport a reader to a magical place where we hold our breath for a few moments and sigh with the beauty of the read. Such is Bacopa Literary Review 2019's Mixed Genre First Prize winner Jeff Streeby, with "A Brindle Bull: After Kuoan Shiyuan."
          morning with a caul of mountains
          other things
          I have not forgotten

Those FWP guys I ran into up at the boat launch told me that right below a big tangle of old blowdown the channel would deepen and widen, and sure enough it did. The river was running pretty high for the time of year, but not so high I had trouble with the few low bridges on that upper stretch. 

          July 15th
          again the hours
          disappearing into each other 

At an old diversion dam, a little surprise--a dozen late salmon flies the size of hummingbirds climbed and dived over the one big boil.

          At just the right moment 
          firewood blooms
          making good on their promises . . .
In order to fully appreciate this lovely story, one must understand the analogy expressed. Kuoan Shiyuan was a Japanese Zen practitioner and artist who offered ten images representing the search for enlightenment, symbolized by the slow emergence of a bull. At first one is searching for the "bull" externally until, during years of meditation practice, one realizes the "bull" has been standing there all along.

The journey down the river symbolizes (as rivers always do) the journey of life, where we pass by features and events without truly grasping their wholeness. In this narrator's journey along the river, he undergoes an enlightenment experience when locking eyes with a bull on the bank.
. . . From the shade of a cottonwood, a brindle bull watched my canoe and its reflection move downstream, watched my paddle rising, dripping, then dipping again as it passed into itself at the surface where it seemed to disappear. The old orejano, summer fat and slick and packing a pair of the longest, heaviest horns you ever saw, lifted his blunt muzzle to search the air then looked back at me, no more certain than before.

          On the Jefferson River
          one swallow's perch song
          making a summer
The narrator's perception changes from that experience and the rest is an account of clarity and increased joy.

Why is a bull the choice for the symbol of an awakened experience? The bull is a massive animal, difficult to overcome, manage, or tame. Thus, it is with enlightenment. The more one chases it, the further away it runs.

Jeff Streeby has the knack of holding us spellbound.
And right then, you know, just like that, something happened. Our gazes met and held for maybe a second, no more, each seeing in the other everything in the space between come into focus all at once . . . one second . . . to see it all and figure it out, every last loose end and double meaning clearing up for me for good.
I like the casual way Streeby meanders through his journey on the river, observing and describing such things as "the chirring of cicadas in a willow thicket" or "a stand of tall canary grass." We canoe down the river, enjoying the ride, listening to the guide until "From the shade of a cottonwood," he points out "a brindle bull . . . an old orejano, summer fat and slick . . . lifted his blunt muzzle . . . looked back at me."

The reader is caught up in the effective description of a moment when a magnificent creature connects with a human. The canoeist experiences a true epiphany where he is in the moment and nowhere else, not in the past, nor in the future.

We roll down the river after that experience of now and perceive differently "July's heady musks . . . Elderberry, chokecherry . . . heavy with ripening fruit . . . the chinkle of cowbirds calling."

The journey has truly come alive for this man on his canoe because he has fully realized an enlightened moment with Kuoan's bull.

*     *     *
Jeff Streeby is an American poet and haibunist. His mixed-form collection, An Atlas of the Interior, is available from Unsolicited Press. His chapbook of haibun, Wile: Sketches from Nature, was published by Buttonhole Press. Streeby is an Associate Editor for poetry and prose at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters.

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