Friday, February 15, 2013

Poem of the Week: Sam Hamill

Sam Hamill

True Peace  

Half broken on that smoky night, 
hunched over sake in a serviceman's dive 
somewhere in Naha, Okinawa, 
nearly fifty years ago, 
I read of the Saigon Buddhist monks 
who stopped the traffic on a downtown 
so their master, Thich Quang Dúc, could take up 
the lotus posture in the middle of the street. 
And they baptized him there with gas 
and kerosene, and he struck a match 
and burst into flame. 
That was June, nineteen-sixty-three, 
and I was twenty, a U.S. Marine. 
The master did not move, did not squirm, 
he did not scream 
in pain as his body was consumed. 
Neither child nor yet a man, 
I wondered to my Okinawan friend, 
what can it possibly mean 
to make such a sacrifice, to give one's life 
with such horror, but with dignity and conviction. 
How can any man endure such pain 
and never cry and never blink. 
And my friend said simply, "Thich Quang Dúc 
had achieved true peace." 
And I knew that night true peace 
for me would never come. 
Not for me, Nirvana. This suffering world 
is mine, mine to suffer in its grief. 
Half a century later, I think 
of Bô Tát Thich Quang Dúc, 
revered as a bodhisattva now--his lifetime 
building temples, teaching peace, 
and of his death and the statement that it made. 
Like Shelley's, his heart refused to burn, 
even when they burned his ashes once again 
in the crematorium--his generous heart 
turned magically to stone. 
What is true peace, I cannot know. 
A hundred wars have come and gone 
as I've grown old. I bear their burdens in my bones. 
Mine's the heart that burns 
today, mine the thirst, the hunger in the soul. 
Old master, old teacher,
what is it that I've learned?

-From Border Songs (Word Palace Press, 2012) 
Used by permission. 
Sam Hamill is the author of more than forty books, including fifteen volumes of original poetry, most recently Border Songs (Word Palace Press, 2012); four collections of literary essays; and translations of ancient Chinese and Japanese classics. He co-founded, and for 32 years was editor at, Copper Canyon Press. An outspoken political pacifist, in 2003, declining an invitation to the White House, he founded Poets Against War, compiling the largest single-themed poetry anthology in history, 30,000 poems by 26,000 poets.

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Jodi Barnes said...

Thank you for writing this poem, Sam. It's stayed with me for the last two days. I keep reading it, asking different questions. Yours is a necessary poem.

abracadabra said...

Yes, me too. It is the questions we ask and not the answers we find - that give true peace. Stop asking questions and you'll most certainly be dis pieced. WE have it all upside down - peace is not quietude. It is not certitude. That is the terrain of those who do evil. Peace is acceptance of the noise and uncertainty of the world - as your poem says so well.