al robles and his zen thing

There’s a literary tribute to Al Robles taking place in San Francisco on Sept. 19. I’m kind of curious about the zen aspect of Al’s writing. It’s often mentioned as one thing in a long list of all the things that made up his generous life, but I’m wondering — so what about it? What Buddhist teachers, writers and poets did he know or read? What influence did it have on his life? Was it just an aesthetic thing? Or an Asian American solidarity thing? Or was Buddhism his north star? Why were Lawson Fusao Inada, Arthur Sze, Shin Yu Pai, and Hoa Nguyen included in the Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, and not Al? Maybe he wasn’t “Asian” enough.

My own feeling is that it was a matter of ethics and aesthetic, the latter applied 50s-60s style, in the stream of jazz, bebop, and the trickster zen poets. Not so much a political stance, as an ethical way of life that informed his genius for community.

Sushi-Okashi and Green Tea
with Mitsu Yashima

cherry blossom spring festival
outside yashima’s window
a cedar sways
looking northeast
remnants of konnyaku’s past
a buried teahouse
under a slab of cement
splintered bamboo memories
rise up in the fog
nihonmachi tambourines
turn into kokeshi dolls
hidden behind moth-eaten shinto robes
michiko’s koto strings break the silence
taiko drums
pound mochi
into snow
mitsu yashima
born in kobe
california—1950
seventy-five-year-old issei woman—
oh ageless child!
swim the river
in the sky
“i want to be free from everything—
from everybody”

i hear
your brush strokes
in the wind
painting a river
in the sky
drinking the tea
sushi and manju
we need not ask for more
only our teacups
remained empty
yashima-san
your laughter moves
a thousand hokkaido mountains
i’ll carry a thousand-pound sushi
for you—and scatter manju to flying cranes
in the spring rain

—Al Robles