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Please begin with an informative title:

A Chicago Tribune article announcing the poet, Lucien Stryk's, death devotes as much energy to discussing his translations of Japanese Zen poetry as it does to his own poetic works. Consider Stryk's translation of any number of poems in Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi and you might agree that those translations of the "Master" are indeed masterful. Indeed, they are little poetic masterpieces in English. For example:


Time like a lake breeze
Touched his face,
All thought left his mind.

One morning the sun, menacing,
Rose from behind a mountain,
Singeing--like hope--the trees.

Fully awakened, he lit his pipe
And assumed the sun-inhaling pose:
Time poured down--like rain, like fruit.

He glanced back and saw a ship
Moving towards the past. In one hand
He gripped the sail of eternity,

And stuffed the universe into his eyes.

If these gifts alone to the English speaking world were not enough to provide a poet/translator with literary immortality, there is so much more from Lucien that does. Please follow.

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In a late-life interview conducted by his son, Dan Stryk, also an accomplished poet, Lucien shared poingant details: coming to America from rural Poland with his parents in 1927, growing up in Chicago, surviving the Depression as his father bounced between laboring jobs, ending up opening a "small paint & wallpaper shop" that led to prosperity when his father purchased a new rug, about which he wrote his first poem, "To a Red Rug," which his grade school teacher read aloud in class.

When he departed for service in the Army in World War II, as a Forward Observer in the South Pacific, he carried a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass in his duffel bag, which became "my solace and my pillow" during battles in Okinawa and on Saipan. As one might expect, those experiences did haunt the poet and some poetry after he returned home, but it also inspired his interest in and eventual love of Japan, its culture and people. As this attraction flowered, so was he drawn to the study of other nation's literary traditions. He would end up at Indiana University, the Sorbonne, University of London, and University of Iowa.

As much as he allowed his darkest war experiences to become themes for a number of significant poems, most of Lucien Stryk's writing reflects on smaller, homier images and themes. If "intimations of immorality" or some evocative purpose exists in those "closer-to-home" poems, at times it appears the author intended it so. Others times, it's clearer, the image speaks for itself. In the war poem, "The Pit," for example, the narrator lets the literal "hell" of war speak for itself alongside the absurdity of the "mission."

Twenty years, I still remember
The sun-blown stench, and the pit
At least two hundred yards from
The cove we'd anchored our guns in.
They were blasting at the mountains,
The beach was clearly ours.

The smell kept leaking back.
I thought of garbage cans
Behind chopsuey restaurants
Of home, strangely appealing on
A summer's night, meaning another
Kind of life. Which made the difference.

When the three of us, youngest in
The crew, were handed poles and told
To get the deadmen underground
Or join them, we saw it a sullen
Sort of lark. And lashed to trees,
The snipers had us dancing.

In the ugly scene that follows, the mass burial blends the living and dead in carnage that they later cannot "helmet bathe" away. The poem ends with the speaker burying his pole to function as a "Towelpeg," or even as a flag of surrender, since "nobody won that war."

In another war-related poem, recollections of the war evoke a different type of reaction. A volume called New Poems (1983), excerpted in Collected Poems 1953-1983, contains "Memorial Day," in which the mood has changed significantly:

Three deliberate shots
fire this quiet town,

scatter sparrows from
the willow-oak, touch

the scar where over thirty
years ago the mortar

fragment hit: I know
once more how good it is

to live. Thinking of the
boy struck down beside

me by that shell, I see
him sink into the slow jungle

green, shock burned forever
in his eyes. Again I

crawl to comfort his last
breath. Even now there's

nothing I can do but, as
the bugle fades, remember.

My own sense, in having read (and heard read) a great number of Lucien Stryk's works, is that his combat experience almost certainly colored his entire perspective on life to such an extent that it informed many (if not most) of his poems. In some ways, perhaps, that fear, frustration, horror and pain might arguably have lent depth and breadth to his poetic insight. As is always the case, it is tragic that one's exposure and ultimate dedication to an international human perspective, a humanitarianism, a hunger for knowledge of other nations and their people and cultures, seems to have had to come at the cost of war and its devastating impact on people, their culture and their collective and individual psyches. Some writers argue (Hemingway, for one, I'm thinking) that one must experience such horror not only to depict it but to articultate that part of the human psyche that will continue to manifest itself among people in some form of brutality. I do believe we have a dark side, whose brutality can show up in physical and emotional forms with differing degrees of "violence," so to speak. Growing up, myself, in "blue collar" Chicago in the 50s and 60s, I saw that brutal street culture every day and took it for granted that that's just "how people are." Even here, I have seen condensension of the sort that bespeaks a commenters' darker personality side. I suppose that is the more civilized manner for showing one's antagonism toward others or toward humanity in general.

What I perceive about Lucien Stryk, is that even in his homiest (and one of his best known) poems, "Cherries," also from New Poems, one senses a lurking darkness, or a threat to one's joy that inspires a near-gluttonous response, or at least an attitude of indifference as to how the speaker's behavior might get characterized by others:

Because I sit eating cherries
which I did not pick
a girl goes bad under

the elevator tracks, will
never be whole again.
Because I want the full bag,

grasping, twenty-five children
cry for food. Gorging,
I’ve none to offer. I want

to care, I mean to, but not
yet, a dozen cherries
rattling at the bottom of my bag.

One by one I lift them to
my mouth, slowly break
their skin—twelve nations

bleed. Because I love, because
I need cherries, I
cannot help them. My happiness,

bought cheap, must last forever.

In some way, I wonder if it was through his sojourn into Zen Buddhism and Japanese culture that he was able to find a different kind of solace that he'd once sought carrying Whitman into war. It is interesting to me that, even though Takahashi was in many ways a "realist" or at least not a blind "idealist" in his own poetic creations, in which spiritual practice and insights were central, Stryk seems to have found truest poetic peace in his translations of Takahashi's work. Consider these two before I let go of this discussion myself. Each of these comes from Triumph of the Sparrow, which I must tell you has helped me many times through some very dark patches over the years. In fact, I believe this work of translation is possibly Lucien Stryk's masterpiece. Of course, if you ask some of his students, of whom I was one briefly in the 80s, they might tell you that his teaching was also part of his "masterpiece." That's also true. He might have said that his family was, and several of his poems suggest this was truest for him. Anyway, please consider these beautiful pieces.

I don't take your words
Merely as words.
Far from it.

I listen
To what makes you talk--
Whatever that is--
And me listen

and my favorite:

Give it words,
Stick limbs on it,
You won't alter essence.
Whereas the wind--

I'll live gently
As the wind, flying
Over the town,
My chest full of sparrows.

I've shared this last poem with several grieving friends and it has helped me more than once through grief myself. Something tells me that now Lucien is flying over towns, sparrows flocking in his chest. RIP, Master. May we all be blessed.
Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to DKos Military Veterans on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 10:14 AM PDT.

Also republished by Military Community Members of Daily Kos and Community Spotlight.

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