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Photo of Carl Rakosi

Jane Augustine

For Carl Rakosi’s 100th Birthday Celebration


This poem-commentary was read on November 8, 2003, in the San Francisco Public Library before Carl and an auditorium full of friends and family. Words in italics are his, to pay tribute to him through the precise flavor of his own thought.

A great Zen master, Suzuki Roshi, was dying too young
not far from this city.
His students asked him: don’t you regret not living long?

He said: “One hundred years of life is good.
One day of life is good.”
So the basic issue is not Time (capital T)

that we celebrate but the man Carl Rakosi
and his inseparable ka,
the poet. A hundred poems are good —

one poem is good, if it falls out that way.
In his case it didn’t, luckily,
(though luck is the wrong word.) This ka,

antique Egypt’s immortal self, has its pyramids,
its lasting stones
stacked oddly, for he’s poked a hole

in the solid edifice of art, having
knocked it off of its capital A.
To wit, witty: master of the short form,

he writes “Epitaph on the Short Form:”

          Here lies the Augustan temper,
          a great lord

          side by side
          with the lark.

          Pounds of cantos were unable
          to quicken them
                    
To wit: ironic. The short form
is very much alive. Besides, how short is short?
We were talking about the good,

which is neither short nor long, neither
an aphorism nor — God help us —
a theory. A sparrow is singing in the garden

and thus spins out meditations or
a Satyricon. Ancient marble dust
shakes out onto the modern threshold

to say after all There was a man
in the land of Ur, Abraham
our father. Shema Ysrael — And the rabbi prays

          a modest prayer
          for the responsibilities of his office

Such responsibilities for le mot juste,
la branche juste, the half-serious loop
between referent and idea?
                                            Well,

inward is outward in ongoing curiosity:

          What can be compared
                                                  to light
          in which leaves darken
                                                  after rain
          fierce green?
                                 like Rousseau’s jungle:
          any minute
                               the tiger head                                        
          Will poke through
                                         the foliage
          peering
                         at experience

A white tiger’s head not quite
metaphysical, for there
is the eye, memory, thousands

of written words in thirty-six thousand
five hundred twenty-seven days,
counting leap year’s extras,
taking responsibility for the Word.
How can there be
closure here? Now that I am old,

          must I give up
          paradoxes and
          crossed signals

          and fish for poignancy
          in a safe persona?

          Is there no wisdom,
          only common sense?

So what’s wrong with common sense?
Or the commonplace?
Suzuki roshi  said to meditators

on their cushions: look
at the frog. He sits
just as we do. Carl Rakosi says:

            There goes Bash

          balls and all,
          into the pond again.

          Splashes, Plophh!
          like an old frog.

          Must be Spring,
          and I’m in a small
          mode of music

          through a phonograph
          cartridge.

          Solid briar root,
          varnish,
          beetle’s chitin

          enter soundlessly
          as a mystique
          into Orfeo’s

          perfect system,
          passing on a stylus
            from the earth

          into art.

Must be spring this November. Something
splashes, frog or tiger?
Crackle of light —
                   
Happy birthday, Orpheus —



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