4 posts

Our Ambivalence Toward Reincarnation


It is said that love and death are the two great themes of literature and, to some, reincarnation appears to be a convenient escape hatch for the latter. For Buddhists and Hindus, however, reincarnation isn’t as rosy a concept as it might first look.

From an Eastern perspective, it has historically meant another slog through pain, illness, old age, and death – perhaps in different form – while working on your karma in a quest to end the cycle. This final escape goes by various names – moksha, enlightenment, nirvana – but, to Westerners, second (and third, and fourth) chances all sound rather heavenly, much like having St. Peter and the Pearly Gates in your rearview mirror.

You know: Self, 1. Death, 0.

My third collection of poems – Reincarnation & Other Stimulants: Life, Death, and In-Between Poems – delves into this east-west ambivalence. It  happened only because the poems gathered enough force and numbers to demand some organizing principle, and reincarnation came to the fore. The first poems were brought on by adversity — a sudden onslaught of bad news bedeviling me and people I knew and loved. On the Internet, I learned, we are not alone. Those who suffer chronic pain every day, for instance, may feel singled out (“Why me?”) but are decidedly not. 

In a 2019 study, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimated that, worldwide, 20.4% of people suffer from some form of physical pain on a daily basis — and this doesn’t even consider those suffering from the psychological pain of despair and depression. Scarier still for these individuals? No matter how bad things are, there’s always someone who is enduring even worse. 

The darkness of yin seeks out the lightness of yang, however. The questioning poems I was writing began to seek out answers for their own good. If the future of the body looks bleak and all too mortal, my writing seemed to be telling me, then perhaps it’s time to look through the lens of the spirit. 

When I stepped back, I realized that poems I was writing were pairing off — opposites circling each other, craving each other, sharing each other. Poems of youth and old age, disease and health, sadness and joy, self and no-self, vanity and modesty.

Despite the Buddhist themes, this is not a Buddhist book per se. Nor do I consider myself an expert on the matter. Rather I borrow freely from Christianity (memento mori) and Buddhism (reincarnation) alike. 

Loosely speaking, these poems are about me, people I’ve read about, characters I’ve made up. And it is not about people alone. You’ll find poems about the four seasons, old dogs, stranded cats, nesting birds, New England weather, and riprap (rock on!). There are even cameos starring Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Frank O’Hara, Hamlet, and Emily Dickinson — some of my favorite people.

My hope, through all these pasts, presents, and futures, is that there will be something both novel and familiar for every reader. My other? That, like me, readers will agree that lightness and humor have a place in most any subject matter — even the required do-overs and karma overhauls we call “reincarnation.”



A Dog, Samsara, and the Sea

Wash. Rinse. Repeat. A good mantra for samsara, seems. But the Buddhist view of samsara is negative—i.e. an endless cycle of pain, sickness, and death—while the Western view skews positive. You know. Reincarnation as better-than-nothing form of immortality. Too bad you can’t remember your former lives. Unless you’re Shirley MacLaine, that is.

Today’s poem is one part samsara and one part shaggy dog. Dogs, you see, are a form of immortality too. When life hits you with trauma and misery, invest in a puppy. Voilà, as they say in Versaille. Your worries dissolve in the day-to-day delights of puppy tail and puppy tongue.

A dog, after all, lives in the moment. It has little use for past or future. In that sense, it is not only man’s best friend, but his bodhisattva, a being that long ago reached enlightenment but is there for you anyway.

So the next time you read some rule that says, “Thou shalt not write a poem about dogs,” you can either roll your eyes and ignore it OR do as David Salner does and double down: dog plus Eastern philosophy.


A Dog by the Sea
by David Salner

Just after dawn, we get up,
without coffee, and let the dog lead us
through a grove of wind-stunted trees,
spiked succulents, red-berried holly,
and over the dune ridge out of the gray
of still sleeping minds. A line of pink
from the not yet risen sun
reminds me of the lilac shadows
caught in the radial grooves of shells.
I take up your hand and feel the blood
warming your fingers, as the dog bounds off
dragging her leash through wet sand.
She’s after gulls and a line of waves
that repeat themselves, she seems to think,
because they want to play.
A morning breeze
stirs the now turning tide, breathing over it,
sighing toward bayside. As the waves come in
whorls of light unfold on the sand. How I want
for us to repeat ourselves, on and on,
you holding the leash of a silly dog, me
feeling the beat, the blood in your hand.


In addition to imagery related to the sea, note how the waves repeat themselves, the tide turns eternal, and the narrator confesses “How I want / for us to repeat ourselves, on and on.”

If you inhale deeply while reading, you’ll catch whiffs of both salt and Buddhism, meaning we have a dog poem, yes. But an oh-so-human-in-its-wistfulness one, too.

An Abundance of Moments, an Embarrassment of Neglect

Pinch yourself. You’re alive. But how do you know, and what is it you’re hardly noticing as days roll in and out with numbing regularity?

Answer: a lot. Reason: the five senses. Even more so the four neglected senses. You know how partial we are to our eyes. To sight. The favored child among our brood.

But what if the idea is to conjure a moment — pick a moment, any moment — using the senses, not just sight but touch, smell, sound, and taste? Imagery, we call it, is an essential poet’s tool. One willing to share the poetic limelight with figurative language.

Given the heady mix of imagery, figurative language, and the moment, you’d see a direct link between Buddhism and poetry. What’s present around us at any given moment, with focus, with meditation, can become something more than it seems. The insignificance of a world that can become mundane lies in our own prejudices. Moments are always there but, through bad habit, we are usually not.

Sure, picking a small moment and magnifying it sounds simple, but simplicity is a lovely sound, as proven here by Kenneth Rexroth, who leads us to enlightenment at the end of his humble paean to life as simple moment:


Confusion of the Senses
by Kenneth Rexroth

Moonlight fills the laurels
Like music. The moonlit
Air does not move. Your white
Face moves towards my face.
Voluptuous sorrow
Holds us like a cobweb
Like a song, a perfume, the moonlight.
Your hair falls and holds our faces.
Your lips curl into mine.
Your tongue enters my mouth.
A bat flies through the moonlight.
The moonlight fills your eyes
They have neither iris nor pupil
They are only globes of cold fire
Like the deer’s eyes that go by us
Through the empty forest.
Your slender body quivers
And smells of seaweed.
We lie together listening
To each other breathing in the moonlight.
Do you hear? We are breathing. We are alive.


For your own “We are alive” or “I am alive” moment, you can slow down and invite one into your own life. Then honor it by writing a poem rich in the senses leavened with the meaning you give it (or, better yet, it gives you).

It’s how we experience the world, after all — if only we would more often!

The Danger in “Getting It Over With”


Once, when taking my daily  walk, I strode quickly with the goal of getting it over with. I noticed at night, going to bed, I had the same anxious goal: let’s get this over with, because sleep is boring and, when I wake up, treacherous thanks to the threat of wee-hour insomnia. What’s more, I love waking to new days.

Thus, the checklist mentality of crossing a task off the list: walking, sleeping, working in any way unpleasant.

After reading The Pocket Thich Nhat Hanh, however, I’ve reconsidered and repositioned my point of view on “getting it over with.” I began to see that a series of “getting it over withs” will not only ruin the journey but expedite the journey’s end. The ultimate “getting it over with” awaits us all and will be happy to oblige when the day comes, after all.

And so, while walking, I forced myself to enjoy, until I no longer needed to rely on the use of force. I looked up at pine trees, the way they outline sky, which in turn led me to appreciate clouds and their many incarnations of beauty, how they shift color, position and texture, how they bounce slightly with my stride.

In full Thich Nhat Hanh corny mode, I even smiled at them, thanked them for sharing themselves with me. Uh, silently, of course. You never know when people in a rush (those still “getting things over with”) might be eavesdropping.

This morning, for instance, I took in the poetry of nuthatches scratching treebark in their circumambulations. Chickadees in their eponymous speech from the branches above. The lonely horn of the Ashland train heading to Boston. Like a symphony going rallentando. All together and at once, for me, as a reward for slowing down.

I took in the smell of cut grass on the lawns of suburbia, the wet smell of earth from the edges of a small pond, the long cool storyline of Canadian air coming down from the distant north.

Isn’t this how writers are more likely to find poetry? A rushed mind is of little use to the muses standing by, checking their fingernails, waiting patiently. But a relaxed one—a mind liberated from its monkey—is another story. A story directed by all five senses and nine muses, a story fed in equal portions by wonder, imagination, and possibility.

Buddhism aside, slowing down offers great benefits to the writer. A man can come back from meditative walks where’s he’s completely open to the elements and get to work. Why? Because he’s actually living, wise to the dangers to past and future, embracing instead both here and now.