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Introduction

Chewing Down My Barn has a passive tone as a title. Of course, I haven’t gone fully passive in recent years, but I’m more aware of the world happening to me, gradually tearing down some of my ego barns. This is not to say that the young shouldn’t actively build their own silos. They should, for their own good and that of others. But a glance now and then at the carpenter bees could give them more perspective going forward.

As a student of religions, I remain very interested in their ups and downs. I would say that about the Catholic Church where I started my spiritual journey. After twenty years in the Order, I stay on top of Jesuit news and Pope Francis’s moves.

Yet spirituality has been widely enlarged for me by Buddhist and Daoist insights/practices as well as by Muslim and Christian mystics.

The carpenter bees of aging are further clearing the field for me, bringing me down to experience the simplicity of God in every molecule of the universe.

This doesn’t mean less connection with the terrible pain and oppression on earth, but an even keener awareness of it. Saints and seers grasped this linkage more fully than I. So I don’t mind being called an agnostic Catholic pantheist. I think I can keep all those balls in the air at once as did Baruck Spinoza, even though it got him kicked out of the synagogue. Such solemn institutions will be chewed down in some sense, even as they develop.

Well, how does all this pertain to my poems? Rather than launching another professorial lecture, I look out my study window at our barn in all its solidity. I invite you to find bigger connections in these small poems. Watch for the hawks, the mockingbird, the red fox, the geese, the owls along the Oconee River and see our garden as well as Siamese Max, master of the reclining zendo, who just finished purring on my chakras.

Endorsements

“In this collection, we accompany the poet on his “long journey to tenderness” along with Christian mystics, saints, Tao masters, and notably, his Siamese cat Max—“master of the God who naps.” With uncommon wisdom, Bianchi observes lessons in wildlife around his Georgia home on the Oconee River, and he gives equal attention to the humanity of those he encounters at Starbuck’s and McDonald’s. These are pithy, thoughtful poems, filled with compassion, self-insight, and frequent saltings of humor.”

- Clela Reed, poet, author of Dancing on the Rim and The Hero of the Revolution Serves Us Tea

“Eugene Bianchi's poems reveal a healthy maladjustment, a holy irreverence which merges insights from a life in academe with Christian, Buddhist, and delightfully agnostic views. His Siamese cat Max, Master of the Reclining Zendo, and bees "Chewing Down My Barn," sneak into Bianchi's consciousness. Everything is grist for his imagination. He writes poems about contemplative aging as a way of better dying.”

- Don Foran, professor and editor of Transitions in the Lives of Jesuits and Former Jesuits.

“Like a latter-day Montaigne, who was himself confessedly the matter of his book, Gene Bianchi crafts poetic “essais” from closely observed life-moments, intricate meditations that, taken together, form a searching yet oddly genial “ars moriendi.” With learning drawn from several religious traditions, Bianchi gives us both exciting verbal flights and the stillness at the heart of meaning. “

- John Bugge, Emeritus Professor of English, Emory University

 

Four More Poems from Chewing Down My Barn
by Eugene Bianchi

 

From Fire to Fire

Born in earth’s first fire,
I’m primed to celebrate the Fourth
viewing great bursts over the Capitol Mall
honoring the nation’s birth,
the holy city on the hill,
shock and awe here and there,
the blood of Gettysburg, the Marne,
Iwo Jima and Khe Sahn,
Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan
(Thank you for your service,
and pardon our madness.)

My mind drifts from colorful explosions
to daring framers in Philadelphia,
to patriotic barbeque and beer
with Generals Washington and Lafayette
and Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.”

As I approach my final celebrations,
I’m hurled forward on roman candles
to see the last fireworks of our flaming
earth, scorched by the sun, its finale
coming, dodging black holes with no one
to witness except some mountain crag
and maybe the last lonely roach.

How will it be for civilizations gone
with none to remember, archives
reduced to ash, cyber clouds still roaming
unvisited, theologians, their musings
and their kingdoms long forgotten.

Yet without our Fourth, the Tao by many names
will rush on in its cosmic mystery of not-knowing.
So I take refuge today in the wise ignorance of mystics
who trusted the ineffable without demanding dogmas,
and I confide in the silent spaces between fluttering
prayer flags over the quiet river and in the
purr of my cat, Max, who echoes start and finish.

 

Listen to the Silence


“How then does one speak of God?

Through silence. Then why do you speak
in words? The Master laughed out loud.
When I speak, my dear, listen to the
silences.” (One Minute Wisdom,
Anthony de Mello, pg. 124)


Away from the roar of cutting firewood,
partly to tell myself I can still do it and
okayed by my overseer if I stay off the roof,
I settle on the old bench by the Oconee to
watch a silent movie at this
unlikely outdoor nickelodeon,
with light and dark clouds moving fast
against blue sky as the green river
carries its quiet waters across Georgia
into the Altamaha and on to the Atlantic.

It’s one of those between-times when the
heat and stress of effort gives way to
a sudden shifting of gears in the universe.
Now the Buddhist prayer flags dance
in the wind as it whips young cedars
like pompoms at a game or parade.

Then in a flash he appears on the screen,
lovely red-tail hawk swooping all grace,
now slow, now quick riding the currents,
one eye on me – I swear it – the other on
his supper menu, all the while enjoying
this free ride on nature’s carousel. Back
and back he circles down to a few yards,
as I wave to this avian Nureyev
pausing with wings full spread,
flashing his ballet style for unsung
bravos, encores and merited bouquets.

Now no noise in my breathing, just in and out
with a virtual mantra: Buddha, Jesus, Red
Hawk, water, sky, trees, here, now, enough.

 

Feeling Fog Feeling God

“Just sit there right now.
Don’t do a thing. Just rest.
For your separation from God
is the hardest work in this world.”
--Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz (1320-1389)

Sounds awfully pious like a preacher
bent on getting our lapsed hides back
into synagogues, mosques and churches.
Yet that sainted excommunicate Jew
Bennie Spinoza, grinding his lenses
in The Hague, found God everywhere
as did Persian poet Hafiz and Catholic Aquinas,
who thought getting separated from the divine
impossible or at least a very hard chore
especially if you don’t block nature from
seeping into your soul, aware or distracted.

Today a soft Georgia fog rose from the Oconee
gently spread over oaks, dogwood, sweet gum
over scampering squirrels and my garden
bench to tap on my chest for re-entry.
This is an old man’s fog less rushed and
insistent than its cousin that streamed over
the San Francisco Bay in my youth, cascading
through hills and hurrying by me to
push inland for new ventures and dreams.

Just then three clean-cut young Mormons in dark ties
and short-sleeve white shirts interrupted my musings
to tell me about the splendor of the latter days.
I offered them a vaguer mist as maybe godly
though bright with doubt, when they were ready.

Later I explained all this to cat Max who
mumbled assent, but wondered where he could buy
Spinoza’s glasses, so I reminded him of his built-ins.

 

Webs of Life


As I approach the end of my journey
after eight lucky decades of a long dance,
I notice small stuff ignored in a faster day.
This morning I walked up the driveway
to collect the Times between showers
as sunlight at a perfect angle hit the spider web
strung across the road like a pendant of
lacy wet crystals with the orange-brown
arachnid builder waving her go-slow sign
(nor did I want that net slung across my face).
So I stopped to look and marvel at
this art piece defying gravity and expectation.
Then I bowed to its beauty to avoid unseen
tie lines that kept the godly apparition suspended
like a fragile model of our inner and outer linkings.

We pride ourselves on mind as our unique gift
without respecting patterns of life deeply set
by the unifying matrix of the lovely and not.
So, forgive if I wander too far in musings
of an amateur entomologist and talk about
my old friend a large cockroach who has
lived peaceably in a corner of my kitchen
minding his own business, as they say.
If you are now grossed out ready to
throw this poem against the wall in disgust,
pause, dear reader, and defer at least to
the longevity of his ancient tribe
scrambling around the feet of dinosaurs,
and observe our parting after a long encounter.

He wandered out slower than usual to say hello
and scoffed at the roach box with small holes
near the phone which rarely rings for him.
He seemed to pray for liberation, moksha,
wanting to return to the damp forest of liriope
knowing his time had come for the trek.
So I wrapped him gently in Kleenex and we
processed like two old sadhus on pilgrimage
to the banks of the Ganges, to the edge of the garden
where he scampered off perhaps to meet the spider.

 

 


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 Eugene C. Bianchi
Author
Professor of Religion Emeritus at Emory University
He was the first director of Emory's Emeritus College
from 2001-2008

 


 

 



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