Review by Robbi Nester
Recently, I watched an episode of the Netflix series The Chef’s Table featuring the sublime cuisine of a South Korean Buddhist monk who resides in a monastery in the forest, where she cooks for her community as well as for visitors who come from all over the world to taste those dishes. The food she prepares, her words, and everything about her embodies the teachings of Buddhism.
The multiple avatars of the Buddha in Luisa Igloria’s collection of poetry The Buddha Wonders If She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis (Phoenicia Publishing) have not yet reached this monk’s advanced stage of enlightenment. They have not retreated from the world to serene sanctuaries, but live out their lives in the midst of the chaos the rest of us must negotiate every day, and yet these poems, like the dishes the monk prepares, are perfect embodiments of a Buddhist practice.
In “The Buddha considers with all seriousness,” the Buddha shops for ice cream in a convenience store, where she considers “[t]he vanity of decisions that revolve around desire.” Though the speaker in this poem, as in so many others, is the Buddha, this desire is not theoretical. The poem and the poet are clearly attached to the world of the senses. These poems embrace that world and evoke it with great care.
At the same time, they take up the challenge embodied by Buddhist philosophy, finding a way to unite it with poetry, which on the surface seems incompatible with the notion that desire and the senses, the concrete things that make up the substance of poetry, are but illusions. The speaker in “Ghazal with Cow burial” wonders about the after-life of a cow: “The cow that in this life was cow, does it remain the same? Does it dream/ of feathered grass in the fields, of gnats, the low symphony of fellow-cows//chewing their cud?” Poetry without the body is hard to imagine. What does it mean to be oneself when all the particulars this entails have gone? The very act of pondering this insoluble riddle presents an act of meditation.
Similarly, in “The last temple in the north,” the speaker, clearly a teacher of literature like Igloria herself, muses on the odd parallels between postmodern theory and Buddhist philosophy. Post-structuralist theory reduces language to illusion, indefinitely deferring meaning, yet, the poet insists, “[o]nce we understand we have nothing, then and only then can we understand poetry,” the word “deconstructed into fearful significance.”
In one poem after another, the various incarnations of the Buddha undertake the mundane tasks of everyday life, going on the Internet, filling out job applications, and dealing with the same annoyances the rest of us face. Yet on top of these everyday frustrations, this Buddha has others. Igloria elaborates the down side of a life of absolute compassion. The Buddha, open to the suffering of every living creature, suffers from chronic migraines and also psychic pain of another sort. To that end, she seeks out a therapist.
Privy to the Buddha’s worries, we find him fretting about the possibility of resolving doctrine with one’s emotions, as in “The Buddha listens,” where the speaker wonders “How is it possible to cultivate detachment/at the same time that one practices compassion?” Yet elsewhere, in “The Buddha is a wallflower,” we find the speaker practicing this very skill, listening intently to another’s reminiscence and remarking “how a memory not even his can offer a spark undiminished by the years.” This is radical empathy, the ability to identify totally with another, an ability as prized among poets as among practitioners of Buddhism.
Despite the fact that these embodiments of the Buddha live among us and sometimes suffer as we do, Igloria reminds us in “Innervate” that we carry within us our own retreat, the “little hilly village” of the brain,”criss-crossed/by winding trails and nestled like an egg/in a walled-off fortress.” It is to this redoubt where the speaker of “The Buddha picks up a call without first checking caller ID” retreats in his response to a telephone sales call, using a tactic that is at once straightforward and ingenious. Rather than simply hanging up, thus inviting further calls from the persistent sales-bot, the Buddha answers this person’s questions about life-insurance with tenets of Buddhist philosophy, such as “The goal/ of all life is the movement toward greater/and greater enlightenment, which is the freedom at last/from suffering and illusion.”
As this example suggests, Igloria both charms us with humor and gorgeously crafted poetry and embodies Buddhist concepts that can so often resist words. Whether you have never read the work of this poet or have followed her work regularly, treat yourself to this book.
You can find the book here: http://www.phoeniciapublishing.com/the-buddha-wonders.html
Robbi Nester frequently reviews books of poetry. She is the author of a chapbook, Balance (White Violet, 2012) and three collections of poetry: A Likely Story (Moon Tide, 2014), Other-Wise (Kelsay, 2017), and a forthcoming book, Narrow Bridge (Main Street Rag).