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Gary Gach's 'What Book!?'

By Steven Robert Allen

AUGUST 16, 1999: 

What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop by Gary Gach (Parallax, paper, $15)

All right, I have to be honest with you. I don't think I'm capable of giving a bad review to a book called What Book!? It just isn't in me. The potential for some amusing Abbott and Costello repartee is just too great. If this book had contained only blank pages, I still probably would have given it a good review. (A true Buddhist, in such circumstances, probably would have given it a great review.) All week long, I've been trying to be as conspicuous as possible while reading this book. I've positioned myself in crowded public places, chuckled and hee-hawed, grimaced and grinned. Waiting.

"What book is that?"
"What Book!?"
"The book you're reading."
"What Book!?"
"The book in your hand."
"What Book!?"

Heh, heh.

Well, the fish weren't biting. It doesn't matter. I still refuse to say anything really nasty about this book. I should mention, though, that an editor capable of coming up with such a great name for an anthology of Buddha-inspired poems might be expected to have a great sense of humor to match. No such luck. Gary Gach's "Pre Face," as he calls it, is humorless, dull and tinged with pretension.

Not so the actual content. This collection -- primarily made up of modern work from Western poets -- is a wonderful thing to chew on, bite by empty bite.

The book's got a lot of what you might expect, big offerings from the main Beats -- Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder -- and a few entries from pop celebrities -- most notably Yoko Ono. This isn't a problem. The whole anthology holds together nicely, organically even. Even better, What Book!? offers big, pudgy handfuls of insight with enough nutritive power to propel you quite a way up the golden, treacherous path to nirvana.

Am I revealing too much? Sure, Buddhism may be trendy at the moment, but don't let that prevent you from digging in here. Buddhism's got a lot going for it, especially in the arena of poetry. I could read poems like this one by John Mueller all day long:

Rubber eraser
in the shape of the seated Buddha.

He removes errors
in my work.
As he does so,
he disappears.

The best thing about these poems -- and about Buddhism itself -- is that they engage the reader in a kind of elaborate mindfucking, enticing us to open an exotically wrapped gift, then forcing us to come to terms with the fact that the box is totally empty.

It's hard to feel cheated. The shock that the best of these poems delivers comes mighty close to fully illuminating some severe existential paradoxes. These poems face up to death and nature in a way that literature inspired by other traditional belief systems almost never does.

Instead of giving us symbols, these poems give us the things themselves. Trees are simply trees. Cats are simply cats.

Cats yawn because they realize
that there's nothing to do

... writes Jack Kerouac. And this means something to us, not because cats can talk or whistle or play chess, but because this line says something true about felinity and the wisdom of dumb beasts without resorting to lies, exaggeration or romantic sentimentality.

These poems take an almost scientific approach to observing the universe. They talk of atoms and lichens and the movement of water as it flows from high places to fill up the hollow spaces below. In a poem about sex, Run My Hand Under, Andrew Schelling doesn't dwell on spirit or libido; he talks about ribcages and bonehouses, about the physical architecture of human bodies entwined: "Thigh against thigh, seeming so fierce, it's only a femur, good for a flute."

In other words, in these words, these Buddha poems embrace reality -- the actual accumulated evidence of what we perceive as the world -- in a way that is (dare I say it?) enlightening.

So there you are.
You should read this book. You'd like it.
What book is that?

This book. This book right here.

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