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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & General Editor
Volume 7, Number 4, December 2013

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Glenn G. Coats
Prospect, Virginia, USA


On “Homeless in the Universe” by Bill Wyatt

I know little about Bill Wyatt. A few years ago, I read “The Early Days of Throssel Hole Priory” 1 which describes the Zen teachers that have influenced his thinking as well as his life at the farm where he worked as a cook. Wyatt writes, “I remember paraffin stoves to keep us warm at night, camp beds to sleep on,” and I had underlined, “I learnt that ultimately there is nothing that could harm me, save my own delusive thinking.” The haibun covers the time period between 1972 and 1998 and shows someone who is constantly trying to learn and understands that learning never stops. In response to Wyatt’s haibun, I wrote this haiku in my journal:

a few stars
the blur
of fine print2

From an interview with Diana Webb,3 I have discovered that Bill Wyatt was born during World War II. His interest in both Zen and haiku sprang from reading “The Dharma Bums” by Jack Kerouac in the late 1950s. Wyatt was taken with the spontaneity as well as the honesty that he found in haibun. He went on to become the first Zen monk to be ordained in England (1972).

In September, I received one of Bill Wyatt’s haibun to read as a submission to Haibun Today. The title of the piece is “Homeless in the Universe.” Wyatt recounts the first signs of a serious illness, the tests that follow and eventually lead to a diagnosis of lung cancer. He gives an account of both the surgery and the painful recovery that follows. During this period of time, Wyatt’s writing transcends the day to day events at the hospital and raises questions about mortality, earthly needs, the desire to help others, and what if anything will follow. The writing is a mix of both prose and several forms of poetry including haiku and tanka. The prose story is told in the first person in a matter-of-fact voice and the poems seem to soar above the mundane and bring the reader to larger issues—other points to consider.

Reading Wyatt’s haibun brings to mind a haiku by Michael Ketchek which is part of a sequence about loss titled “No Place to Go.”4

even now
even during this
I think in haiku

This haiku reminds me of what those of us immersed for years in poetry do; how we react to events in our lives, the highs, lows, and in-betweens with poems. I scratch them down in order to try and make sense of things, not with the intention of having them published but simply to add clarity when things are complex or muddled. That is what Michael Ketchek was doing when he dealt with unfathomable loss and that is what Bill Wyatt was doing as he dealt with the onset of an illness—trying to understand the moment:

I’m three days into the retreat. Returning from the hall, walking up the stairs, gurgling sound in my throat. I cough up a mouthful of blood! Don’t panic, keep calm. I feel OK & settle down. Same thing happens next morning after meditation.

Bill Wyatt is getting his words down on paper and not worrying about getting it perfect or whether or not they need polishing up. That is not the important thing. He is getting the words down because it is what he knows—it is what he has to do. And as a reader I step right into the first paragraph and anticipate what will come next.

The first haiku that follows, takes me away from the here and now and considers the hand of fate in a life and leaves me to consider unanswered questions—things I can never know:

Blown by karmic winds
here & there—I stand alone
gazing at infinity

In his haibun “The Early Days of Throssel Hole Priory,”5 Wyatt writes, “Four retreats were held during this period, and 35 people received lay ordination, whereby they affirmed their commitment to do good, cease from evil, and help others.” There are moments in “Homeless in the Universe” where Wyatt’s own commitment to help others shines through despite all of the tests and procedures that he is going through:

One of the monks, concerned, whisks me off to Hexham A&E. Lots of tests, full m.o.t. The doctor & nurses very thorough. Finally an x-ray. In the next cubicle, an old fellow has been brought in from a nearby nursing home. We cannot see each other because of the curtain dividing us. I try chatting to him. Further down the corridor, an old lady is crying out, Help me, help me. I want to help them, but I’m wired up to machines.

Wyatt again wants to help when a new patient is brought in to the hospital. It is also the same moment that he realizes the gravity of his own situation:

The old lady sails past me on a trolley for an x-ray. She had been found, collapsed, in the High Street. She’s crying & moaning. I feel helpless. The nurses check up on me every half-hour or so, blood tests, blood pressure, E.C.G.s, etc. After a couple of hours, I hear the doctors discussing my case with the nurses: Looks from the X-ray like he’s got a spot on the upper left lung, looks like cancer.

The doctor who discusses the spot on the lung with Wyatt, suggests that he needs to have it looked into at another facility. Wyatt remembers a death haiku that he had written earlier in the year:

Wandering down the years
arriving at now—sheep bones
bleached by the wind

I read the words and immediately pictured Thanksgiving. Each year my grandsons come to my home in Virginia. They wander in the woods looking for streams and an eagle’s nest. One year they found the skeleton of an animal which they described to me and offered possibilities for its identity. I don’t think they will ever forget their November discovery and it is likely to follow them down the years.

Bill Wyatt’s descriptions of tests and hospitals brings to mind poems by Donald Hall in his book Without6. Hall witnesses his wife’s illness with carefully wrought words:

Distracting myself
on the recliner between
Jane’s hospital bed
and window, in this blue
room where we endure.
I set syllables
into prosy lines.

Wyatt too, uses a mix of description and humor as he chronicles his experience:

After seeing the surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, it’s decided that an operation is needed. I’m admitted & on the next day the op is performed. Out for the count for 4 hours. Waking up to find a chest drain going through the tube, leading into a bottle, stuck in my side. It monitors air leaks & fluid from the lungs. I have to walk around with it. A friend has loaned me a “Walkman”, so I listen to CDs of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Charlie Mingus—

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
on the thoracic ward—the swish
of draining bottles

After his lung op
the old monk feels like he’s been
kicked by a mule

I have thought about the title “Homeless in the Universe” and what Bill Wyatt meant by the words. Does he refer to the planet Earth and its place in the vast universe? Does he see himself surrounded by strangers in an operating room? Does someone feel that way during a crisis of faith? Is it a homeless family (mother, father, children, and dog) resting near a busy intersection? Is it someone who has lost their way? I am not sure that I need to know exactly what Wyatt had in mind; I am better left to draw my own understandings from his title. Perhaps that is what Wyatt intended when he wrote the words.

Wyatt’s haibun ends on a positive note as the surgeon finds no evidence of malignancy after the operation. For me, “Homeless in the Universe” contains all of the elements that draw me to a haibun: strong story line, honesty, haiku that cause me to wonder, a title that is open to multiple interpretations, and lines I will want to visit again and again. The writing was banged out on a typewriter and it is not always perfect, there are lines that falter but they do not distract, instead I feel the writing is much like life itself—not always neat and tidy or exact, the writing here is real.


Author's Notes:

1. Bill Wyatt, “The Early Days of Throssel Hole Priory,” in Jim Kacian, Bruce Ross, Ken Jones (Eds.), summer dreams: American Haibun & Haiga, Volume 3 (Winchester, VA: Red Moon Press, 2002), 115-120.

2. Glenn G. Coats, in Bottle Rockets 27 (August 2010), 58.

3. Diana Webb, "Washing Jade on Muddy Water: Bill Wyatt on Haibun," Haibun Today (May 27, 2008).

4. Michael Ketchek, in Frogpond 36:2 (Spring/Summer 2013), 66.

5. Bill Wyatt, op. cit., 117-118.

6. Donald Hall, Without (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), 18.

 




Homeless in the Universe

Carrying this useless baggage
eternity merges in an endless flow
Clouds scatter at their leisure
seagulls call out in earnest
In a dream I return
to the temple where I first
heard wind bells chiming
in the summer breeze

*

I’m three days into the retreat. Returning from the hall, walking up the stairs, gurgling sound in my throat. I cough up a mouthful of blood! Don’t panic, keep calm. I feel OK & settle down. Same thing happens next morning after meditation.

Blown by karmic winds
here & there—I stand alone
gazing at infinity

One of the monks, concerned, whisks me off to Hexham A&E. Lots of tests, full m.o.t. The doctor & nurses very thorough. Finally an x-ray. In the next cubicle, an old fellow has been brought in from a nearby nursing home. We cannot see each other because of the curtain dividing us. I try chatting to him. Further down the corridor, an old lady is crying out, Help me, help me. I want to help them, but I’m wired up to machines.

Mind a silent flower
something wanting to cry out—
a road beyond the sky

The old lady sails past me on a trolley for an x-ray. She had been found, collapsed, in the High Street. She’s crying & moaning. I feel helpless. The nurses check up on me every half hour or so, blood tests, blood pressure, E.C.G.s etc. After a couple of hours, I hear the doctor discussing my case with the nurses: Looks from the X-ray like he’s got a spot on the upper left lung, looks like cancer.

- After Ikkyu -

In a dream breaking all the precepts— I won’t die & I won’t
go away—so don’t ask me—
poetry’s bullshit!

Eventually the doctor turns up. He mentions the spot on my lung & says that I should return home & get it checked. As they didn’t have facilities for doing the scan, he suggested that I contact my own doctor as soon as possible. I recollect a poem written earlier in the year, thinking it would make a fine “death” haiku—

Wandering down the years
arriving at now—sheep bones
bleached by the wind

The monk drives me back to the monastery. We are both starving, no food since breakfast. Everyone else had eaten earlier, so we heat up some left-overs in the micro-wave oven, which goes down a treat. Suddenly it’s time for late afternoon meditation. Never sit on a full stomach! My tummy rumbles, sounding like an earthquake. I apologise to the girl sitting next to me, saying sorry about the noise, it’s not as nice as the birds singing outside. She laughs.

Flying to the edge
of space—swifts sing out
their homecoming song

Trying to part the grass
& see the wind—I stop
& laugh at the passing clouds

Next day goes OK & I attend the Festival for Achalanatha Bodhisattva. Most of the work periods I spend in the kitchen, preparing vegetables for the monks & lay people. After a talk by one of the monks, I feel that gurgling sensation again.

Coughing up blood
& out of touch with the world
I bow to Buddha

I make the decision to cut short the retreat. The monks agree & I book up a train & return home, not looking forward to the 8 hour journey. But all goes well, with no further incidents. Next day, check out with my local doctor, which is followed up over a period of 3 weeks with visits to Hastings & Brighton hospitals with further x-rays, tests & cat scans.

With nowhere to dwell
all dharmas are created—
growing old & weary
I watch the birdless flight
of departing swifts

After seeing the surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, it’s decided than an operation is needed. I’m admitted & on the next day the op is performed. Out for the count for 4 hours. Waking up to find a chest drain going through the tube, leading into a bottle, stuck in my side. It monitors air leaks & fluid from the lungs. I have to walk around with it. A friend has loaned me a “Walkman”, so I listen to CDs of Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Charlie Mingus—

Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
on the thoracic ward—the swish
of draining bottles

After his lung op
the old monk feels like he’s been
kicked by a mule

The pain is intense. During the night I self-administer morphine from a bottle attached to a needle in my arm. It brings relief, but I have barely slept for 3 nights. So I keep hitting the button.

Not getting any wiser
the old monk on a morphine high
chatting to the clouds

At one stage I slip into a series of dreams & drift through alternative universes. A night of déjà vu. The nurse gives me an oxygen nebulizer, as I might have difficulty breathing. The shoes under my bed turn into a dog, the night nurse becomes a black angel, comforting me. Meanwhile, during all this, moans & cries coming from other beds as the pain relief nurses make their rounds.

Listening to Charlie Parker—

Bird looked like Buddha
on his death bed—gazing out
at the setting sun

After a couple of days, the surgeon visits me & says that after the vats wedge resection op there was no evidence of malignancy on the frozen section & that I was making a good post op recovery. So I can go home in a couple of days’ time.

Moon a distant flame
crossing the sea—don’t blame clouds
for laughing at me


Editor's Note: “Homeless in the Universe” first appeared in Presence 44.

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