Monastery Nights

By Chase Twichell b. 1950 Chase Twichell
I like to think about the monastery   
as I’m falling asleep, so that it comes   
and goes in my mind like a screen saver.   
I conjure the lake of the zendo,   
rows of dark boats still unless   
someone coughs or otherwise   
ripples the calm.   
I can hear the four AM slipperiness   
of sleeping bags as people turn over   
in their bunks. The ancient bells.

When I was first falling in love with Zen,
I burned incense called Kyonishiki,
“Kyoto Autumn Leaves,”
made by the Shoyeido Incense Company,   
Kyoto, Japan. To me it smelled like   
earnestness and ether, and I tried to imagine   
a consciousness ignorant of me.   
I just now lit a stick of it. I had to run downstairs   
for some rice to hold it upright in its bowl,   
which had been empty for a while,   
a raku bowl with two fingerprints   
in the clay. It calls up the monastery gate,   
the massive door demanding I recommit myself   
in the moments of both its opening   
and its closing, its weight now mine,   
I wanted to know what I was,   
and thought I could find the truth   
where the floor hurts the knee.

I understand no one I consider to be religious.   
I have no idea what’s meant when someone says   
they’ve been intimate with a higher power.
I seem to have been born without a god receptor.   
I have fervor but seem to lack   
even the basic instincts of the many seekers,   
mostly men, I knew in the monastery,   
sitting zazen all night,   
wearing their robes to near-rags   
boy-stitched back together with unmatched thread,   
smoothed over their laps and tucked under,   
unmoving in the long silence,   
the field of grain ripening, heavy tasseled,   
field of sentient beings turned toward candles,   
flowers, the Buddha gleaming   
like a vivid little sports car from his niche.

What is the mind that precedes   
any sense we could possibly have   
of ourselves, the mind of self-ignorance?   
I thought that the divestiture of self   
could be likened to the divestiture   
of words, but I was wrong.   
It’s not the same work.   
One’s a transparency   
and one’s an emptiness.

Kyonishiki.... Today I’m painting what Mom   
calls no-colors, grays and browns,   
evergreens: what’s left of the woods   
when autumn’s come and gone.   
And though he died, Dad’s here,   
still forgetting he’s no longer   
married to Annie,   
that his own mother is dead,   
that he no longer owns a car.   
I told them not to make any trouble   
or I’d send them both home.
Surprise half inch of snow.   
What good are words?

And what about birches in moonlight,   
Russell handing me the year’s   
first chanterelle—
Shouldn’t God feel like that?

I aspire to “a self-forgetful,   
perfectly useless concentration,”   
as Elizabeth Bishop put it.   
So who shall I say I am?   
I’m a prism, an expressive temporary   
sentience, a pinecone falling.   
I can hear my teacher saying, No.   
That misses it.
Buddha goes on sitting through the century,   
leaving me alone in the front hall,
which has just been cleaned and smells of pine.

Chase Twichell, “Monastery Nights” from Dog Language. Copyright © 2005 by Chase Twichell. Used by permission of Copper Canyon Press,

Source: Dog Language (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)

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Poet Chase Twichell b. 1950

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

Subjects Buddhism, Faith & Doubt, Religion

 Chase  Twichell


Chase Twichell was born in New Haven, Connecticut. She earned her BA from Trinity College and MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A practicing Buddhist, she is the author of several books of poetry, and her work often reflects her spiritual practice. In an interview Twichell note that “Zen is said to be a ‘mind-to-mind transmission.’ The best poems are exactly that: they leap from one mind to another without stopping to explain . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Buddhism, Faith & Doubt, Religion

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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