The role of tea consumption in Zen Buddhism and other spiritual traditions has become more-or-less a cultural cliché. It is also, at least to this reader, something of a confusing one, at least in light of the way we consume the stuff today. A cup of green tea might focus the mind and help a sleepy monk keep his eyelids half-open for a few hours more. This is a much different practice from fueling one’s morning commute with a “green tea latte” or some other such concoction. The point of tea consumption in current Western practice isn’t to be “awake” or “mindful” so much as it is to be wired and, at least in theory, more productive.
To the rescue comes Paul Fauteux, who purports to tell us “The Best Way to Drink Tea.” He doesn’t do that, exactly, but he does present us such sage koans as this:
Nowadays, a poet says
……….He “sits in lotus”
And is “edgy.”
“Edgy” indeed. The most ostensible feature of Fauteux’s work in this book is its “edginess,” an obsessivecompulsive turning-things-over reflected in the restlessness of its lines and their penchant to twist and re-verse, and a kind of jitteriness oscillating along the porous border between good-jittery and bad-jittery. Of course “nowadays” this Land of Jitters is where we mostly live, and it takes what little spiritual strength we have just to step out of it for a moment or two each day (if that). In that sense these lines are at the hypertensive heart of this sharp little book; behold the sound of one shaky hand clapping.
For this reader, then, the best way to think of “The Best Way to Drink Tea” is as a series of Meditations in Emergencies. For a perfectly literal example of this, see the first of two poems titled “Tao,” in which Lao Tzu (meditator par excellence) flees the Emperor’s castle as the world is “falling down / Because it was heavy with modernity.” This pattern is repeated throughout, though the “emergencies” aren’t always of the sky-is-falling variety. A number of poems feature descriptions of fevered, probably over-the-speed-limit driving, as in “mosquito” and the second poem entitled “Tao.” For another, slightly more pressing brand of emergency, see “furniture,” in which a man (who may or may not be the speaker himself) “is painting bananas / because he is in a rut,” as the speaker (who may or may not be “the man” himself) informs us that once he has finished “gnawing at a picture of you” he fully expects to spontaneously combust, “taking away all the furniture / I like and was accustomed to.”
Here the act of creation itself is figured as a not-always-entirely constructive response to some minor emergency, and in a sense every poem in this book reads as a crisis-response. This, of course, is the way we live our lives: over-caffeinated, bombarded, and in traffic. In that sense these poems are dispatches from a life we all know, but they’re also much more than neatly packaged bundles of nerves—“nerves” in themselves aren’t enough to create the particular brand of poetic energy one finds here. That requires both emergencies and their corresponding meditations, or, at the very least, a willingness on the poet’s part (and by extension, on our parts) to inhabit these daily emergencies in a way that might be described as “mindful.” This is what Fauteux purports to teach us. The result is poems that exhibit a paradoxical (and satisfying) sense of cross-legged solidity that transcends the sum of their twitchy, sweaty-nervous parts.
To read Fauteux’s work for yourself, visit Plan B press.
Mike Walsh is the assistant poetry editor at Phoebe.