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Before embarking on this review I did a little research into 'koans'. Here are some of the definitions I found. One of them may be right.

  • ...koans are ancient stories and sayings used in some Zen schools and were
    "designed to interact with the learner's mind and assist in the unlocking of the inherent human potential for enlightened awareness."
  • Koans are riddles used in the teaching of Buddhism to help the student achieve enlightenment. Koans are questions or statements that seem to defy conventional logic. Behind the divine veils of seemingly meaningless koans, lie the subtle realms of eternal truths.
    • Each koan is a moment of truth.
    • Each teaser, a stream of universal treatises.
    • Each poser, a beacon to your wisdom.
  • The word Koan comes from the Chinese term kung-an, literally "public notice," or "public announcement." There are reported to be some 1,700 Koans in all. The two major collections are the Pi-yen lu, that is, the "BLUE CLIFF RECORDS," consisting of 100 Koans selected and commented on by Yan-wu, in 1125, from an earlier compilation; and the Wumenkuan, also known as the Mumonkan, a collection of 48 Koans compiled in 1228 by the Chinese priest Hui-k'ai, also known as Wu-men.
  • Basically a Koan is a paradoxical utterance used in Zen as a center of concentration in meditation. The paradoxical nature of Koans is essential to their function: The attempt to break down conceptual thought. Koans are constructed so that they do not succumb to conceptual analysis and thereby require a more direct response from the meditater.

To the review... Eric Paul Shaffer's LIVING AT THE MONASTERY, WORKING IN THE KITCHEN, is a collection of poems

written in the voice of Shih-te, resident cook and janitor at Kuo-ch'ing Temple in the T'ien-t'ai mountains of China during the T'ang Dynasty and companion to the renowned Han-shan.
Han-shan has 307 works surviving. Shih-te 49. Eric Paul Shaffer set out to add to those 49 in the same 'reckless spirit'. The poems take the shape of a biography from Shih-te's being found, adopted by the monastery, and put to work in its kitchens. From the very beginning, Shih-te has no high opinion of the monks.
	These lazy monks
	raise robes to piss in streams
	                    draining to parched throats
	on the dusty yellow plains below.

	There is no teaching these grinning fools.
	                                They stare at my shouts and think 
	me crazy.

	The Old Master was a buddha 
	                                               to undertake such a task.

	I'd rather talk to temple dogs
	and grow vegetables from excrement.
(all the poems are without titles).

The years of research, which find poetic outlet here, are here for the reader's benefit, not to impress us with Shaffer's learning. Wholly unpretentious, a wonderful and joyous book, full of contradictory wisdom, the simplicity of its utterances belie the breadth of its author's knowledge, while being in perfect sympathy with his subject. Some pages here had me murmuring reflectively into my beard, others had me chuckling, and others had me saying, "What?" To this one on page 16 I said, "My sentiments entirely."

	..."What we call poetry is only words,
	                        Let them not linger long in the air
	                                         or on the page,

	Lest they grow great in some future
	                      eye or ear
	desperate for an imaginary golden age,

	and we become merely gods
	                                                magnified by distance
	and the delusions of our descendants."...
I rejoiced in his character's contempt for the unthinking monks he lived among....
	...None need sit facing a wall in sunlight
	to see karma is dogma for fools                        
	                                   and the fools who drive them....
...and joined with him so adroit a writer is Shaffer in contemplation on his character's own orphaned existence, and on ours. Truly, this is poetry of our time.

reviewer: Sam Smith.

PORTABLE PLANET contains three separate stand-alone works; each is rooted in a particular geography, western America, Shuri Castle in Okinawa and the Far East region in general. The poet acts as custodian of history and environment, tour guide and ecologist. His poems are addressed to the reader, rather than being in themselves acts and objects of language.

I enjoyed ON THE OFTEN UNREMARKED ADVANTAGES OF BALDNESS with its humorous observations such as

	Everyone sees the naked truth sparkling on the scalp.
WHAT THE WORLD SAYS (jointly written by Kathryn Capels and Shaffer) reminded me of Roger McGough's work; it is an aphoristic poem that would be particularly suited for reading to schoolchildren:
	Humans are fat carp feeding at the bottom.
I liked the completeness and conciseness of HOW I READ POETRY:
	When I finish reading
	the book

	I crumple
		the sales slip
	     I used
	to mark my place

	and throw it away.
Shaffer's work has a profoundly North American worldview; his poems set in Japan often convey a sense of shock at the otherness of Japan and its utter indifference to his own culture.

PORTABLE PLANET is a well-produced collection; it is worth a look if you are interested in a poet's reactions to different geographies.

reviewer: L. Kiew.