By David Jones

Buddhism and poetry share a long history.

Even more than prose, poetry is a very mindful art form. The writer infuses, not just the words, but the structure and imagery with intent, awareness of effect, and attention to detail to create an experience of life–not merely a description of it.

I enjoy poetry, discussing and analyzing it as well as just soaking in it. I’m grateful for this opportunity from Wisdom Publishing who generously provided a copy of John Brehm‘s book, Dharma Talk, a collection of the author’s poetry, for review.

The book is approximately 71 pages in three parts and is a brief, enjoyable ride to take again and again. John shows us in words how well poetry and mindfulness fit together with awareness and attention to the world around us. His lines and verses flow naturally like conversation, not so lock-step as meter-focused poems can be.

There are some strong narrative bones clothed in verse, which invites a reader to engage the words for effect and not merely information.

Part one is a mix of structures and we come to know more about the author, his viewpoints, and his humor. Rather than masking or hiding the writer, these pieces reveal him more and more as we go. Poems such as Wanting Not Wanting and Epistemologies ring with mindful intent, asking us to carefully and intentionally work through each line to arrive at a more personal understanding of the whole. Wishful Thinking is a wonderful meditation on the modern person in the modern world wistfully imagining a less complicated life.

Part two is a selection of short pieces in modern American haiku. Not chained to the metric requirements of traditional Japanese or American haiku or senryu, these three-line poems are a treat because they invite the reader to sit back and reflect on the images and meanings found within. My favorite is:

scattered crocuses

as if someone had planted


Now that’s evocative imagery. Note the effect of bringing multiple senses into the experience; the flowers aren’t planted in strictly-regimented rows but more openly, freely, just as scattered bird calls aren’t composed together yet form an ambient soundscape of voices. It reminds me of my favorite line from the film Prometheus: “God does not build in straight lines.”

Part three, like part one, has more varied structures. He uses short paired lines in poems such as: Design, which conceals a bit of alliteration; No-Self, which does a fine job of personalizing the Buddhist teaching; and Passing Through, which shows us how enjambment can create both movement and extra meaning as the word inseparable is actually separated. The book ends with a beautiful exercise in mindful awareness titled Morning, East Wallingford, where John shows us how much of the world springs into existence when we slow down and pay attention to the stuff we usually don’t take time to notice.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys poetry, especially freeform poems which flow naturally and don’t cling to strict rules.

Anyone who writes poetry would do well to watch how these pieces function in the mind as well as on the page. And anyone who sees the world through Buddhist eyes and Western glasses, particularly reading glasses like the ones I have to use, will relate to thoughts shared in poems such as The Things We Tell Each Other and Metta.

This book is full of keen observation, the myriad details found in the mundane, and humor–a welcome gift in the world today. I’ve enjoyed returning to these pieces several times, coming away with a little more on each visit. I hope you’ll spare John Brehm a little time and listen as he paints small poetic landscapes which are concise dharma talks all by themselves.

Photo: Wisdom Publishing

Editor: Amy Cushing

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