Mirror of Zen Blog

Travels with John

For these searing weeks in August 2021, after practicing meditation together in silence for one month at Zen Center Regensburg, I am soul-companioned on a trip into the mountains of the Mani Peninsula in the Peloppensus of Greece in this summer of historic heat and wildfires with Anetta (an impossible gift of love, beauty, and wisdom-light) and with an otherworldly artifaction of childhood whose Being gave me the tools to pursue the efforts tasting the fullness of Now. He is called John, and he is my oldest friend — a Soul-mate, in every sense of the word. We have been connected way, way deeper than brothers since our first days of kindergarten in September of 1970. In so many ways uncountable to estimate, I owe so much the development of my life to his soft, fragile influence.

John Hennessy is often considered to be one of America’s most esteemed living poets. That is just a fact. He has been published in all of the leading poetry journals in the US. He is poetry editor of one of America’s leading literary journals, The Commons. Just last year, he was nominated by his peers to be a judge for the National Book Award in Poetry. He is beloved by students where he teaches creative writing at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst. He is the recipient of several prestigious writing fellowships.

He has been a revered mentor to two generations of writers in America (though wedded to poetry, he is polyamorous in the sheets of short story and criticism). He has earned the highest awards for his translations and renderings of European poetry. He honed his crafts as a favored student of the legendary Joyce Carol Oates (fiction) and J. D. McClatchy (poetry).

But he’s way, way more than his poetry. He is one of the purest, sincerest, most non-egoistic, non-self-referential, totally self-effacing, truest, absolutely most-vulnerable, magnificently quiet and gentlest forces of human intelligence I have ever met in five decades of life on four continents. He is painfully (to this Zen monk) without pretense or ego’s plotting artifices, a mal-practitioner in his field’s professional cutting ambitions, nakedly sincere to a searing degree of exposure to the needs of others, without game or conceit, preternaturally enslaved to the exigencies of an existence bound epigenetically to the sulphuric Delphic flutterings of his Jersey Shore-slung lyre, so drunk on its toxic petrochemical atmospheres and strange sunsets and Jersey Shore bikinis.

Anyone who meets John Hennessy instantaneously encounters a Soul-man from some dim-lit other era of expression: though his poetry carries throbbing word-whiffs of rap and techno, his soul’s unknowing dance has the fragility of flowers captured in some bathhouse mosaic of Pompeii: a trembling fragility, heart-searing in its naturalness, so pictured for doom for the passings it already knows far too fully for us ever to understand, as we read his images on this safe “other” side of the Vesuvius his soul knows we are destined — like him — one day to endure — as humans, as mind-movements. Tentative, surely — paused, listening — John is egolessly this unwavering super-sensitivity at the heart of John Keats’s “negative capability.”

The image above that I captured of him last week, during long discussion together on the balcony of a house we rented together perched in the goaty hills of the ancient village of Prastos, Greece, reminded me instantly of that timeless image of the poet captured on the wall of a house in doomed Pompeii:

So, 51 years ago, exactly next month, we first encountered each other in kindergarten in Franklin School in Rahway, New Jersey. To this poor Catholic boy, raised in an environment of cold achievement and distant love (and also years and years of dark, reptilian abuse and intense trauma from an older male relative), John was a portal to mental safety and the unbounded life of the mind. We never ever watched TV together, like most kids do: I don’t ever recall sitting together in front of the boob-tube. We explored life through experiencing daily the fairplay of organizing baseball games together among a revolving circle of friends. Before second grade, he introduced me to literature, to lizards, and songs, and to thoughtless imaginings about something called “poetry”, and to the creative spirit. (We founded, together, a literary journal in second grade!) Through him, I became inspired in the arts so strongly that I composed things that later won prizes, and gained me public recognition while still very young, such that an admissions committee at Yale would see it a worthwhile gamble to admit me. (When John was accepted by his first choice, Princeton, and I was rejected by them the same day — my only college rejection! — I was utterly destroyed at losing the dream of John and me studying together in university.) Since Yale and Princeton followed different academic schedules, I would return to my family’s house in New Jersey and, after but a day or two, find means to travel a few more clips further down the highway to Princeton and basically live there with him. For his measure, John spent many of his own school vacations up at Yale.

My middle name is “John”. So I always carry the mention of his Soul in my identity.

Simply put, John’s presence in my life opened me to the possibilities of human expression. The son of a psychoanalyst and a social worker, his early agnosticism/atheism influenced by paternal experiences and maternal sufferings, he brought me to the liberations of rock ‘n’ roll, reggae, and eventually to punk, and to Kraftwerk’s computer love. (He is the first human being from whom who I remember ever hearing the words “Buddha” and “Dharma” — this has had certain obvious consequences.) He opened my parochial mind to thrift-shop clothing in Asbury Park, NJ’s secondhand stores in seedy neighborhoods, and to the Beat poets, and to cutting out of the weekly religious indoctrination courses (CCD) that I was required to attend at a Catholic school when I was studying at public school. He introduced me to the language of poetry, music, and girls. His crew of friends at Princeton University introduced me to psychedelics in 1984, and my world changed utterly: through the explosion of psychedelic experience on one night of a winter on the Princeton campus, I exploded into the recognition that has led me to Korea and back here to make these obvious fruits available to all. He led me to pure rationality; he led me (co-accidentally) to the god who is Gustav Mahler; he introduced me to New York City, and to random dance clubs, and to erratic nothing street-poets who I never would have glanced at before; he introduced me to the soul-seduction of literature. Despite my rigid soul-killing Irish-Catholic dogmatisms, he showed me countless doorways to worlds I inhabit still, to this day. My first trip ever outside the US was a summer journey with him — backpacked and truly penniless — through Ireland and France in the summer of 1985. We supported ourselves by working for starvation wages at a fish-and-chips restaurant in a run-down neighbourhood of Dublin, then ferried over the France and lived for two weeks with zero cash in some apartment somewhere in Paris. Wandering all day in Parisian streets filled with the smells of cooking, and fruits and cakes available everywhere, for the first time, I understood why “poor” people need to steal to survive — it was an important lesson which fuelled my socialist politics from those days henceforth. But anyway, we had books and our university ID cards, which somehow got us free entry to museums and even a few theatres showing old French classics.

When I became a monk, and left for Asia, we lost all contact. (I also cut all relations with any friends at Yale and Harvard, in addition to nearly all of my family.) I gave no explanation why, nor did I feel bound to explain. There was no event or “reason”, just the radical extremism with which I pursue all things that I feel passionate about: giving over body-and-mind so completely to the effort, I wish to consider nothing else whatsoever. It took me more than 18 years to re-connect with him. I was training at a yoga center in Rehtymno, Crete, and learned that he had been summering for many years on the Greek island of Sifnos. Two guys who were raised on the opposite ends of a long New Jersey street came to learn that they had been summering at opposite ends of the Aegean Sea, unknown to each other, for several years!

I didn’t mean to ramble so much, all so self-centeredly. But in these precious weeks off this life ground down into clouds of gathering climate doom, it has been such a blessing to have the space and liberty to connect with meditation together, with John. He is, after all, a person whose greater liberties of mind fostered the dim sparks of my own consciousness, yearning into light. He blazed me with his companion intellect, and with his absolutely slavish votive devotion at the altar of Art.

John reads that same poem, “Coney Island Pilgrims”, under the midnight stars on a deck of our stone hut in a valley gorge of the Peloponnesus, one August night in 2021.

The evening before John boarded a plane back to the United States, we sat outside under the bright Milky Way, for hours and hours, talking about life and the nature of mind. At one point, I asked him to read aloud some of his poetry. He noted to Anetta that the very first word of the first poem of his first book of poetry is “Paul”. He read several other poems first, and then he came to that poem: The poem had been written during the years when I was committed so radically to total shut-off from connection to the West, doing extreme retreats in the mountains of Korea. It was written when there were no words between us, and I had not given any reasons for the “why” of it. Because there were really no reasons why — it was certainly not having anything to do with some matter or problem between his Soul and me. Here he is, reading the poem in an excellent video version of the ancient art, updated as only John could:

Coney Island Pilgrims

As John glanced at the page of the book on the balcony of our mountain hut, he half-joked, “Well, the ending might need too be rewritten.” I do not know why he thinks that. He probably does not believe it so, himself.

Bruthas from anotha muthas: Our parting photo — August 2021: a child of the porny Jersey Shore and a child of seaweedy Cape Cod’s Indian-erased loneliness, embraced, again, by the sea of Unknowing. From life after life after life, May we always, all ways meet again, from life afta [NJ dialect, adv.: “after”] life.

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