The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having A Mid-Life Crisis
by Luisa A. Igloria
53 poems, 69 pages
Publisher: Phoenicia Publishing, Montreal, 2018.
To order: Amazon
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
‘The Buddha in me greets the Buddha in you.’ In this collection, it seems that the Buddha is everywhere. S/he appears in the titles of no less than 17 of the 53 poems which are divided into three sections and a coda. Ira Sukrungruang, in his Foreword, says ‘S/he possesses all that is human, every fragility we keep within. S/he is the voice we’ve locked inside. S/he is comprised of mythology, tradition, and imagination….Poem after poem reveals the Buddha.’
‘The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having A Mid-Life Crisis’ is the latest full-length work to appear by Luisa A. Igloria whose other most recent books include ‘Night Willow’ (Phoenicia Publishing, 2014) and ‘Ode to the Heart Smaller Than A Pencil Eraser (Utah State University Press, 2014). Igloria teaches on the faculty of the MFA Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, which she directed from 2009-2015. In 2015 she won the Resurgence Prize (UK), the world’s first major award for ecopoetry.
Many of the poems in this collection are timely and thought-provoking. They are written in an uncomplicated, conversational style and, even though they have much to say to us about important issues, they avoid the pitfall of sliding into didacticism. Questions are asked which cause us to pause for thought: ‘What is a truth? What is a falsehood? What is merely unspoken or denied? (Five Mysteries); ‘how is it possible to cultivate detachment / at the same time that one practices compassion?’ (The Buddha listens) and ‘is the sparrow happier than we are? Is the crow?’ (from a poem bearing the same title as the line just quoted)
Igloria’s poems are bursting with questions. One poem even has the word as its title: ‘Preguntas’. This poem then proceeds to ask ten questions to which we have no answer. Indeed, the questions posed in this book are philosophical and hypothetical. They do not require us to answer them, only to think about them. This is the serious side to the collection. The comical side is quite different and it is to that element that I want to turn next.
The title of the collection is comical in itself. The comical dimension has its hidden depth of course. Comedy is often used as a vehicle to explore specific issues and Igloria uses it as a means for us to confront our own issues, whatever they may be, head-on. ‘The Buddha considers with all seriousness’ is a gem of a poem that sets us all thinking about our susceptibility to temptation:
The Buddha considers with all seriousness
the variety of decisions that revolve around desire:
Nuella chocolate chip with sea salt, pistachio lemon
creme, or cinnamon amaretto swirl? Where is human nature
so weak as in the ice cream section of a 24-hour grocery store?
In ‘The Buddha wanders into the wilderness’ the issue at stake is consumerism. The wilderness is not, as you might imagine, the desert, but ‘the downtown mall’ where he is assailed by products in a cookery store bearing ‘three-digit / price tags’ and a rather persuasive sales assistant called Artemis who offers him ‘little paper cup samples of flavoured coffee / brewed from individual pods dropped in a chrome - / fitted machine vaguely resembling a tabletop / silo’.
We might think that the Buddha ‘has no need to work out issues, or even that / he has any issues’ but we are wrong. In ‘The Buddha goes on the Internet’ the Buddha goes ‘to look for a licensed counsellor and therapist’. This is in strong contrast to ‘every brass likeness and stone statue…that depicts him in nothing but an attitude of pure serenity.’ It’s not easy to think of the ideal as being less than ideal. The Buddha, it turns out, is human just like the rest of us. He fills in job applications and knows what it is like to feel like a wallflower at parties (but does not really mind). Today we see statues of the Buddha seated and serene but for centuries he was represented only as a set of symbols. The big question is how can the infinite, the boundless, be understood? Igloria seems to hint that the key may lie in our understanding of ourselves, in the Buddha within us all.
In the title poem, the Buddha’s experiences are closely aligned to our own:
these days, tears come easily and often, in public, at
inappropriate times; or without preamble as she drives
the car to or from work. Sometimes she has to pull up
by the curb to wipe waterfalls from her eyes – she doesn’t
want to ruin her spotless driving record, much less cause
injury to another creature on the road. Ask your doctor
about hormone replacement therapy, says her girlfriend.
Concerns about global warming, poverty, internet addiction and how we have lost the ability to sit still for any length of time in the frenetic world in which we find ourselves are just some of the important issues that are addressed in this volume.
One of the key messages to come out of this collection is contained in the fifth and sixth stanzas of ‘What would the Buddha say?’:
The thing I want to say
is that the Buddha was also human –
except perhaps with an extraordinary
capacity for understanding I do not yet
but would so dearly like to have.
The position of the line break is pivotal in our reading here. It helps to place real emphasis on the desire for understanding.
Another key statement appears in ‘How Much’:
The problem with trying to be in the world
while not being caught up in it is that one is
always in the world.
In Igloria’s poems The Buddha is a talisman ‘to ground us in the blue distance,’ as we seek our true meridian, something to stop us ‘turning into a particle of disbelief’. Recommended.
This review first appeared in The Halo Halo Review and is reprinted with kind permission.