“Meeting the Buddha” by Craig van Rooyen

Craig van Rooyen


A man hikes a mountain road with his daughter.
She is two and rides his back. Prayer flags make
river stones of their ears. But the poem does not start here.

At some unmarked bend in the sky, the girl
drops a stuffed animal. Nor is this the beginning.
Only family can fathom the scale of this loss.

Others who measure suffering in epidemics and
battlefield casualties understandably take no notice.
Yet for two years the girl has never entered sleep

without the presence of the cotton rabbit.
Mornings, her parents must speak to the stuffed
piece of cloth before they are allowed to address

their daughter. When the girl prays, she mouths
the rabbit’s secret totem name in gratitude.
Needless to say, the man spends all afternoon

tracing and retracing his ascent. And since,
in the local dialect, he does not know the words
for “have you perhaps seen a furry pink bunny?”

he suffers in silence and returns home, hands empty
as last spring’s birds’ nests. Still, the poem has not
started. That night, the girl sleeps for the first time

with the Buddha. (Surely even he secretly believed
some attachments worth the suffering?) And when
she wakens, clutching at the emptiness beside her,

when she rubs a phantom ear between
her thumb and finger, when she cannot find the words
for the nothing in her center, then and only then,

the poem finally starts—the beginning of some
essential song she will spend her life trying
to turn to praise. Think of the echoing sea in

lightning whelk shells; the rattle of a summer gourd
in winter. Not to mention the tiny flutes
made from the hollow bones of songbirds.

from Rattle #53, Fall 2016

[download audio]


Craig van Rooyen: “The fact is, we lose stuff all the time. If you’re lucky, it’s just your wallet. Tomorrow it could be your dog. At some point, it will be your mother. One of the jobs of a poet is to make music out of loss. That last sentence sounds pretty and is kind of philosophical, which is why it would never work in a poem. It’s also probably offensive to someone who has just experienced a big loss. A good poem, on the other hand, makes a sound that readers recognize as their own. I write to come closer to making that sound.”

Rattle Logo