Shinzaemon from Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins
Noah Burton is the author behind “The Enjoyments,” a poem published in The Puritan’s Issue 31. As part of our Author Note series, Burton answers the question, “In your practice, what would you say is the balance between silliness and seriousness?”
I like a bit of wobbly-teetering with my stacks of used-tires. So, most mornings, I begin by asking myself, without deciding one way or the other, “Today, will I fall against the floorboards? Or square dance in a barn filled with pumpkin-pie-worshipping field mice?”
Then eventually I get to writing or reading a poem; faithful at first to the craft, or curiosity, or maybe I align myself with philosophical hedonism. I find the more my imagination is stimulated the better person I am, thus the more pleasure I can bring to this world. Whatever the case, I come to a poem as anyone does: always a pilgrim and a stranger, unsure of the manners we have to wield in this new structure and with this new character.
It is at this moment that we are walking up to a kind of monastery. Incense burns over the pines. A small rope bridge sways above a brook. There are a few snow-covered John Deeres and an old Trappist keg. Walking through the powdered vestibule, we enter a large meditation hall. Monks sit in practice. However, they seem to be caught by a performance ahead of them. Are their ears flapping a little?
Near a porthole window there is a mime pretending to ring the bells overhead, tugging a taut invisible cord; they all hang still.
The monks are in silence. The mime is in silence. Both are devoted—one to reverence, one to play. Such is the way a poem can interact with the world and whoever comes up to it: sincerity and reverence to emotions, friends, and places; and a playfulness (or silliness) in the music, images, and ecstatic responses generated within them all.
Suddenly, the mime knocks over a row of candles and the monks freak out and start chasing him down the corridors and through the bath house, skipping their tassels and nicking their beads around the mineral halls.
We follow behind, tripping and jumping over tin monkeys left wound up and scurrying around by the mime. The moments of pleasure are interacting with the space of reverence in a poem.
Just as we don’t walk into a theatre for the latest hit comedy and, as soon as the movie starts rolling, laugh out loud for the entire hour and a half, not all poems which are serious are always serious. How, when crafting a poem about a death, social injustices, atrocities, and brutality, can a poet have a moment of excitement or ecstasy when an image fits just right? How are we able to teeter between these states? Perhaps the mime is devoted as much as the monks are, but as opposed to devoting himself to a silence, he devotes himself to eliciting understanding. The mime is silent in order to elicit an uncontrolled and electric response that tugs at the vibrant reactionary.
Perhaps the mime is devoted as much as the monks are, but as opposed to devoting himself to a silence, he devotes himself to eliciting understanding.
Now he is tossing buckets of oil slicks that go unnoticed. Like Shinzaemon in the middle of a rain-soaked village in Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins, he slides, spinning around—a katana, unsheathed, in his hands. The monks recoil, petrified, holding each other back like pinball bumpers on tilt. But, after all, that is a mime in front of them. There is no sword. There is a long pause; a quiet enlightenment. Suddenly they realize and break into laughter. For me, a poem that fails to interact with itself in this way is a poem that is either a monastery with a bunch of pious monks in it, a monastery with too many mimes, or one with a mime who has no one to play tug of war with.
Noah Burton was born in Kansas, grew up in Virginia, and now lives in New Hampshire. He holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of New Hampshire. Most days, he works at a bakery over the border in Maine, teaches at New England College and the University of New Hampshire, and plays in the gothic americana band, House of 1000 Sports Cars. He also co-produces the poetry sound blog Poetic Vox: Poets Under Effects. Noah’s poems have been published in gobbet, Baldhip Magazine, Basalt, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, among others, and he is a recipient of the 2015 Dick Shea Memorial Prize in Poetry judged by Tanya Larkin.