The argument had smoldered for a week,
Long enough for the fine points of fire,
Banked from the start against self-righteousness,
To have blurred in the pale ash of recrimination.
I couldn’t tell which wound would be the deeper —
To stay on, behind the slammed door,
Forcing you to listen to me talk about it
With others, or to leave you altogether.
What caused the argument — another crumpled
Piece of paper with a phone number on it —
Felt at last as lost as all the bright
Beginnings, years back. And then . . .
You were standing at the sink with your back to me
And must have sensed me there behind you, watching.
Suddenly you turned around and I saw in your eyes
What all along had been the reason I loved you
And had come to this moment when I would be forced
To choose but could not because of what I had seen,
As when the master of the tea ceremony,
Determined to embody his ideal,
Had constructed a room of such simplicity
That only a decade of deliberating its angles
And details was in the end required of him,
A wooden floor so delicately joined
That birds still seemed to sing in its branches,
Three salmon-dyed silken cushions
On which the painted quince petals trembled,
A pilled iron kettle disguised as a sea urchin,
Each cup the echo of cloud on wave,
And on the long low wall, a swirling mural
Of war lords and misty philosophers,
The Ten Most Famous Men in the World,
Floating at its center the gold-leafed emperor . . .
Who, rumors having reached the court,
Was invited to come approve the great design,
But when he saw himself as merely one
Of ten, declared that because the master’s
Insult was exceeded only by his skill
He would be allowed to take his own life
And have a month to plan the suicide.
The master bowed, the emperor withdrew.
At the month’s end, two aged monks
Received the same letter from their old friend,
The master, who had now built his final teahouse —
An improvisation, a thing of boards and cloth
On the mountain in the province of their childhood —
Inviting them for one last cup together.
The monks too wanted nothing more,
The sadness of losing their friend to his ancestors
Eased by the ordinariness of his request.
But they were feeble and could not make the climb.
Again the master wrote, begging them
To visit — he was determined to die the very day
They came and in their company, and besides,
He reminded them, from the mountain they would have
A view of the sea, its round immensity
The soul’s own, they could never elsewhere command.
The two monks paused. Their duty to a friend
Was one thing, but to have at last a view of the sea,
A wish since each had been a boy bent
Over pictures of its moonswept midnight blue. . . .
So they agreed and undertook the difficult journey,
Sheer rock, sharp sun, shallow breaths until
They reached the top. The master was waiting for them,
The idea of leaving life already in his looks,
A resignation half solemn, half smiling.
He led them past a sapling plum he noted
Would lean in the wind a hundred years hence.
A small ridge still blocked the sea, but the master
Reassured them it would be theirs, a memory
To return with like no other, and soon, soon.
They came to his simple house, a single room,
But surrounded by stunted pines and thick hedges
They could not see beyond. Patience was urged.
Inside, they were welcomed with the usual silences,
With traditional bows and ritual embraces.
At the far end of the room, the two cups of water
On the floor, the master explained, were for them
To purify their mouths with before the tea was served.
They were next told to lie on their bellies and inch
Towards the cups, ensuring a proper humiliation.
The monks protested — they had come to see their friend
Through to the end, to see his soul released,
Poured like water into water — and where, after all,
Was the unmatched view he had promised them?
They would, he countered, all have what they wished
If they yielded as they must to this ceremony.
The master waited. The monks slowly, painfully
Got to their knees, then to the straw mat,
Their arms outspread as they had been instructed,
And like limbless beggars made their way across
The floor, their eyes closed in shame, until
They reached the cups. With their lips they tipped
The rims back so the water ran over their tongues.
Now, the master whispered, now look up.
They opened their eyes. They raised their heads a little.
And when they did, they saw a small oblong
Cut into the wall, and beyond that another
Cut through the hedge, and beyond that was what
They had waited for all their lives, a sight
So sublimely composed — three distant islands
Darkly shimmering on boundlessness —
That in the end they saw themselves there,
In their discomfort, in a small opening,
In a long-planned accidental moment,
In their rapture and their loss, in a view of the sea.
This poem was published in Mercury Dressing: Poems by J.D. McClatchy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and is reprinted here with the author's kind permission. Photo: Jade-Snow Carroll.