excerpts from

There Was a                           Clattering As...  

                by Norman Fischer


This year of plague

A terrible instance

Of tragic heartlessness two men

Both named Vibius Serenus

A son prosecuting his father who

Dragged back from exile

Dirty and shabby and manacled

Had to face the charges

Of his elegant brisk young son

Informer and witness in one

He accused his father of plotting 

Against the emperor/Cornutius

Who was involved

Finding the anxiety unbearable and

Regarding prosecution as equivalent 

To ruin speedily

Committed suicide        But the

Defendant undaunted shook 

His manacles in his son’s face

And called on the gods of vengeance 

“Give me back my

Exile! And punish my son!”

In these troubled times

Of chaos and revolt

Pomponius Labeo

Opened his veins and bled to death

Followed by his wife Paxaea

Such deaths were readily resorted to

They were due to fears of execution

And because people sentenced to death

Forfeited their property

And were forbidden burial

Whereas suicides

Were rewarded for this acceleration

By burial and recognition of wills 

He said after his death by poison

That nothing

Can lead nowhere if not

Back to nothing

Which we will receive in the end

When we are silent



Jesus’ resurrection the most

Memorable and surely most

Significant but it is not 

The only return from the dead

Elijah raised a widow’s son

And Elisha brought back the son of a grieving couple

It happens!

The shortest verse in the bible is

“Jesus wept”

But even after his death

He was not silent

The last thing that can be said

Is like mathematics like forgetfulness

Such disturbing conditions

Such dismal numbers

Tallied daily

Within all parts of the body

Thunder and crumbs

Olives and grapes

Mouths agape

No big surprise

It happens!

For a very long time

To calculate dictional function

To discern originary pattern

In letters’ numbers

Or thereabouts

To parts unknown a person

In location or thereabouts

Is what constitutes the modern

Person who’s got an inner life

Of depth and obscurity

Inverted in spaces

Left vacant when world

Lost enchantment and the gods

Fled into words



It was just before six in the morning

Of September 15, 1840

And the Ville-de-Montereau

Lay at the Quai Saint Bernard

Ready to cast off

And spouting great clouds of steam

In spirit of capital accumulation...

On the first of April of that year

There appeared

Sudden as Manco Caparc

At Lake Titicaca

A man in cream-colors

At the waterside

In the city of St. Louis


His cheek fair

Chin downy

Hair flaxen

Hat white fur with a fleecy nap


From the shrugged shoulders 

Titters whispers wonderings

It was plain

He was a stranger


Leaving a pleasing aura

Lets be clear that here there’s no

Belabored breathing or dry cough

In the bloodstream there may be


Great problems pressing issues

For what you’ve got

No tests no cures

The tests are unavailable

Only the very wealthy can afford them

But you must have a great trust in them

As for the rest a gap

They must suffer the consequences

Of their condition

With a great patience

I had to tell her she was infected

She took it rather well

She’d been through so much

Her daughter’s insanity

Her aging body with its previous illnesses

Her money troubles

One must trust the author

As the author must trust the authorial  process

With full confidence

Otherwise writing

And reading

Become doubtful issues



Neither alive nor dead

Inert on its own till cell appear

With living activity to latch onto

Then commandeer using chemical

Mechanisms of living 

To reproduce mightily

There may be mistakes some cast off

But there are then many of them

Many of them

Many of them

And still more

Repeating pullulation it’s madness

Of the king who yet knows the truth

In human heart the greed the fear the horror

Arrogance blindness swagger

The nonsense and rages on in

Defense of self and realm 

Repeating pullulation some cast off

But so very many pullulating repeating

Array against them massive forces causing great

Consternation among the ranks

Of monastics in cells who come daily

Together in harmonious prayer to pray for them

As they fall so many

Crossing London Bridge at twilight

Under cloudy skies moon obscured

Their bodies piled high in streets

The government secretly digs mass graves

But it is counterproductive

For the dead do not die they continue 

Repeating to pullulate by other means other lives

The mutation’s unsuccessful

If it kills its host it must do only 

Enough damage to go on repeating

To preserve such particularity of life




Testing testing testing

We are forever testing

We are never testing

We are testing but we are not testing enough

We are not testing as much as others are testing

They are testing

They test every day

They test every one

They test those who need to be tested and those who do not need to be tested

We ought to be testing more than we are

In other places where they are testing everyone

They have plenty of test kits they are widely distributed

They had them all along they were prepared with many test kits

They are testing and testing with their test kits

And they are receiving test results they are amassing data

The more you test the more data you amass 

And the more data you amass the more you understand

The more you test and amass and understand the more you will be able to decide what to do

Testing yields results results collated provide data

But we do not have enough test kits for the testing we ought to do

And we do not have enough materials to make the test kits effective

So we do not have enough data we do not know what is going on we do not know what to do 

It is wild it is out of control that there is this that is going on all around us

And we do not know where it is or what it is or how much of it there is

Because there are not enough test kits and test kit materials and not enough data

So we fly blind or we do not fly at all

When there are enough test kits and materials 

Enough PPE so those administering tests can be protected

So that they can administer tests safely

Enough PPE so that workers will not fall sick tending the sick

Enough amassed data then

Data can be charted onto graphs we can measure rates of increase or decrease

And we can know where the disease is and where it is not where it is strong and where weak

We can see hot spots

We can see where it spreads and how it spreads

We can track social networks networks of association and transmission

We can use phone data GPS data CCTV all sorts of data

We can make discoveries

Uncovering from out of the dark and into the light the data will shed in all directions

We can see numbers as light we can feel numbers as warmth taste and touch numbers

And each data point stands for a case each case a person a person a case in point illuminated

Data point we can chart and contemplate we can decide the best things to do

The most effective things to do and how to do them and where to do them

This is unprecedented

This is unprecedented


Although it has happened many times before this way and worse but that was long ago

But each time it is unprecedented this amount of dying or being dying or more

We have not seen anything like it before

We have seen many many things but like this we have seen nothing quite like this

We do not know what to think of it how to think of it what to make of it

We think of it we make of it something a life every day we cannot interpret it it

Defies our interpretation it seems even monstrous to interpret it how could we

Even begin to dream of how to interpret it

Perhaps we should all be wearing masks

They say wear masks wear them at all times not for yourself but for the others

It will prevent you from breathing onto others it will help you to remember not to touch your 

Face it will prevent your transmitting a disease you may not know you have but you do have it

But there are not enough masks there ought to be masks available everywhere how is it possible

There are not enough masks such a simple thing a mask a cloth mask how is this possible

There simply are not enough masks but maybe it is not such a good thing to wear a mask 

When we know or when we are told that there are not enough masks

For those who need masks the doctors and nurses and first responders

Need masks but there are not enough masks for them so when we wear
Masks does this mean we are withholding masks from those who need them most

Though we are not intending to do this this is not our wish to do this yet are we

Hoarding masks which we don’t even need they don’t even help anyway

We are told but also we are told they are necessary they are vitally important for others

It is important for others not for ourselves that we wear masks

You can make your own mask it is so simple it can be done this way it can be

Done that way there are many ways to make masks you can use various

Materials but if you make a mask it might warm and moisten with your breathing 

Harboring bacteria

It might be dangerous wearing a mask you might be putting others in jeopardy yourself

In jeopardy it might give a false sense of security cause you and others to

Wash the hands less sanitize less disinfect less and then the mask would be in this way

Counterproductive even dangerous it could thus be irresponsible even cruel thoughtlessly

Cruel to wear a mask but we are told we must wear masks at all times 

In these times others others we must think of others because

Now it is clear that thinking of others is thinking of ourself and thinking

Of ourself is thinking of others because if you get sick others get sick and if

Others are sick so will you also be sick they will die you will die we will all die

But we can’t die together we will die alone

In order for them not to die alone also you must not die alone you must wear a mask or not 

Wear a mask test or not be tested maybe you would like to be tested but the test kit

Administered to you might well be the test kit so much more needed by another

Let us only test those who need the test for there are not enough test kits

But now there are plenty of masks so many manufacture masks masks available at every

Store counter online everywhere you see ads for masks so much production of

Other things now has become instead production of masks we are all wearing masks we have

Whole wardrobes of masks in various styles colors fabrics configurations but some say 

It is foolish to wear a mask it is merely

Political to wear a mask a badge of honor it is not to wear a mask to show

How you are who you are an independent person one not afraid of silly little invisible things

How can such things hurt you or if they do not so bad really it’s not so bad no worries

The hospitals are crowded the hospitals are very very crowded there are beds in the corridors

The doctors the nurses the respiratory therapists do not have masks they need masks

They need basic equipment they do not have where is this equipment why does it not

Exist where it is most needed how it is this is happening now as it is happening

Where are the ventilators why are there not ventilators where they are needed

And for the patient on the ventilator who is unconscious and almost for all intents and purposes

Dead and the ventilator is breathing for her she cannot breathe she is biding her time un-

Conscious and yet there is no treatment for this disease she must be breathed by the 

Machine and maybe the disease will go away finally and she will be well but maybe she will

Be breathed by the ventilator for a time and then she will die and the ventilator will 

Not have mattered at all but ventilators are desperately needed where are the ventilators
Why have we not heard about ventilators coming where are these ventilators before this

We never even heard of ventilators they are rarely used 

Is all this actually happening 

Is it happening as they say it is happening

Is anything ever happening as anyone says it is happening and is it actually happening

Have you seen evidence of its happening actually happening as they say

Or is it perhaps some kind of hoax a government hoax

Perpetrated by our enemies to make us look bad to cause us to panic to make us look foolish

To make us seem as if caught with our pants down as if dummies incompetent we didn’t do

The sane and basic things anyone would do to manage things well to prepare as anyone would

Prepare for such a crisis when everyone knew so clearly everyone knew clearly obviously

That is those who understand such things study such things are trained in such things

Experienced in them whose job it is to take care of such things 

That this would happen it was always only ever a matter of time




I will indicate the facts on which there is agreement and certain others which are doubtful but not wholly fantastic. The phoenix is sacred to the sun. Those who have depicted it agree that its head and the markings of its plumage distinguish it from other birds. Regarding the length of its life accounts vary. The commonest view favors 500 years. But some estimate that it appears every 1461 years, and that the three last seen flew to Heliopolis in the reigns of Sesoisis, Amasis, and Ptolemy III respectively escorted by numerous ordinary birds astonished by its unfamiliar aspect. Its earliest appearances are unverifiable. When its years are complete and death is close, it is said to make a nest in its own country and shed over it a procreative substance — from which rises a young phoenix. Its first function after growth is the burial of its own father. This is habitually done as follows. After proving, with a long flight with a load of myrrh, that it is capable of the burden and the journey, it takes its father’s body, carries it to the Altar of the Sun, and burns it. The details are disputed and embellished by myths. But that the bird sometimes appears in Egypt is unquestioned.




A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Norman Fischer has been publishing poetry since 1979. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a masters from the Graduate Theological Union at the University of California at Berkeley. Norman has been a Zen Buddhist priest for nearly 30 years, serving as abbot for the San Francisco Zen Center from 1995-2000. Founder and teacher of the Everyday Zen Foundation, he is one of the most highly respected Zen teachers in America, regularly leading Zen Buddhist retreats and events. 

Norman has published seventeen books of poetry and six books on Zen. His poetry has been anthologized in The Wisdom Anthology of North American Poetry, Basta Azzez enough, and many literary magazines including Jacket, Talisman, Facture, Tin Fish, Periodics, Mag City, Your Stuff, Bezoar, Rocky Ledge, Hills, Raddle Moon, Nocturnes(Re)view, Bombay Gin, Gallery Works, Antenym, and Crayon, among others. He was a primary contributor to Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of Saint Benedict, edited by Patrick Henry (Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, 2001).

In addition, Norman frequently publishes essays in Buddhadharma, Tricycle and Shambala Sun. His essays have appeared in such notable collections as Radical Poetics and Secular Jewish Culture (University of Alabama Press, 2010) and are frequently included in Best Buddhist Writing (Shambala).