I did not write poems for a book. They were written randomly. Perhaps that’s not the right word to use. I should rather say they were written at certain intersections of my life and reflected on experiences in my own journey. In a sense they were entirely unplanned. For instance, I would write a few lines and later develop them into a poem (like “Clearing the Life” that started at dawn one day and ended a week later) or I would write a poem from beginning to the end non-stop (like “Cheng Du Dawn”).

December 3, 1993, 5 am:
at the end
of the year
I try to get
my bedroom
in order. With each
day, it seems to get

–from “Clearing the Life”

Some poems I wrote as a project, inspired by something – music (like Robert Schuman’s Kinderszenen”), a place (like Bali, Cairo, Hangzhou, Chichen Itza or Bantayan Island) or an experience (like “Drawing the Characters – Ars Poetica”). The title “Ascension and Return” is drawn from my Daoist studies and experiences and my engagement with the world, chosen after all the poems in the book were written and selected for inclusion in the collection.

The earliest poem in the book was written in 1974/75 as part of a series of poems about children. Norman and Albert were small at the time, we lived in Brooklyn across from a drug addiction center on Albany Avenue, a block away from the hospital. Who knows what inspires one to write? I had big Bose speakers and a Miracord Benjamin turntable. I had a growing collection of vinyl records. We were listening to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and the classical repertoire, and The Little Prince as narrated by Peter Ustinov. We were flying kites in Prospect Park. We were involved in the anti-Marcos movement and joined demos in NYC and DC. It was at the time that I thought of writing poems about children.  I wrote about kite-flying, the bombing of Sulu and a few other subjects that became the “seed” for poems later. 

While I had written haiku sometime in the early 70s, it wasn’t until the 1980s that I began to write haiku consistently every day as part of my martial arts practice and discipline.  The poetry was not written as a separate art but as an integral part of martial arts. I did not say “I am a poet”; I said I am a martial artist and therefore I write poetry. That’s how I defined myself. Like Li Bai, whose poetry reflected his perspective as a Daoist, I wrote from my “consciousness” as a martial artist. I wasn’t into Daoism at the time. My interest was martial arts. The discipline of writing haiku helped me write longer poems, avoid adjectives and adverbs, and learn more Asia-oriented images and symbols.    

The first product of this work was a poem that came out of my visit to China to study contemporary Wu-Shu in 1983. I do not know exactly when I wrote it but “Cheng Du Dawn,” a 7-verse haiku, came out spontaneously sometime afterward. It required very little correction. There are rare times when a poem is “birthed” instantly as if it was handed down from above. Since then, I have written several poems based on the scheme of the haiku and wrote haiku-like rengas with poet friends like Debra Kang Dean, Jaya Ward and Nadine Sarreal, who lived on the other side of the globe. Each one of them gifted me with a different experience: Debra, a published poet herself, was my Tai Ji Quan colleague; Jaya, an Englishwoman whom I met in a Daoist retreat back in the late 1980s, lived in India; and Nadine was a Filipina writer.

Still awake, bats
Fly over the dark river
And a crescent moon.
They descend toward
The moon again and again
As if to touch it.
Beside the willows
An old woman draws circles
Summoning silence.
Her fingers stroke
Lute strings and peacock tails
In the damp warm air.
The woman listens
To the beginnings of light
In her flesh and bones.
Come, watch the ritual:
She unreels the Dao in silk
From cocoons of mist.
Deep in her navel
A votive candle flickers:
A flaming odalisque!

–“Cheng Du Dawn”

When I started studying with the famous master Mantak Chia, I began to learn more about Daoism and its principles and esoteric practices. I developed a regular Daoist practice in my daily life. Out of this regimen came “Meditation,” a poem about a practice called Xiao Tian Zhou, translated as Small Heavenly Circle and popularly known as Microcosmic Orbit.

In 1984 I began attending a weekly poetry workshop at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. It was at this workshop that I met the poet Len Roberts, a professor at the local community college and at Lafayette. After the session, where I read a couple of my poems, he asked me to see him at his office. “Bring your poems,” he said. For the next 20 years, he mentored me, giving patient, generous and detailed critiques and sharing his new poems. Sometimes we would sit by the fireplace and read poems to each other. It was at one of these quiet and informal sessions that I was first exposed to the poetry of DH Laurence and Thomas Hardy, two authors who were famous as novelists.

I moved to Boston and began studying acupuncture and herbalism at the New England School of Acupuncture and Traditional Yang Family Tai Ji Quan with Grandmaster Gin Soon Chu in the 1990s. My life had changed entirely. After my graduation I pioneered a Qigong course that included meditation, Tai Ji Quan and Qigong at NESA. I spent more time in meditation. I passed the national exams in acupuncture and opened a healing practice. At Walden Pond, the poet Debra Kang Dean (she had written a few books by then) and I shared our practice of different Tai Ji Quan styles. We read poetry at Borders Books. The experience with her gave me a larger view of eastern arts and a more capacious concept of poetry. And then I left Boston and spent a few years living “like hermit” (I told my friends) in the mountain in Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania. At the millennium I traveled to and taught in several countries like UK, Cyprus, Egypt, Thailand, Philippines and the Netherlands, among them, and learned more Daoist practices and Daoist literature.

When I taught English in the University of Zhejiang in China about 10 years ago, I wrote an entire book of poetry based on the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Shepherd Boy. It was the first time I wrote a whole book on the same theme and subject. I did not intend for it to be published but perhaps it will be my next poetry project, if I still have the time.

In 2006 I first traveled to Bali and encountered Hinduism for the first time. I’ve visited Bali a few times since then and met some of the Hindu priests and healers. It was an entirely new experience and a different education: I began reading Vedic literature – the epic Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali —   that turned me to writing longer lines and prose poems following the eastern traditional forms of the east.  Of which more later.

Ascension and Return book of poetry by Rene J Navarro Tambuli Media
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