Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

[Poem + Commentary]

Al Zolynas

Love in the Classroom

—for my students
Afternoon. Across the garden, in Green Hall, 
someone begins playing the old piano—
a spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive, 
full of a simple, joyful melody. 
The music floats among us in the classroom. 
I stand in front of my students 
telling them about sentence fragments. 
I ask them to find the ten fragments 
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five. 
They’ve come from all parts 
of the world—Iran, Micronesia, Africa, 
Japan, China, even Los Angeles—and they’re still 
eager to please me. It’s less than half 
way through the quarter. 
They bend over their books and begin. 
Hamid’s lips move as he follows 
the tortuous labyrinth of English syntax. 
Yoshie sits erect, perfect in her pale make-up, 
legs crossed, quick pulse minutely 
jerking her right foot. Tony 
sprawls limp in his desk, relaxed 
as only someone can be who’s 
from an island in the South Pacific. 
The melody floats around and through us 
in the room, broken here and there, fragmented, 
re-started. It feels mideastern, but 
it could be jazz, or the blues—it could be 
anything from anywhere. 
I sit down on my desk to wait, 
and it hits me from nowhere—a sudden 
sweet, almost painful love for my students. 
“Nevermind,” I want to cry out. 
“It doesn’t matter about fragments. 
Finding them or not. Everything’s 
a fragment and everything’s not a fragment. 
Listen to the music, how fragmented, 
how whole, how we can’t separate the music 
from the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness, 
from this moment, how this moment 
contains all the fragments of yesterday 
and everything we’ll ever know of tomorrow!” 
Instead, I keep a coward’s silence. 
The music stops abruptly; 
they finish their work, 
and we go through the right answers, 
which is to say 
we separate the fragments from the whole.

—From The New Physics, Wesleyan University Press


On “Love in the Classroom”:
Commentary by Al Zolynas

Looking back some twenty-five years since the composition of “Love in the Classroom,” I now see in it the convergence of three life-defining trajectories: poetry, teaching, and Zen practice.

As a poet, I tend toward the narrative, usually flying close to what actually happened—or at least, in this post-modern age of shifting realities, close to what I remember happened. But I also confess the fictionist’s conscious and unconscious manipulation of details. For example, the “Hamid,” “Yoshie,” and “Tony” of “Love in the Classroom” are named with the artfulness of any short-story writer—to protect their innocence, of course. In its overall gestalt the poem ultimately aims to “make meaning” of its remembered events. That meaning has to be made by each reader as well, hopefully not differing too much in kind and degree from the poet’s intention. (Long live the “intentional fallacy”!)

Like many in the teaching profession, I’ve once in a while found myself in those gifted moments when the presence of my students has unexpectedly been bathed in sweet light, indeed, when Love was suddenly present. Here, I’m not speaking of that warm and sappy thing we sometimes mistake for Love, but the some thing fundamental and awesome, the thing that can bring us to our knees if we allow it. In the poem this is “the sun falling on its knees on all the greenness,” the objective correlative of that moment of sacred reverence and wholeness.

As a Zen practitioner, I’ve been “trained” to open to such moments, which from the Zen perspective are nothing more than this moment, any moment, just as it is. But, of course, that’s the rub for us humans: this “just as it is,” this ordinary “suchness” cannot be grasped or attained as a prize; it’s simply what’s left when all grasping falls away...and it seems to be essentially accidental (though an infamous Zen teacher once said that meditation can make us accident prone).

“Love in the Classroom” was a gift to me as a writer of poems. That is, it came unbidden. Its occasion was actual, real, and the attempted recreation and celebration of that in words was the work of the poem, though early drafts indicate most of it came fairly quickly and wholly, something definitely not always true in my own case. Re-reading the poem now, I think the speaker was a little harsh at upbraiding himself for a “coward’s silence.” I now see a more subtle distinction between private experience and public disclosure than I did then as a younger man. In any event, perhaps the poem works finally as that public disclosure—though perhaps the private experience was not that private after all.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury