Crossing the Water
Crossing the Water
Most of the years I have let the lights
and miles amaze me, let the lips and hair send
me over the oceans and back, let the legislators
of intelligence publish excuses for my repeated
seductions; for the graves in the war zone,
for the balcony and gazebo, the vine and venom
I could not climb any mountains because
the smoke in my lungs, and the glasses clinking
the eyes on me; the dim, velvety
conversations kept me bound
to the leather wingback, the fire ablaze and young,
no reason to be other than young until
years pressed seed from blossom
and mother enjoyed fulfillment in flower
and flower to be.
This is how the glass reaches the lips
and the liquor courses. This, in every direction
goes as Holiness in sinner and holiness
as Savior. It is that which makes the gods
muscular with goodness, and the devils geniuses
of evil. It is that which maintains what comes
and must go, that change that keeps the world
the same people, the same gods and lack of gods,
the same fugitives and saints
I am no thief. Nothing is, nor ever can be,
~ Seido Ray Ronci
From “The Skeleton of the Crow”
MU assistant Professor Seido Ray Ronci, a Buddhist monk, poet, jazz musician and painter, finds delight in frankness.
By Lindsey Howald
Seido Ray Ronci strides into his English 4320 classroom on the first day of the semester, whistling airily. He pulls open a shade to let the winter sunlight in, turns to face his new students, and grins.
Ronci hates this room. He hates this building, this big modernist-architecture block called, with almost unbearable rationality, Arts & Science. “That’s why it’s been marked for destruction,” he tells the postmodern poetry class, all 30 of them who have packed into the cramped-but-functional Room 200. His smile widens. “Because it’s ugly.”
This candor, about a building actually tagged for renovation, is the mark of Ronci’s teaching style. It makes him cool. He stands in front of the class, hands in pockets, building rapport with the artfully placed swear word and a quick, biting sense of humor.
Seido Ray Ronci will give a reading 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Green Chapel at Memorial Union on the University of Missouri campus, as a part of the Center for the Literary Arts reading series. The event is free and open to the public.
Ronci’s new book of poetry, “The Skeleton of the Crow” (Ausable Press, 2008), spans over 30 years of work.
“You can see that the early poems are really under the influence of poetry, whereas the latter poems are more under the influence of Zen,” Ronci said. “So the early poems tend to be more imagistic. There’s more angst in them; there’s more introspection in them. They’re intense in their own way, whereas the later poems, they’re less poetic; they’re more straightforward; they’re simpler; they’re sparser; and some of them are actually funny. I think it’s an interesting narrative arc.”
Ronci always tells this class, which he has taught at the University of Missouri for nine years, that there are two words that define postmodernism: “Yes, but.” But if we were to add another, it might be “and.” The students sitting in front of Ronci have jazz and hip-hop and indie and vintage country on their iPods. They can watch television and talk on the phone and surf the Internet, all at the same time. They are the type of people who equally enjoy a visit to an art museum and Gap in the same day.
“Postmodernism is about eclecticism,” he tells them.
If this is true, then Ronci is his own subject. He is an assistant professor of English, published poet, half-Italian, ordained Zen monk, amateur painter and jazz musician. His students all like him immediately, and why wouldn’t they? He’s accessible. He’s flexible. He just stands there in jeans and a gray pullover, eyes magnified just slightly behind his glasses, with his knowledge of Charles Baudelaire melding with George Carlin, here to tell you it’s OK to like both, and, especially this, that one is not inherently better than the other.
“I feel so comfortable speaking in his class because, as he told us, there was no right or wrong answer,” said Brianne Garcia, who took the course during the fall semester. “He is so much more laid-back and open-minded than any other English professor I’ve had.”
EDUCATION AND ITS IMPACT
“I know what it’s like to have a good teacher — I had some really great teachers — so I try to be a good teacher,” Ronci said simply, leaning back in a chair in his office. He cleared his throat with a low rumble. He came to MU after earning a Ph.D. in English from the University of Nebraska, where he met his wife, Marly Swick. Swick got a job offer in MU’s English department, Ronci came along as her spouse, and the pair now share a cozy and colorful office on the second floor of Tate Hall.
Ronci grew up believing, above all else, that education was key. His father, a loud, lively Italian, died when Ronci was 14. At the time an altar boy in a nearby Catholic church, Ronci helped the priest administer the last rites. And the last thing his father told him was, “Do well in school.”
Now, Ronci jokes, that’s the one thing he’s continued to do.
“I’ve been in education my whole adult life,” Ronci said. “So I’m still trying to do well in school, you know.”
In context, he meant to use his father’s death as a way to explain how humans can craft meaning out of any of life’s events. But there is something to that. Ronci’s most crucial moments are marked by life-changing educational experiences, beginning in an all-boys Catholic high school in Rhode Island, where he grew up.
“My freshman year, my first day of religion class, my religion teacher came in and wrote, “Religion is shit” on the blackboard and walked out,” Ronci said with a laugh. “And here we are, a room full of Catholic boys in their shirts and ties and jackets, with our hands folded on our desks, and we’re all sitting there in disbelief. … The next day he came back, and … he said, ‘I want you to forget everything you’ve learned about religion until now, OK?’ Then for the rest of the year we studied comparative religion. And it was one of the most profound experiences I ever had.”
Raised by a devoutly Catholic mother, Ronci had never been exposed to any other options.
“It was in that class I was introduced to Buddhism, particularly to Zen, and it resonated with me immediately,” he said. “This made perfect sense to me, … and I continued to read it and study about it through college.”
Unfortunately, in Buddhism, intellectual knowledge of the practice is worthless if you can’t learn to sit still. Ronci could talk ideas but couldn’t nail down the essential and foundational practice of silent meditation. So he went looking for another great teacher. A poster in Boulder, Colo., announcing a talk by Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi caught his eye one day about 30 years ago. After hearing the Japanese Rinzai Zen master speak, Ronci headed for the San Gabriel Mountains in California, where Joshu Sasaki ran a monastery, and signed up for a three-month stay.
“The first week was the most difficult week of my life,” he said. It was physically torturous, for one; he woke up at 3 a.m. to sit for 15 hours a day with few creature comforts, sweating in his robes, his muscles aching.
MONK AS AN ATTITUDE
But the monastery was difficult for Ronci in another way. He had always relied on his ability to express himself, whether in ideological debate or subtle poetry. Language was his weapon. It was his protection. It was what connected him to the world. So when he came to the monastery, this was precisely the first thing his Zen master took away.
“The very first interview I had, he said, ‘What do you do?’ ” Ronci said. “I said, ‘I’m a poet,’ and he laughed at me and said, ‘You will never be a poet.’ And he rang his bell and threw me out. And that was that. … Whenever I would open my mouth, he rang his bell to throw me out. I mean, I couldn’t even say anything. … But the great thing about that was, he robbed me of the very thing I depended most on, which was my intellect and language.”
Ronci was ordained as a Rinzai Zen monk in 1999 and returns to California for annual retreats with his great teacher, who is now 101 years old. In turn, he runs Hokoku-an Zendo, a Zen meditation practice center in Columbia, and acts as faculty adviser for the student-run MU Buddhist Association.
He challenges the stereotype that a monk ought to be a soft, quiet, old man spouting off sound-bytes about loving and kindness. His attitude, like his poetry, is frank and often leaves little regard for delicacy.