Wednesday 23 October 2019

Review by Victoria Pickup of "Rough Waking: For Those Confined and Homeless (Including You)" by Julian Daizan Skinner, Lazlo Mihaly, Kazuaki Okazaki

Rough Waking is a collaborative collection of poetry, photography and artwork on the themes of homelessness, incarceration and a quest for spiritual enlightenment through the study and practice of "Zen life." Presenting the accounts of three very different men, each having undertaken a unique and personal journey, this book reflects upon the idea that we are all, in our own way, both confined and homeless. Each story portrays a pathway to self-discovery through some of the darkest, most difficult times a human could experience.

The first part of Rough Waking shows the photography of Laszlo Mihaly (Lazz), including his prize-winning picture of a homeless man meditating on the street. His images are rough, stark and sobering, and rightly placed first in the book alongside Lazz’s frank thoughts about his experience of being homeless:

           I felt I wasn’t a man any more.
           I was in pieces.  At that point, you
           Stop being a man or woman.
           You’re just wreckage.

We next come to the poetry of Julian Daizan Skinner, the first Englishman to become a Zen master in the Rinzai tradition, who spent many years in a monastery before undertaking a period of "Zen homelessness." Having founded London-based Zenways, Skinner now works with St Giles’ Trust, providing support in prisons and to the homeless.

His collection, "Autumn in the Monastery and Other Poems" is a deeply personal account of his own spiritual journey and features many beautiful moments. The imagery is striking, there is a sharpness to Skinner’s focus and a lucidity in his words, perhaps owing to his mind being cleared of distraction whilst living in monastic confinement at the time of writing.

From "My Father’s Hands" ("My father had hands of power, / lightening and thunder lived there … When we walked, his hand swallowed mine / in its hard, dry mouth") to "Nigredo," when he focuses upon how the world’s violence breaks an individual down, which only pushes them further to freedom - the ultimate idea behind achieving Zen - Skinner’s observations are often simple and powerful, such as his description of "The Maintenance Monk":

            He’d much rather
            be fixing the wheelbarrow …
            than stand talking to you,
            all knobbly fingers
            and awkward pauses.

 There’s hope and light in his words, such as in "A Meditator’s Forecast" where the poem culminates in "hundreds of rainbows." One of the final poems in this collection, "Freedom Song," reinforces the positivity with strong imagery:

            This tongue can’t justify the prison
            when the jailer’s asleep and the door swung open.
            It’s time to tumble in the shining ocean,
            To loose my heart like a balloon in a storm,
            Let the hammering blood play freedom songs.

The final section of the book features beautiful ink drawings by Kazuaki Okazaki, a former member of the "murderous" cult Aum Shinrikyo, who released sarin gas onto the Tokyo subway in 1995. Following many years of guidance by Zen master Shinzan Miyamae, Okazaki repented of his past and spent many years attempting to atone for his crimes, which include the horrific home invasion and brutal killings of an anti-cult lawyer, his wife and baby son.

Okazaki was himself executed last summer but we are told he was "delighted" to know that his artworks would help other prisoners. Undoubtedly, his sequence of ink drawings entitled "Unsui’s Journey" is of the highest standard: thoughtful, contemplative and beautiful. Having lived up to the Zen saying: "The lotus blooms in the middle of the fire," how one begins to find harmony in such traumatic circumstances is beyond comprehension, but there is much to be gained in studying these pictures to gain an insight into the artist’s quest for peace. 

Rough Waking is an original combination of artworks, combining seemingly disparate accounts, but coming together in a creative and unique collaboration which explores humanity and delivers an interesting and hopeful message from which we can all learn.

About the reviewer
Victoria Pickup studied a BA in English and MA in Creative Writing at Loughborough University. A freelance writer for seven years, she continued to write creatively and in 2008 won the CafĂ© Writer’s Award with a poem inspired by travels in Bosnia: "The Chicken that Saved my Children." She was shortlisted for the Poetic Republic (MAG) poetry award in 2009 & 2010. Victoria now lives in Hampshire with her husband, three children and, of course, a pet chicken. 

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