My first love was karate. I was, I think, about eight years old when my father took me to my first dojo. The martial art was Kenpo, a hybrid style developed out many disciplines, and when I watched the instructor complete a ballet-like thrust and parry with his hands in a demonstration to my old man about the beauty and efficacy of the martial arts, I was mesmerized.
Later my studies took a different turn. I studied Shotokan for a number of years. Then I discovered drugs, girls, punk rock and poetry. Not necessarily in that order. And I abandoned my study of karate, but not my love of the martial arts. I can still watch a beautifully executed kata with that same sense of beauty and mystery. In addition, my preferred form of karate is the traditional kata and not what passes for katas as they are broadcast on ESPN with all its music and somersaults like a gymnast on crank. I like clean lines, deft movements, and purpose of form. Perhaps poet and karate practitioner James Maughn’s studies took a similar trajectory along with a similar preference for traditional kata. But that Maughn continues with his study of karate and with it creates gorgeously realized poems that are at once fluent, muscular and graceful. These are lyrics that work against the lyric “I” and instead turn traditional poetry on its ear. In fact, I don’t think there is writing quite like the poetry Maughn creates. He is, to use an ancient, and, ahem, traditional, expression for poet, a maker.
I’ve not seen Maughn perform a kata. I have read his second full-length collection The Arakaki Permutations which is the second book in his Kata series. The name Arakaki, explained in a note at the end of the book, was a karate master who founded the katas Maughn chose to study both in the martial art of kara-te [empty hand] and the techniques he employs in his poems that use the katas of Arakaki as a frame.
Kata to the untrained eye appears as a dance. Its purpose is manifold for the acolyte: discipline in movement and practice of techniques. Katas are pure movement, kinetic, precise, an orchestration of space with the body whose purpose of being is to becomes the dance. Kata, in essence, is a fake fight with an unseen opponent. Kata is central to the study of karate and was my favorite practice in the discipline. I love watching a well-executed kata, I love it almost as much as I love reading and writing poems. In this book Maughn distills his discipline in poems that are as mysterious, and as beautiful as a kata.
I can’t fathom all of the texts located in Maughn’s gorgeous collection. I suppose that’s not necessary. Reading these poems brought me back to that first meeting with the Kenpo instructor where body and movement turned into an art that I could not quite fathom, but fell instantly in love with. As Maughn declares in a snap that sounds like the crack of a gi after executing a roundhouse kick, his studies become an apprenticeship both in writing and the writing of the body
wherein I, reading these poems, was mesmerized. With this book I fell in love with karate once again, and was once again a proof of why I so much love poetry. As I’ve said at the beginning, I’ve read Maughn’s poems now I want to see the katas.
richard lopez is a citizen of the world. poems and reviews published at otoliths, jacket, galatea ressurects, dwang, and other places. he keeps a blog where her publishes poems, reviews and miscellany at http://reallyblogspot.com stop by and say hey.
Copies of The Arakaki Permutation may be purchased through SPD.