Featured Poetry

David Cravens – American Zen

David Cravens’ epic poem “American Zen” counts as one of the more ambitious works ever published in The Dewdrop. With flavors of the Beats, Jack Kerouac in particular, this sprawling ten-canto narrative takes readers through a reflective and engaging journey of adventure, earthy reality, disillusionment, realization, serenity, and revelation. So, put on a Grateful Dead record and settle in, reader. Let David Cravens take you on a trip.

American Zen


Ekasmin samaye…

’91 was the summer I saw them
out in Colorado
I was stuck in traffic on I-25
on my way to a soul-crushing job
& there they were
a sea of tie-dye at Mile High
I wondered who they were
what they were doing and why—
how many times now
I’ve wished I’d taken the exit
driven down there and found out

that’s the year we hunted elk
up near Steamboat Springs
drove out in October
snow shut down the highway
one last vacancy at Holiday Inn
(packed dining room)
old men at a large round table
asked us to sit and eat
it was second season
though they’d been out for first
when the man next to me
had gotten up before dawn
made biscuits ‒ gravy ‒ coffee
went to wake the others
& found his brother-in-law
had died in the night
they’d packed up ‒ drove back east
for funerary whatnot
(body on ice in the trailer)
having returned a week later—
I’d just finished On the Road
& thought to myself:
nobody knows
what’s going to happen to anybody
besides the forlorn rags
of growing old

we set up in Arapaho Forest
me and Owen Owen Owen
& his son Jim
posted along a valley
(Randy’s doing)
Randy’d walk several miles
to push elk through the timber
out into our ambush—
I was first picket
(the crucial position)
don’t move ‒ Randy’d said
I’ll drive them out to you
‒ do not move

hours had to have passed
(cold like I’d never felt)
he must have gotten lost
then out of nowhere a Jeep
(an entire orange family)
driving up and down the basin
scaring everything for miles—
followed by a cramp
that I knew I couldn’t hold—
absconding my station
for a timbered gulch of scrub oak
opposite the valley
I stripped
& unleashed diarrhea
like a busted fire-hydrant—
was wiping my ass with my shirt
at the eruption of gunfire—
Randy’d done it
the elk ran past my vacant post
into the hands of the Brady Bunch
& three that made it through
broke for the gulch
(before reaching the Owens)
turned and were headed right at me—
I scrambled out of their way
near falling in my shit
just as another volley of lead
began slicing the air
thwapping into trees
(only feet from my head)
I fell in the snow
rolled onto my back
emptied my rifle into the air
screaming at the halfwits
to let them know I was there—
some four years prior
(just after I’d turned seventeen)
I’d nearly met my maker
in a wreck on Hwy H
me and Tim and Mary
failed to maneuver a curve
rolled Tim’s truck several times
all of us ejected—
Mary broke her back
I’d gone out the windshield
lay in a field
ribs and collarbone shattered
organs crushed
looking at the stars
unable to move or breathe
knew I was dying
tried to make peace with God
but against the odds
we all of us made it through
so this was a second brush with death—
————-here lies David Cravens
————-killed by middle-school girls

Randy went on a diatribe
spasms of blasphemy
made it clear I’d not hear the end of it



after work I’d drive to the Platte
wash off and go fishing
look for arrowheads—
it was only later I found out
that Dean Moriarty
(western kinsman of the sun)
was really Neal Cassady
raised in Denver’s slums
by an alcoholic father
& who’d spent his childhood
roaming this section of Platte—
Cassady’s life was motion
just like in the book
always had to be moving—
Jerry Garcia had read it too
around his 14th birthday
(called it a turning point)
then he’d met Neal
by way of Ken Kesey—
Neal made as vast an impression
on the Grateful Dead
as he had on American lit
& for the rest of Jerry’s years
he’d think of Cassady
as the most intriguing person
he’d ever met
(an accomplishment)
Neal drove the Pranksters’ bus
from La Honda to NYC
effectively linking the Beats
to the counterculture
& he’d helped with “The Other One”
(Bob Weir’s first song)
& on a winter evening in ’68
Bob finished it in Oregon
wrote the last oracular verse—
then sung it that next night
when a spot opened up in a lily field
left a bus-stop in its place—
Neal lay down to rest
near a railway in Guanajuato
his ticket to never-ever land
shut his eyes and stepped aboard



when I’d first gone out west
it was to visit a father
who’d left when I was nine—
he was moving autoparts
for his friend Dick Champlin
a levelheaded man
reasonable ‒ composed
I liked him alot
we’d sit at the kitchen table
drinking coffee
talking about Alaska
said he could get me a job there—
& one night when we’d been drinking
we borrowed Dick’s Subaru
(the parts-running car)
& were driving to Cripple Creek
up on Hwy 67
when the headlights went out
(a moonless night)
Kevin up front with me
Dad in the back
I wove the Rampart Mountains
via peripheral vision
(only way to see the road)
made it into Woodland Park
when cherries flashed on behind us
Dad said he’d do the talking
started getting out
caught his foot on something
near fell out the door
kicking beer cans into the road
just as the cop walked up—
lights went out ‒ I said
(affecting a sober pose)
he looked me up and down
as if ready to ruin my life—
but an attempted suicide saved me
(right down the street)
when it was broadcast over his radio
get ’em fixed ‒ he said and left
it was a fuse ‒ we did



San Juan Mountains ‒ ’92
drove out in Todd’s car
though he didn’t make the trip
as his sister Sherry
had been stabbed to death
(just a few days’ prior)
by her husband Lloyd Grass—
we hunted near Hermosa
not far from Purgatory
smoked some weed
that Andy’d scored in Durango
countless rutting elk
bugling ghostlike around us
en los Río de Las Animas
se oyen las almas
llorando en la noche—
near dusk I took a bridlepath
then quit it for the pines
needles like carpet
thick and quiet
wrapped a bud in notebook paper
used my cow-call for a pipe
then it began to snow
I got turned around
(never had an inner-compass)
tried to calmly backtrack
paranoia taking hold
could hear them already—
(home and abroad)
one more suburban dumbass
done froze hisself in Colarady
happens every year

even considered averting scorn
by leaving a wiseass note:
it is a good rifle
and kilt the bear that kilt me
anyway ‒ I am dead…

darkness falling ‒ shin shin
(cold panic now)
then I smelled our fire
saw it flicker through the trees—
pot never did agree with me

that following fall ‒ ’93
a mule deer stopped near me
by the Animas River
as to who or what I was
what I might be doing
when I shot her through the heart—
a flawless shot
put another through her lungs
then ran up to her
as she bled from the mouth
thrashed her head
gasping desperately for air—
until I’m dead as well
I’ll not forget her eyes
(looking straight into mine)
the hatred and panic
as the light drained away—
even the cleanest shots
so rarely make faultless exits
just another myth
we use to nourish ourselves—
to think otherwise
is not ever to have killed—
swore I’d never do it again
a promise I’ve managed to keep

back to my job in Missouri
& I was driving home
(a cold January night)
from a place I’d bought on the river
(the St Francis near Saco)
when I blew two tires out
turned the car around
changed one of the flats
got back in to warm my hands
& was hit head-on by a drunk
(an airbag saved me)
even knew the guy driving
from working detox years before—
I’d helped cut him down
from a basketball goal at Aquinas—
he’d been using a bedsheet
to string himself up

I relapsed too ‒ but only once
when I took a shotgun to Bidwell Hollow
saw two squirrels chasing one another
round the trunk of a tree
either fighting or playing
(perhaps an attempted rape)
another good clean shot
but decided not to take it—
all that horseshit
from church and school and Scouts
about the sanctity of human life
never set with me anyway

one thing dies like another



that next summer ‒ ’94
I was in Oregon with Todd
when I met Jerry’s daughter Annabelle
I think she liked us
as we weren’t there because of her dad
didn’t know much about him
or his band—
she called us her Missouri boys
let me crash on her couch
& just outside Port Orford
we took a walk on the beach
found some bones
huge ribs of a gray whale—
& she said there’d been a time
(though they’d come off the list that year)
before whaling had driven them near to extinction
(as it had in the Atlantic)
when their numbers were as boundless
as passenger pigeons and bison
extending into the sunset
during their northward migration

before I packed up and left
I told her that when I got home
I’d send something regional
a token from Missouri
so I mailed her a Michael Parkes
an artist from Canalou
down by Lilbourn
(my father’s family’s town)
oddly though
I’d discovered the piece
at a mall in Denver
(no one at home had heard of him)
I’d stood there transfixed—
it was a metaphor for life
a painting of a gargoyle
leaping to its death in pursuit of a bubble
something ephemeral
(my worldview in a painting)
as we’re all of us chasing bubbles
bartering precious time
to fill spiritual coffers
with trinkets from the store—
destroying the world in the process
killing our souls in the act



Todd stayed out there
spent Thanksgiving with Annabelle
(and her mother Mountain Girl)
& once it got warm
he and Annabelle drove to Alaska
all the way to Homer—
because like those whales
there’s something in us
that knows when it’s time to move
that Cassady freedom we tend to deny
trade for goldfish-security

back home I was glued to a desk
at a clock-slowing job
in an office I hated—
my only escape and asylum
was my place on the river—
a bottle of Turkey and box of cigars
waiting on the porch
got me through the workweek—
one Saturday that summer
I was down there with a friend
snorkeling for mussels
when a noise rang out
something I’d never heard
a heart-stopping sound—
neither of us could muster the nerve
to go and see what it was

alone on the same bend of river
the weekend after that
there it was again
& my blood ran cold
hair stood up on my neck
but I made myself go and look—
more frantic the closer I got
hysterical even ‒ manic
up a steep wooded incline
somewhere on the bluff
sunspots flecking through canopy
I pulled myself up by vines
& there he was
trapped on a precipice
taut skin over skeletal frame
an unsepulchred wraith of a dog
wall of rock above him
precarious drop below—
grabbing him by the collar
I yanked him to me
& we rolled down the bluff
bouncing off saplings
eating dirt and rock and leaves—
& after he gorged on water
we went back to my place
where he devoured all my food—
I called the number on his tag
he’d been there three weeks
lost running coyotes
(having fallen from the ridge)
he had to have known the river was there
heard it ‒ smelled it
knew it was well within reach—
exigent only a leap of faith



that next summer ‒ ’95
the Dead were in St Louis
so I went to the campsite at Wentzville
to see what it was about—
found a kindredship I’d never felt
a pervasive sense of affinity
what I’d wanted life to be—
so I decided to rent out my house
hit the road with the heads that next year
just to feel out the scene

then they went to Soldier Field
& after the final show
Bob and Jerry hugged—
Always a hoot ‒ Jerry said
& slapped Bob on the back
always a hoot
Bob never liked celebrity
found it too constricting
& he’d escape in his dreams
where he was a month later
when he found some invisible paint
coated himself with it
when a younger more vibrant Jerry
walked into the dream—
Bob told him about the paint
but Jerry wouldn’t listen
wasn’t interested
he was looking all around
intent on finding something else—
& whatever he was searching for
he found it late that night

the next afternoon
driving back from Wappapello
I heard it on the radio—
too many years of hotdogs
ice cream ‒ heroin
& perpetual cigarettes
had come to collect its dues—
when I got back home
I wrote Annabelle a letter
not sure at first of what to say
but ended up saying her dad
had founded an ethos
something to outlast us
spent his life creating joy
in a world beset by despondency—
perhaps the greatest legacy
a person could ever wish for



it hadn’t been long before
in the midst of a spiritual crisis
(begat by a nasty affair)
I’d been sitting in my office
when a nurse took my bp
rushed me to ER
(I couldn’t spell my name)
another epiphany yet
of my own inevitable death
then landed in ER again
(too much meth at Lesterville)
found my grandma dead
& then my uncle Harold went
a kind man who’d taught me to swim
in the pool at Irondale
always kept sodas for me
& Hostess cakes
(what he lived on I think)
Randy drank himself to death—
so the berating stopped
though I can’t judge
as I’d near bonscotted myself
on a beanbag in Lakewood
(Long Island iced-teas)
woke up the next day—
torrents of coagulated vomit
covering my chest—
& God bless Dick
ten days after my head-on
something loosed in his mind—
he’d gone to Florida
was living in a camper
shooting up the neighborhood
sniping transformers
(they were talking to him)
turned the gun on the cops
& was killed in the shootout—
assertions of life and death
everywhere I looked—
two purple grackles
in a manicured cemetery
(I’d pulled in to stretch)
male ‒ wings outspread
orbiting the female
in an ancient courtship ritual
near a Cookie Monster
leaning on a little boy’s grave
he and his father together
(having died the same day)
dirt yet to settle
the doll weathered and matted—
I wanted to take it home
find a child to care for it
but after some thought I didn’t

I started reading voraciously
books about Gandhi
Baizhang – Lao Tzu
the work of Thich Nhat Hanh
read Robert Pirsig too
studied Tolstoy and Viktor Frankl
then the entire Bible
& discovered Joe Campbell—
still in the grips of despair
I’d pulled into a church
by the place we’d rolled the truck
looking for a sign
but the doors were locked
& I broke down in tears—
I’d bought my grandpa’s house
a last vestige
of childhood happiness
then gutted it of my belongings
sold or gave away
near everything I owned
(the Mahatma’s advice)
friends thought I’d ice myself—
then a man arrived
at the door of my empty house
canvassing the area
leaving pamphlets
he was from that church
(Seventh-day Adventists)
so I went down that route a while
(a lesson in symbolism)
the masks of God are many
metaphors Campbell called them
for the same inexplicable thing
(said to read them as poetry)
I’d quit eating meat already
taught myself to meditate
was running five miles a day
said I’d quit fucking girls
even jerking-off
(couldn’t decide which was worse)
trying to shape a tao
a syncretic philosophy
to navigate Campbell’s path
Frost’s less-traveled road—
something that would work for me



I ended the summer of ’95
with a float on the Current River—
I took Fielding Chandler
my grandpa’s closest friend
born in Saint Louis
in eighteen ninety-eight
he spoke of he and his mother
at the 1904 World’s Fair
of meeting Geronimo
& seeing the entire world
from the massive ferriswheel—
he’d led a modest life
of restraint and generosity
contentment too I think—
a man who after Grandpa died
took me under his wing
providing a rudder
fletching in a fatherless life
who’d encouraged
my love of the natural world
taught me to handle a boat—
a man I’d wished to make proud
the reason I’d earned Eagle Scout
even throughout a time
when I’d had no real home—
was staying with friends
or sleeping in my truck
an inept delinquent
to near everyone else—
we talked of death that day
of how it no longer scared him
& though I never asked
I’ve always wondered
what it was like to bury everyone
friends ‒ family ‒ mistresses
near everything you’d ever loved—
he was older by a month
than our last Indian war
& fuck-all was it hot that day
(index over a hundred)
taking frequent breaks
I confined him to the shade
filled him full of water
to the point that he got cross
at my ceaseless coddling
yet I insisted he rest as I snorkeled—
diving into a glassclear pool
not far from Akers Ferry
I found an arrowhead
white with two pink stripes
stuck in the gravel
as if it had been shot there
the most unique I’d ever found—
surfacing I showed him
& he said in all his years
he’d never seen its like—
many times I’ve held it now
wondering whose it was
how often his heart had broke
if his life ‒ primarily
was unlike mine
how many people he’d hurt
what made him happy
or if he’d worried over death—
& how little it mattered now

Fielding surpassed a hundred
saw the millennium
& my nephew’s taken his name
so I’ve given the point to him—
more enduring than flesh
or dreams or wants—
I force myself to think these things
when I want a newer car
or a bigger television



it was a jewel of a lustrum
in a difficult lotus
that taught me to move
to step off ledges
(regardless others’ views)
to be an August Landmesser—
& I’d like to end
with something enlightening
of following dreams
finding spiritual bliss
or making peace with death
but I haven’t—
I’ve fallen long since hard
from most my wagons
rallied – rebound
fallen down again
gotten up ‒ dusted off—
still like whiskey and pussy
pills ‒ cocaine ‒ cigars
continue eating meat
(though I know it’s wrong)
repeat mistakes
with evolving excuses—
but perhaps the key’s in trial
& atonement—
in Man’s Search for Meaning
Frankl had written
that what you’ve experienced
no power can take away

so even the worst events
are a source of wealth—
he was a pratyeka
in that the first truth of Zen
is that to live is to suffer
& his take on existentialism
is likewise
but he said enduring ills
is to find in them meaning—
& quotes Nietzsche
in that he who has a why to live
can stand near any how
ksanti ‒ mudita
amid life’s inescapable pain
the unavoidable sorrow
that the Buddha said we’d face alone—
Frankl also suggested
viewing our here-and-now
from the vantage of the deathbed
encouraged us to ask
how we’d have wanted to be—
stronger perhaps
or braver ‒ or kinder
maybe a bit more patient—
so too I try and think of this
& of a small blue monster in the rain—
I’ve some catching up to do

Campbell said as we struggle
we should follow our bliss
(our own particular path)
& he had a friend
who ‒ like Frankl
was a prisoner in the camps—
pulled from the barracks
to stand with civilians
for one of Hitler’s speeches
the passion of the crowd
was so pervading
that it took near all his strength
to keep his arm at his side
keep from shouting Sieg heil
& therein lies our most trying snag
to resist the psychological draw
of societal herd mentality—
the terror it begets
of going to jail ‒ banishment
loss of family ‒ status ‒ friends or job
people turn their backs on you
refuse to understand you
(once they see you just don’t fit)
————newest iPhone
———————–Sieg heil
————biggest house and nicest pool
———————–Sieg heil
————most expensive rock on the manicured hand
————of your trophy gold-digging wife

Campbell leapt off a cliff
back in ’29
when he quit his dissertation
retreated unemployed
into the Adirondacks
(up outside of Woodstock)
& studied five years
only the books he wished—
Garcia leapt in ’60
(or was pushed)
when sacked from the army
(lack of suitability)
quit driving their tanks
& working on their missiles—
then shortly thereafter
he met Robert Hunter
& they lived side-by-side
in two old cars
in a Palo Alto parking lot
talking of poetry
music ‒ guitar—
Jerry’s journey too
wound through Woodstock
& in November ’86
it convened with Campbell’s
at a conference in the Bay—
Ritual and Rapture
from Dionysus to the Grateful Dead

where Campbell spoke of nukes
as an effect of separation
cultural alienation
fueled by doctrinal creed—
yet at his first show
he saw a dionysian rite
uniting class ‒ race ‒ gender—
two contrary myths
yin and yang—
fission may destroy the world
fusion might yet save it—
& Campbell
amongst the primary scholars
of the 20th century
called the Grateful Dead
the antidote to the atom bomb

after he’d psychologized myth
surveying the realm
of the collective unconscious
Campbell drafted the monomyth
that tough orbicular path
we all have to walk
starting at birth
ending in death
called it the hero’s journey—
Nietzsche spoke of it too
called it a lonely road
(if you truly choose your own)
crowded with peril ‒ uncertainty
agreeing with Gautama
that it had to be handled alone—
such odysseys were vital
to Jerry’s timeless music
voyages ‒ quests ‒ adventures
danger and indecision
what he was telling us I think
so many times when he sang of this road—
as no simple highway
between the dawn and the dark of night
and if you go no one may follow
that path is for your steps alone

David Cravens

David R. Cravens is a former Central Methodist University English Professor whose writing has appeared in literary journals in England, Ireland, Canada, Croatia, Australia, New Zealand, and across the United States. Additionally, he’s won the 2008 Saint Petersburg Review Prize in Poetry, the 2011 Bedford Poetry Prize, and has work in the anthologies, Resurrection of a Sunflower, Just Like Peer Gynt, and Poets Speaking to Poets: Echoes and Tributes. He lives in the Missouri Ozarks.

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