Keep Pure. Rolling Hand. Big Wave. Breaking down the Fortress. Luck and Fortune. Sound Knowledge. Fifty-four Steps. For over twenty years I studied karate and these were the names of the battles I fought. These were kata, a series of structured fighting moves, offense and defense, that told a story, a narrative of struggle, one in which you might be battered, certainly tested, but in the end you vanquished your opponent and emerged victorious.
I fell for the metaphors of these names. In Big Wave there was a shoreline, and in the first nine steps, you looped back and forth past that imaginary demarcation in a series of repeated movements. I suppose you could say a big wave was coming, and by dint of your martial prowess you confronted it, but I didn’t think of it in that way. For me it was visual, a back and forth scallop on the edge of the water, that I, the practitioner, outlined with my feet and elbows and knuckles. The practitioner was the wave.
In Rolling Hand I was the scrivener, first one hand, then the other, then both, sweeping through the air, a sequence of palm heels and knife hands and wrist strikes (shotei, shuto, koken), of breath and body coordinated. While your feet moved in small incremental steps, your hands kept circling, bigger and bigger, and there was something orchestral about it. A fellow student, a hospice chaplain, once brought a woman with ALS to class — the woman, previously a dancer, now crimped in a wheel chair — and as she watched we struck one note after another.
There were aphorisms too, bits of Eastern philosophy which, repeated often enough, were apt to lose their luster. Some were simply obvious: Be grateful for each moment; others overtly instructional: Seven times fall down, eight times get up. Use it or lose it, one of my teachers used to say, an admonition grounded in American can-doism, and in that spirit I racked up thousands of kicks and punches. But a few held knottier enticements: One grain of rice, one drop of sweat. At the foot of the lighthouse it is dark. How easy to see yourself in the shadow of that lighthouse, blinded by the illumination cast over the water. If I initially started karate as a hippie wannabe who entertained fantasies of hitchhiking across the country but was too cowardly to do so, I certainly didn’t expect to come away with metaphors.
While karate offered up poetry, it also offered up dreariness. It’s predicated on the idea of repetitious practice: each class begins and ends the same way, with a series of bows and a brief meditation; the same strikes over and over again; the same kata. My friend B., who apprenticed with a Japanese ceramicist in Kyushu for four and a half years, made thousands of the same pot — or seemingly the same pot — before her teacher considered her a serious student. Long before the computer, I’d begin each writing day by copying and re-copying the last paragraph from the previous day’s work until, from the pen’s mindless action, a new sentence arose. Dreariness, it seems, is part of excellence. Martial artist, musician, writer, ceramicist: it’s all the same. You put in your time, and at some unforeseen and certainly unguaranteed place down the road you discover that you’ve made something.
So dreariness is like a riddle. It’s not all dreary. In karate there is another phrase ren ma, keep polishing. You keep polishing the surface until a patina develops. Buff and burnish. And then something interesting happens. It’s as if the surface gives way or dissolves or reflects back, not what’s on the surface but what’s beneath it, and you see through to something else, something deeper, the next layer. “The work makes the work,” visual artist Robert Longo once observed. Practice makes the practice.
Dreariness asks that you contend with boredom. That you transform the way you conceive of it from something enervating to something enlivening. What is boredom, after all, but the process of boring a hole into something — a long, dark tunnel — until, with luck and fortune (a kata that some students found boring, mostly plodding stancework and little in the way of martial pyrotechnics), you reach pay dirt. Film critic Manohla Dargis maintains that boredom can be a vehicle for discovery. It carves out a space around you — the maker and the consumer — for heightened rumination. In defending the “slow and boring” — films some critics are prone to trash — she writes, “Long movies…take time away even as they restore a sense of duration, of time and life passing, that most movies try to obscure through continuity editing. Faced with duration not distraction, your mind may wander, but there’s no need for panic: it will come back. In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”
Duration not distraction. Poetry and practice. What convenient alliterations. How do I make sense of this now, after twenty years of martial arts practice, after throwing my last punch? How did one art influence the other?
I’ve written about martial arts, yes; about the oddness of learning to use a knife, for instance, and trying to stab my practice partner with its flimsy rubber blade. About bowing and begging and other lowly postures. About board-breaking and the racialized Jewish body. But at this point, more than a year after my last karate class, I see the relationship between martial arts and writing as reciprocal. I was alert to the language of martial arts because I parsed it out at my desk daily, the metaphors of my practice bright before the eye. And the constant repetition of punching and kicking — by turns dreary, exhausting, exhilarating, occasionally epiphanic — led me back to language. I have, as a poet-friend once said, developed a “writer’s callus.”
“You can’t force it, or you’ll break your hand, but this is what
a writer’s callus can do,” the master says, and with a whisper
The desk cleaves in two under the side of her finger and
what looks like nothing more than the pressure of a fly.