still life landscapes

Darren Bifford reflects on the ritual of routine & how routine becomes ritual.

illustration by elisabeth belliveau


All of you undisturbed cities,
haven’t you ever longed for the Enemy?
– Rilke

Before the birds come,
the street sweeper machine sounds
over St Laurent:
Lights flashing in circles
like emergencies
on the dark windows and brick building sides.
A man sleeps
hunched over on one of the benches.
As if sick, he’ll open his eyes soon and see the ground
around his feet.
The fear is under there.
An apartment window
over St Dominique – lights on –
 – curtains open – black hair –
a woman looks out.
I stand on the steps;
the tea cup hot, almost burning
my fingertips.
I barely hold on.
Water to the brim. Keeping
it still. Breathing.
An hour now before
any sign of
first light.

Through the course of September when these poems were written, I had been living and practising at a Zen Buddhist centre in Montréal. Zen teachers often say that “Zen is simple,” that all the difficulties students may have with the practice is their own fault. Indeed, after the strangeness of the form of Zen practice fades (with all the bowing, bells, claps of wood, chanting somehow becoming familiar), one is struck by its routine. Every day, it would be pretty much the same for me. I’d wake up at 5:30 am; I’d prepare the zendo, unlock the front door and boil a pot of tea. Other practitioners would eventually arrive for the 6 am sit. And then in the zendo, the same order of movements. After a time, it might come to seem like a dance, where every movement has its place and nothing is done thoughtlessly. That’s when it’s “simple.” Otherwise, ritual becomes routine …


Darren Bifford is a poet and non-fiction writer. His work has appeared in various Canadian journals. He is a contributing editor at Matrix Magazine, and currently teaches in the Humanities department at Champlain College. Darren lives in Montréal.


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