Seventy Two Labors poems by Susan Efird

picture of Susan Efird
Photo by Karin Hillhouse.  

Seventy-Two Labors, a metaphor for the interconnection of all lives, sentient and insentient, could easily be titled Seventy-Two Astonishments. Poet and Zen teacher Susan KõDõ Efird marshals the ordinary and extraordinary elements of our lives to send her readers in ever-expanding, ever-deepening directions. The book’s three sections deliver imagination and compassion unbounded: a long poem about 'a radiant pot awake on the stove'; short lyric poems in Song Cycles; and a final poem about a morning walk around her neighborhood and the Milky Way that carries us home. Humor and gratitude, shattered innocence and reverence infuse the whole. Be prepared to fall in love with words and wonders you’ve never met before.  
Early readers of the book have been enthusiastic. Ellen Birx writes, “In this collection, with eyes and heart wide open, the poet sings of everyday life and of our interconnection and oneness with earth, sky, stars and all beings.”

Suzanne E. Berger adds this: "Seventy-Two Labors, the second poetry collection by Susan Efird, is filled with reverence and extreme empathy for ordinary life. Divided into three parts, her book speaks to the sources of stillness, to prejudice and cruelty, as well as to the unseen and unheard. As the poet writes: ‘Just when we do not speak but slip free/of thinking and sentience/we begin to hear the inconceivable/music of the insentient.’ Then what should we listen for, where should we look? To the humble pot for one example: ‘radiant the pot awake on the stove’; and to the always articulate wind. Such polarities in these lines, such fusion of them. Her poetry brings a quieting of the mind, reminding me of some of Wendell Berry’s work. But here we see a more radical vision of what is nature, what are things, what is self. Might we be able someday to hear the inconceivable music? Perhaps so, if we keep reading this book over and over.”
  Seventy Two Labors cover image
  Photograph by Karin Hillhouse.

Gregory Hosho Abels writes these words of praise: “I recommend these poems to any reader eager to be in the presence of a writer with an uncommon generosity of spirit.  With singular imagination and clarity, Efird effortlessly and exquisitely unites the sensibilities of poet and Dharma (Zen) Teacher as she fully trusts each moment’s and object’s touch."

Susan Lynn KõDõ Efird, Sensei, is from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She is the author of the book-length poem The Eye of Heaven with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy (Harry Duncan, Abattoir Editions) and shorter poems that have appeared in Poetry, Southern Poetry Review, Verve, JAMA, A Garland for Harry Duncan, and other publications. Her lifelong immersion in literature and service began with an entry-level position at The New Yorker. She has worked as a volunteerfor hospice, AIDS, and Alzheimer’s patients, with prisoners through Lifelines to Solitary, as well as serving as aide to bird keepers at the National Zoo. For many years before her retirement, she was senior writer-editor at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the founder and guiding teacher of Sky Above Great Wind, and a member of the White Plum Asanga. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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ISBN 979-8-9855621-7-0
First edition, 2022
76 pages

Copies of this book can be ordered
from all bookstores including Amazon.


copyright © 2022 by Susan KõDõ Efird


The Pots and Plates of Every Day     
               For my mother

“Wonderful! Wonderful! The preaching of the Dharma
by the nonsentient is inconceivable,” exclaims Dongshan.
–Zen Master Keizan, The Record of Transmitting the Light
Gather round and share this meal
Your joy and your sorrow I make mine.              
The Gate of Sweet Nectar



The pot fills me with wonder.
Open and empty like the sky,
it shares its upright heart.
It cannot turn away from hunger—
always its hand reaches out
like the sun or gusting wind.
No one is turned away,
it is born to serve.

Scorched black and cinnamon
on the bottom, and inside
scoured paths of shooting stars,
outside, the pot glints silver
like rain through sun in summer,
its wooden handle worn from
decades of dedicated work—
how radiant the pot awake
on the stove.

Sharing its mineral life with mountains,
the pot echoes their daring of distance after distance
and feeds the hungry in every realm.   
The pot is pressed into service on stoves 
in homes, hospitals, and prisons 
or over campfires after a day’s trek
with many fleeing violence or drought.
Always moving toward the fire
the pot offers the warmth
and savor of being alive,
of sharing a meal.

Within the pot hot water for tea
or nutty oatmeal, earthy lentils or black
beans with garlic, steaming broccoli,                                  
fragrant soup, sautéing onions,  
boiling corn, or steeping broth.
The pot nurses us in illness and health,
putting food in the bellies of the wise                             
and foolish, the kind and the unkind.
The pot’s reassuring hand will shake
all others’ and give comfort.

Dinner is ready! 

Come and receive the cosmos itself.
Within the pot not only vegetables
and grains but the earth and sky
that grew them—the red sun of summer,
the sheening rains of autumn,
the embrace of snow bearing eons
of silence and absence, the revelations
of moonlight with plants waving like oceans
tugged by tides and the spring star Arcturus
illuminating and enriching the topsoil
mentored by a chilled earthworm 
which imparts its brilliance, then snugs
up to an onion bulb and falls asleep.
The joyful pot holds the whole of life.



The pot sees clearly what needs
to be done but it cannot provide solace
alone. Another, sleeves rolled up,
must take its hand for cooking to begin.
The pot lives by trust and glows
like the moon by reflected light
patient and mysterious
on the white stove of everyday life.  

The wooden spoon on the table,
the pot’s companion, open as a palm
and like the pot reaching out,
must also wait for another.
More ancient than fork or knife
and more gentle, the slender spoon
lathed from beech and lightly stained
with turmeric brims with invention,
never weary, making the meal—
offering its dance to the pot and
joining hands with its partner.

Close by, knobs of garlic nod delight
and sinuous salt and pepper
sentinels gather their wits.

The pot’s eternal calling is imbued with humor—
it is after all only a pot, and unadorned,
disappearing into service. Laughing at itself
the pot calls out to those in need
of conversation and laughter
to keep their meals warm.



The pot devotes itself to every cook.

A cashier at a casino who lost
her job fixes dinner for her girls
a soup her mother made—fried pasta shells,
tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and water.
The younger child sets out a bowl and
spoon for her dreadlocked doll who loves
the ceremonies of daily life.

Thinning gray hair, masked, the sous-chef
in a hospital kitchen boils spaghetti
in huge pots for staff treating 
Covid patients. Outside, a refrigerated
truck serves as neighborhood morgue.
Seeing faces exhausted beneath
shields, he bows his head and weeps.

A boy named Lucky, youngest of four,
breaking from his online class,
stirs a simple syrup for lemonade.                                              
Ill with cancer, his mother reads aloud
the recipe and watches lemons roll
like small suns across the long maple island
in that never-ending moment with her son.

Escaping drought, crops ruined,
they stop for a break on the outskirts
of a town after finding no food
and heat water for coffee.
Backpacks for pillows, 
he, his wife, and their girl Rosa
rest before resuming their route,
hoping for food tomorrow.
Their life on the road toward life
is replete only with tomorrows.

A man at Eastham, a Texas prison,
prays for the well-being of the cook
who heated his green beans and hot dog.                                 
That’s better than some folks get, 
he thinks, but the cockroaches—
I know them have joys and sadness.
Coaxing one to leave his cell,
he tells her, “But wrong house,
go next door.  Sh-h-h-h-h!
Dakota don’t need to know.”

Late at night an elderly woman scoops
water from the basement as a gale batters
her house. A sleeve on her knee since
the last hurricane. Now, a tropical storm
brewing. The swaying bulb blinks out.
Light is exhausted too, she thinks, and
feels her way upstairs. She finds the pot
waiting on the stove. Maybe creamed
spinach tomorrow.

At a shelter the man cleaning a pot
watches as men eat their oatmeal
then begin to go separate ways.
The last to leave, a carpenter, his tools
stolen from his truck, then the truck
stolen. Carrying a frayed blanket,
he hunts for cardboard to sleep
on that night. “Just help me,”
he prays. “Ok? Just a little?”  

Somewhere in heaven Miss Cissy 
cooks chicken stew for her son George.
“You were there for me,” he says.
“I heard you call out—I’m not far away.
I put fresh sheets on your bed.
George, before we eat say a prayer.”
“Dear God thank you for our breaths
which nothing can extinguish
and for this hearty food.”
They gaze out over the many hands
stretching down to connect with
the hands of those jailed and those still
marching, until they finally return
home and reheat leftovers for dinner.
Miss Cissy smiles at her son George Perry.
“Please pass the stew,” he says.     


Distressed that so many have little food
the pot sighs an endless aspiration to feed everyone—
the scared   the left behind   those alone
families in line in cars for hours at food banks   
those without cars or meals
their frightened children
ICU patients starved for life
others starved for love or justice
the ravaged planet itself.

Intensifying its efforts the pot unfolds
a thousand arms, praying that sustenance
for everyone be expanded beyond measure.
Taking a hand we shake hands
with everything that is and together
watch for the stove’s coiled lightning.
The pot fires its iron roots—stars
combusting into being after the Big Bang—
both heaven and earth heat the green beans
and chicken stew and the glorious, plentiful food.


Near the window on the white counter
the pot recuperates with friends
in the early morning. Listening
like a valley, the pot fills with birdsong
and the high notes of the coreopsis.
And the sounds of pebbles alive—
their pebble hands shining
with the enduring strangeness of clouds.

And inside, from the cutting board
with incised verticals like sheeting
rain a soothing thrumming. 
From the green ancestral branches
of the spoon rustlings above
the forest floor just waking up.
The kitchen walls in lacquered
shadow sing by gleaming.
The hint of songs of pots 
and pebbles, cutting boards, and spoons.

Just when we do not speak but slip free
of thinking and sentience
we begin to hear the inconceivable
music of the insentient—
their no striving after movement or gain,
the elegance of nothing extra
in a culture addicted to more,
their ebullient service to life and 
wondrous receptivity to being,
their beyond human teaching.

This silence of wisdom and ease
emanates from the pot and its friends
near the patio and in the small kitchen
at the blue nearing of dawn.



I watch bubbles skip above the singing
water, pot ablaze, as steam rises
framing my face. With ready intent
and hungry, I pour lentils into the reeling
cauldron then seize the comet spoon and stir.
The woman feeding her family pasta soup
and the man in solitary eating his beans
and praying for the cook—how are they?
I cover the simmering pot and wait.

A great mix of ingredients is poured
into pots around the world. Magnanimous
as the ocean the pot welcomes everything,
then delivers the bounty wholeheartedly. 
In this day-to-day life on a minor spiral arm
of the Milky Way and Sagittarius A* which houses
our little corner of Earth and sun and stars,
I soon uncover the pot then sit down
to my lunch of lentils and thyme.                                                                  


Seeing the pot reach out we see who we are
and at once reach out to those who hunger in any form.
We reach out to the shattered, the struggling.
We reach out to workers without work
freezing at home without heat or prospect.
We reach out to the old, dying without
human touch or the gaze of a familiar face.
We reach out to dying rhinos, red wolves,
and wetlands lost to parking lots.

As we reach out we see that others 
are also reaching out, bestowing gifts.
Why had we not seen this before? 

The drift of seas affirms the drift of seasons.
The mountains of Earth fade into emptiness 
shoring up the mountains of Mars. Our warm stoves
revive our wider home, our warm bridge
of stars. Shadows mirror light
at play in unceasing creation.                         



All of life brings forth life and possibility—
even a virus quickens compassion.
Is there anything that is not alive and
utterly generous? Braided as one
sentient and insentient, indistinguishable.
We throw open doors and floors, tear off the roof
pull down the open sky and let life stream in.
We are the pots, the pebbles, and the poise
of cutting boards, and they are us
the oneness of our ordinary lives
originating in the stars.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Together we prepare the supreme meal
for each other, holding back nothing.
We draw on even our fears and darkness,
our limitations, as a blade of grass
shares shadows and a hill its loneliness.
With courage and kindness like the pot
we sustain and encourage life.

Whatever food satisfies our longings
whatever succor the flower or street requires
we offer and receive from one another.
Quiet in mystery, our timeless origins
ignite the light and code of existence,
embedding in the DNA of every emerging
cell of our vast connected life compassion.
We are the love the universe pours into us
and into the pots and plates of every day.

We take our places at the table.
Even the freshening wind sits down with us.
We dine on a feast of every taste and texture.
Led by birds, songs praise this meal of meals
which resolves every thirst and hunger.
As we savor the best wine from the Big Dipper
perfectly aged over billions of years, we share
our joys and sorrows and deep gratitude.
Laughter rises like a spring of life-weaving waters.

The unsurpassable peace of pots.