Category Archives: books

Japanese cats and poetic lives.

Yōko Sano was an award-winning Japanese children’s author and illustrator. I found out about her because until her death in 2010 she was the wife of Shuntarō Tanikawa, “one of the most widely read and highly regarded of living Japanese poets, both in Japan and abroad, and a frequent subject of speculations regarding the Nobel Prize in Literature.” (Wikipedia)

I read poems by Tanikawa that I liked, while reading a bit in the Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry, translated and compiled by Edith Marcombe Shiffert and Yuki Sawa. Here’s one:

PICNIC to the EARTH

Here let’s jump rope together, here.
Here let’s eat rice balls together.
Here I will love you.
Your eyes reflect the blue of the sky,
Your back will be dyed with the green of the herbs.
Here we will learn the names of the stars together.

Staying here let’s imagine all the things that are far off.
Here let’s gather seashells.
From the sea of the daybreak’s sky
let’s bring back the tiny starfish.
At breakfast we will throw them out
and let the night go away.

Here I will keep on saying “I have returned!”
as long as you repeat “Welcome back!”
Here I will keep on returning to again and again.
Here let’s drink hot tea.
Here sitting together for a while
let’s have the refreshing wind touching us.

I like to think he was writing this to his wife Yōko. She illustrated a volume of his poetry, but she is especially famous in the West for her own book The Cat That Lived a Million Times, which was the inspiration for one of my favorite movies, “Groundhog Day.”

The cat in the story, which I’ve only read about, because my library doesn’t have that book, is reincarnated again and again but never learns to love until he has a cat “wife” and family. This is a little different from Bill Murray’s character in the movie, because when the insufferably conceited Phil Connors is punished, he is forced to live the same day over and over again. He tries to escape by death but that is evidently impossible; eventually he gets over himself and is released from the torturous day.

I did borrow I Am a Cat by Natsume Sōseki from my local library. Its beginning chapter was the first short story that Sōseki ever wrote, and he intended for it to stand alone. But the editor of the magazine in which it was published — more than a hundred years ago now — persuaded him to continue it as a series, and that is how the novel was born. I did read that first chapter, but I don’t know if I will go on, much as I enjoyed the character of the nameless cat. My stacks of books from the broad genre of Japanese literature are tall, and life is short!

In the same poetry anthology mentioned above I read Makoto Ōoka, a contemporary of Tanikawa, and this evocative poem:

TO LIVE

I wonder if people know
that there are several layers in the water?
Fish deep in it and duckweed drifting on its surface
bathe in different lights.
That makes them various colored.
That gives them shadows.

I gather up pearls on a pavement.
I live inside a phantom forest;
upon notes of music scattered over the strings of my being.
I live in hollows of drops that trickle upon snow;
in damp ground of morning where the liverwort opens.
I live upon a map of the past and future.

I have forgotten the color my eyes were yesterday.
But what things my eyes saw yesterday
my fingers realize
because what my eyes saw was by hands
patted like touching the bark of a beech tree.
O I live upon sensations blown about by wind.

Cats do not seem to be a common subject for Japanese poetry. In two anthologies I didn’t find one on that subject, though at least two poems mentioned babies teething. To conclude my ramblings on my browsing I give you this 11th-century verse from One Hundred Poems from the Japanese translated by Kenneth Rexroth:

Involuntary,
I may live on
In the passing world,
Never forgetting
This midnight moon.

-The Emperor Sanjō

japanese moon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach”  by Kawase Hasui

It’s about light and seeing.

This was a Sunday extra-full of intellectual stimulation, so much so that I feel I must write in order to debrief and process the swirling thoughts. (The church property was also graced with thousands of manzanita blossoms, with which I am decorating my post.)

As I have mentioned before, we are reading The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis this year in the high school class that meets, as they all do, after we have partaken of the Holy Gifts, toward the end of Divine Liturgy. Today I was amazed at the scope of philosophy and questions we touched on in half a chapter of the book: What is a person? What purpose should art serve? How can we resist the urges from without and within to imbibe and conform to the culture we are born into?

The fictional story is of ghosts who get a chance at Heaven by taking a bus trip from Hell. They have been in the process of becoming more or less human for a long time. Is it hundreds or thousands of years? Hard to say. Our narrator’s guide by the middle of the book is none other than George MacDonald himself, who explains a great deal of what is going on.

About one ghost who appears to the narrator not to be really wicked, but only “into a habit of grumbling,” MacDonald says, “The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman — even the least trace of one — still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.”

The blessed spirits journey for ages to meet the excursionists from Hell, and try to persuade them to cast off whatever hinders, and to stay in Heaven. Today’s reading included such an interview, between two men who had known of each other in the previous life, where they were both artists. When the ghost arrives, he looks around briefly and immediately wants to start painting.

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you,” says the blessed spirit, and goes on to explain, “When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came…. If you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

I wonder if George MacDonald struggled to keep his artistic focus on “telling about light,” if he ever found himself writing for the love of his own voice and to promote his reputation as a writer and storyteller. If so, he must have noticed, and repented. The glimpses of heavenly realities he was able to give have helped thousands to keep their eyes toward their life-giving Lord.

As often happens, the homily we had heard an hour earlier contributed to our lesson. This time Father John was telling us about the word peculiar in the King James translation, used in I Peter when the apostle is speaking to us who have been “called out of darkness into his marvelous light.” It comes from a Greek word that tells us we belong to God; we are possessed. We mused about how this fundamental truth about our personhood can help us to come back again and again to that light, His light, and not get distracted forever from our purpose, and from His life-giving Spirit.

I was not through being challenged to think, and to try forming my thoughts into speech fast enough to contribute to a discussion, because our women’s book club from church was gathering around my table mid-afternoon. We certainly didn’t need to eat, but you know how it is, one may rarely have a gathering of any sort in our society without serving food, and it is fun! …so I did put out a few snacks, and tea things and mugs.

We were discussing The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. A couple of the younger women had read it 20 years ago, and liked it then. But they have changed, and did not enjoy it much. None of us thought it was great, and I only read half, and won’t say more about it here. Next time we are reading Wounded by Love by Elder Porphyrios, picked from a half dozen suggestions of literary sustenance for our Lenten journey coming up in a few weeks.

Okay, now I’ve made my little report, and I hope I caught a ray of light somewhere in it. At least from the darling manzanita.

Haiku for February

The many streams of Japanese literature I’ve looked into over the last month have flowed into a river that remains a bit muddy for me, something like the creek down the street as it appeared this morning. But just as on those waters I see beautiful things reflected, I am being greatly enriched by several writers, and meandering along rabbit trails still so mysterious, I don’t have much to tell yet.

I decided not to read The Gate by Natsume Sōseki, because it sounded too much like Kokoro, but in reading about the author I learned that he wrote a lot of poetry, and before I had taken two steps down that trail I found these two haiku poems by him that shed some light on recent days.

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

Yesterday I didn’t go walking in the afternoon as planned, because of just such a scene out my window, with dark clouds suddenly filling the background where sun had a few minutes before been enticing me. The weather has been freezing, even under the sun.

The cold wintry wind
Is blowing so hard that
The sun sinks into the ocean.

This morning rainy weather has returned, a little warmer, so I went out before the clouds started to empty themselves. Last week I’d seen people walking on the other side of the creek along one stretch that I haven’t explored so much, and today I found that route, which was not much of a path, mostly a vague line where grass had been trampled into the mud, but with interesting little details so be seen.

A eucalyptus tree that had fallen, but kept growing in its humbled condition. A daisy, and fennel shoots in clusters of Irish-green ferny filaments, and — oh, the path petered out into puddles, and obviously my boots were not waterproofed enough to go farther.

I’m going to build a fire in the stove now, and do a little more management of belongings and spaces pre-remodel, and then I hope to sit by the stove and read Curdie and/or some Japanese poetry while I listen to the rain. Just last night I put several books on hold at the library, and added a couple to my Kindle library, almost all from the genre of Japanese literature.

That creek is muddy because there is so much stuff suspended in the water. Animal, vegetable, mineral matter — living things and the elements and food that constitute their beings. And in my mind, another sort of living, nourishing material that a week ago seemed to be just a hopeless mishmash. Now that I’m beginning to pick out a few particulars to consider, and to see patterns and currents of culture and humanity, there is much beauty.

Glimmers and daily bread.

In regard to my reading habits of late, I am behaving much as I did during the months when my husband was sick unto death. It must be that the challenging remodeling project, combined with the physical disorder in several rooms, are taking all my resources to deal with it all, and making me hungry for literary comfort food. It’s hard to predict what I will be able to attend to, as I am impatient and flighty. The rare poem, or children’s stories of the deep and primal sort — those seem to be the best right now.

In the high school class that I help teach at church, we are are still working our way through C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, in which story George MacDonald has a part, being as he was greatly responsible for Lewis coming to faith. That got us talking about MacDonald’s books, and I was reminded of The Princess and Curdie, which I hadn’t read for a long time. I brought it into my “book larder” almost as soon as I got home on Sunday, and have been taking that nourishment.

A quote from writer Mary Karr that I read today seems pertinent: “Memorize poetry & short prose hunks. This makes language eucharistic: you eat it. You take somebody else’s passion & suffering into your body, and it transforms you.” I found this to be the case a few years ago as I read MacDonald’s Phantastes at my cabin.

When I read the words that Curdie heard Princess Irene sing, before I had run across Carr’s advice, I had immediately thought that I should learn them by heart, to be part of a laid-up treasure to draw from.

They are the kind of message that must be stored in the heart if it’s to have any meaning and use at all:

 

The stars are spinning their threads,
And the clouds are the dust that flies,
And the suns are weaving them up
For the time when the sleepers shall rise.

The ocean in music rolls,
And gems are turning to eyes,
And the trees are gathering souls
For the day when the sleepers shall rise.

The weepers are learning to smile,
And laughter to glean the sighs;
Burn and bury the care and guile,
For the day when the sleepers shall rise.

Oh, the dews and the moths and the daisy red,
The larks and the glimmers and flows!
The lilies and sparrows and daily bread,
And the something that nobody knows!