Category Archives: poetry

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

When he was in the desert of Judea.

PSALM 62

O God, my God, I rise early to be with You;
My soul thirsts for You.
How often my flesh thirsts for You
In a desolate, impassable, and waterless land.
So in the holy place I appear before You,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your mercy is better than life,
My lips shall praise You.
Thus will I bless You in my life;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
May my soul be filled, as if with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth shall sing praise to You
with lips filled with rejoicing.
If I remembered You on my bed,
I meditated on You at daybreak;
For You are my helper,
And in the shelter of Your wings I will greatly rejoice….

 

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.

Experience to Let

Last week I added a book to a tall bookshelf, and wondered, in my purging frame of mind, if there were a book in that collection that I might remove in exchange. A fat volume of Ogden Nash’s poetry caught my eye, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d looked in it, so I ended up chuckling to myself for an hour as I perused the dozen pages that I found marked with post-it’s — by me, of course. I decided to keep the book around. It’s a good one for reading by the fire when one is tired from cleaning out closets and so forth.

Just a little bit about the poet, from this page: “His first writing job, in New York, was composing streetcar card ads for a firm that had previously employed F. Scott Fitzgerald. His passion, though, was rhyme. ‘I think in terms of rhyme,’ he said, ‘and have since I was six years old.’ (He once said that he almost fell in love with a woman named ‘Mrs. Blorange’ because he was so fascinated with her name—orange being one of the few words in the language, along with silver and pilgrim—that has no standard words with which to rhyme.)”

Note: In the poem below, mulcted means swindled.

Experience to Let

Experience is a futile teacher,
Experience is a prosy preacher,
Experience is a fruit tree fruitless,
Experience is a shoe tree bootless.
For sterile wearience and drearience,
Depend, my boy, upon experience.
The burnt child, urged by rankling ire,
Can hardly wait to get back at the fire.
And, mulcted in the gambling den,
Men stand in line to gamble again.
Who says that he can drink or not?
The sober man? Nay, nay, the sot.
He who has never tasted jail
Lives well within the legal pale,
While he who’s served a heavy sentence
Renews the racket, not repentance.
The nation bankrupt by a war
Thinks to recoup with just one more;
The wretched golfer, divot-bound,
Persists in dreams of the perfect round;
Life’s little suckers chirp like crickets
While spending their all on losing tickets.
People whose instinct instructs them naught,
But must by experience be taught,
Will never learn by suffering once,
But ever and ever play the dunce.
Experience! Wise men do not need it!
Experience! Idiots do not head it!
I’d trade my lake of experience
For just one drop of common sense.

-Ogden Nash
from I’m A Stranger Here Myself © 1938

And here is a bonus poem for you, a wise little rhyme that makes me wonder if its wisdom was for him common sense, or came by experience. From what I can tell, his marriage was till death, and there doesn’t seem to be any drama surrounding it to make a long Wikipedia post. I hope his wife enjoyed his funny verses!

To keep your marriage brimming,
with love in the loving cup,
whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
whenever you’re right, shut up.