Category Archives: poetry

He thought there was time.

THE NEW SONG

For some time I thought there was time
and that there would always be time
for what I had a mind to do
and what I could imagine
going back to and finding it
as I had found it the first time
but by this time I do not know
what I thought when I thought back then

there is no time yet it grows less
there is the sound of rain at night
arriving unknown in the leaves
once without before or after
then I hear the thrush waking
at daybreak singing the new song

–W.S. Merwin

In Ephesians 5 we are told to redeem the time: See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is.”

That admonition comes to mind as I read this poem  in the New Yorker. It’s by W.S. Merwin, whom I mentioned previously here and here in regard to his book The Folding Cliffs, which captivated me and gave me for the first time an interest in visiting Hawaii.

Willow flowers fading, and leaves emerging.

To me it speaks of how we can only make up for lost time by being attentive to the gifts that are coming to us right now, attentive to the presence of God. He is giving Himself in the present moment, and He has given us the lenten season to help us tune into that Reality, to come back to it and to Him.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The paragraphs above are from the first time I posted this poem on my blog. As I read Merwin’s meditation now, I find another layer of meaning, which explains the joyful last line. It’s in the words, “there is no time yet it grows less.”

We probably all feel that there is less time in the sense of opportunity to accomplish more things before it “runs out.” But chronologically we don’t get to “no time” until we are long past being able to compose verse about it. Merwin must be referring to the moments of “no time” in the sense of timelessness, such as when he listens to the rain, or hears the thrush, and experiences that fullness of heart that comes with the awareness of the gift of being. “Here I am, alive, and it’s raining!”

It’s still a good poem for Lent. This is when we try to make some space in our busy schedules for that time out of time, and listening for the new song.

(Re-post from 2012)

 

Four sad poems from the Japanese.

I picked four of the One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, collected and translated by Kenneth Rexroth in 1964. Why did I choose these in particular? They have a couple of things in common in that they are not obviously love poems, and they are sad and melancholy. The last one, by the “deified poet” Hitomaro, was his death poem. Next week I will post some verse that is less lonely, but it’s worth considering how some long-ago poets expressed this universal condition.

This is not the moon,
Nor is this the spring,
Of other springs,
And I alone
Am still the same.

-Ariwara No Narihira, 9th century

 

I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
And remember it fondly.

-Fujiwara No Kiyosuke, 12th century

 

All during a night
Of anxiety I wait.
At last the dawn comes
Through the cracks of the shutters,
Heartless as night.

-The Monk Shun-e, 12th century

 

My girl is waiting for me
And does not know
That my body will stay here
On the rocks of Mount Kamo.

-Hitomaro, 7th-8th centuries

What’s blowin’ in the wind.

Rain, rain, rain! My biggest dodonaea or hopbush was blown over in the last storm. Alejandro came Saturday and Sunday to re-stake three of these bushes, just before this current storm arrived. I was so thankful to get them shored up before the next gale.

I stayed home all day today and did housework. Isn’t it fun, the way housework incorporates everything from book-mending to picture-hanging, laundry to cooking? I did all those things today, and more.

When I wanted to read a certain fairy tale to the grandchildren last week, I opened the anthology I grew up with, and the cover fell off – again. A decade or two ago I had duct-taped it together, and today I put everything back again with clear tape. Afterward I had to browse a few pages, of course, and wonder about how much of my philosophy of life and my ideas about various things might have been shaped by the words and pictures on those pages.

I’ve already written about “The Little Match Girl,” (eight years ago this month, I see!) but other fairy stories, poems and nursery rhymes had a big effect on me. The words generally impressed more than the pictures, as I developed the habit of devouring them greedily, not wanting to take time for the images. “Hickety, Pickety, My Black Hen” was the sole reason I kept black chickens when I was a grown-up lady, but I always envisioned straight black, not laced, feathers. I evidently ignored this drawing.

But – when I think of “Hansel and Gretel,” which I also loved, this is how those forsaken children look in my mind.

Some rhymes were so much fun they seemed to insinuate themselves into my consciousness without any effort:goops IMG_3158

 

In our family we were not coddled. I had little sympathy for the princess who was so thin-skinned and tender, but whose story I liked to read again and again, and to stare at the illustration, so simple and absurd:

Ah, “Over in the Meadow” —  This one, I’m not sure if I loved it as a child or only after singing it with my own children over the years. All the mothers and children in that rhythmic counting song make me feel cozy.

When I was leafing through these pages this morning I didn’t gravitate to the poems about rain and wind that are more in keeping with the season. We haven’t seen the sun for a couple of days, and are predicted to get six inches of rain before this three-day storm has passed! Right now the wind is howling and the rain clattering; this month has been an average of ten degrees colder than usual, too. I made a big pot of vegetable soup, and roasted another of my butternut squashes, and was grateful.

That’s the theme of the last page I am posting here, which was the first one I saw. It’s not one of the more familiar ones to me, looking at it, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it in the book, and it started me on my musings. Father in Heaven, we thank Thee!

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