1 JANUARY 1965
The Wise Men will unlearn your name.
Above your head no star will flame.
One weary sound will be the same—
the hoarse roar of the gale.
The shadows fall from your tired eyes
as your lone bedside candle dies,
for here the calendar breeds nights
till stores of candles fail.
What prompts this melancholy key?
A long familiar melody.
It sounds again. So let it be.
Let it sound from this night.
Let it sound in my hour of death—
as gratefulness of eyes and lips
for that which sometimes makes us lift
our gaze to the far sky.
You glare in silence at the wall.
Your stocking gapes: no gifts at all.
It’s clear that you are now too old
to trust in good Saint Nick;
that it’s too late for miracles.
—But suddenly, lifting your eyes
to heaven’s light, you realize:
your life is a sheer gift.
From Nativity Poems by Joseph Brodsky, translated by George L. Kline
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