Thursday, February 5, 2015

One Hundred




(Emperor) Juntoku-In

O Imperial House,
When I think of former days,
How I long for thee,

More than even the clinging ferns
Hanging beneath your ancient eaves.


One door, no
windows, earth floor,
darkness from rafter

to sill. Still,
he could not have been
sad; seated in

his doorway
mending gear,
he must have looked

west and east
all morning,
and east and west

at will.


A poetry student of Teika'sEmperor Juntoku (1197-1242 C.E.) sided with the previous Emperor, Go-Toba, in the Jōkyū uprising against the power of the Shogunate, which they lost. His is a poem of exile, in which he expresses his attachment to the old palace as greater even than that of the ferns and mosses which which it is increasingly covered, an appropriately mournful poem with which to end the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, compiled in such troubled times.

We do not have a print or drawing from Hokusai for this poem, which is too bad, as it is quite evocative.

Risa, upon reading to the end of this collection, suddenly recalls having discovered, in the middle of nowhere in northern Idaho, a roofless (and fern-covered) one-room log cabin possibly built by a miner or pioneer in the nineteenth century. It had a door but no windows. She imagines the pioneer sitting in the doorway stitching leather and occasionally looking out upon the splendid mountains in view to left and right. There are many ways to be an exile.






(Emperor) Gotoba-no-In

For some men I grieve.
Some men I hate!
And this wretched world

To me, weighted down with care,
Is a place of misery.


the world's events
pass over me
like summer showers.

In my old mind
wind and sun
go free.


The former Emperor looks back in sorrow and anger, most likely to the moment of his being exiled after leading an uprising up against the expanding shogunate.

Hokusai, in the final drawing available in this series, chooses a dramatic moment perhaps from the very moment of the Emperor's defeat. It shows forces entering a compound unopposed and centers upon a young soldier carrying out his duty with, it would seem, some self-satisfaction. Is he one of the Emperor's men, whom the exile mourns? Or the Shogun's, whom the exile hates? Most commentators assume the latter. But perhaps he is both. Violence is here simply personified. Such a waste of life, when and wherever it comes to this. 

Risa contrasts her present state with that of the former Emperor. It's not that she doesn't care how things turn out, nor is she an especially fine person. But as a commoner, she's not a mover and shaker who has moved against thousands (or millions, as in the last century) and shaken their babies to death. She has written for twenty years about how one lives peacefully, and done so herself the whole time, and, like Hokusai in the preceding image, is now turning away with something of a clear conscience. 

The wind blows in the grasses. Humanity will live, or, more likely, die. It is up to the younger generations now.






Junii Ietaka (Fujiwara no Ietaka)
Fujiwara no Ietaka, drawn  
by Kikuchi Yōsai.                

At Nara's brook
Evening comes, and rustling winds
Stir the oak-trees' leaves—

Not a sign of summer left
But the sacred bathing there.


I don't know how
to hold her; when
did she become

and so suddenly,
this woman, talking
of young men?


Fujiwara no Ietaka (1158-1237 C.E.) is included in the Shin Kokin Wakashū and also created a collection of his own tanka, Gyokuginshū. This poem is an evocation of fall as the winds fill the leaves near a Shinto shrine and the place feels somewhat lonelier, though some pilgrims are still making their way to the site to do purification rites by the river's side.

To judge by the lanterns, it is evening. Hokusai is thought to have shown himself in a self-portrait here, leaving the shrine, all wet. Possibly as well he is doing a kind of "four ages of man," with the boy showing the way for his future self, the man carrying his childhood, the mature pilgrim bowing at the shrine, and the elder self, at last turning away from life -- yet satisfied, perhaps, that he has made his mark.

Risa recalls her shock the day she discovered that her daughter, who leapt into her arms as she always done, had nevertheless moved on into adulthood. Someone Risa had always known had suddenly vanished, and it was time to get to know someone quite new. In this there is something to celebrate, yet it includes at its core an element of mourning.






Gon-Chunagon Sadaie (Fujiwara no Teika)

Like the salt sea-weed,
Burning in the evening calm,
On Matsuo's shore,

All my being is afire,
Waiting one who does not come.


Had you stooped
to gather shells,
you might at least

have made 
a keepsake
for the one 

not here.


Our compiler, Fujiwara no Teika (1162-1241 C.E.), includes a poem of his own in the collection. One of the best poets of his time, he was related to and/or friends with many of the last two dozen poets anthologized here. He led the group of poets who compiled the official Imperial collection Shinkokinshu. Successful only relatively late in life (he had enemies), he eventually became a monk. At seventy-three he compiled the Ogura Hyakunin-Issu.

In this poem he alludes to a work by an earlier poet who observed a young woman making salt by burning seaweed, using the flames as a metaphor for the impatience with which he awaits a lover.

Although many of the later poems are represented by copies of drawings that were never printed, or by nothing at all in this unfinished series, Hokusai appears to have skipped ahead to work on this one by the old compiler, finishing it with brilliant colors. The Old Nurse's response to the poem is to represent, with the eye for detail of the working commoner, dehydrated kelp stems being converted into ash to be boiled away, leaving the salt (Peter Morse). No pining lord is to be seen. The workers might say, "sir, why suffer over one who is absent? We, who labor all our lives long so that you may gad about and mope, can tell you that now is all there is." 

Risa's reaction is to recall returning from the beach empty-handed to a loved one who loved keepsakes. Love, like everything else, requires a commitment to mindfulness. Such small instances of thoughtlessness may have added up and eventually harmed the relationship, contributing to an undertow of regret.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015






Nyudo Saki no Daijo-Daijin (Fujiwara no Kitsune)

It is I that fall
from the tree of life, and

Not this snow of flowers
That the wild wind drags
Round the garden court.


I placed the skull
on a stump, saying,
"There. Now you

can see better."
Knowing this
was not so, and, shamed,

I stayed an hour,
seeing for the deer.


Fujiwara no Kitsune was a lay priest and prime minister active in the 1200s C.E. His poem of old age uses the trope of falling petals but with possibly some arrogance he substitutes himself for the entire fall of the blossoms.

The Old Nurse shows us a lady and her assistant clearing away the petals. As Peter Morse notes, the lady looks into the tree a bit peevishly, as if to say, "enough already!"

Risa, reading this poem, suddenly recalled having been both disrespectful to, and, upon reflection, respectful to, the remains of a forest creature that had fallen.






(Abbot) Saki no Daisojo Jien

Though "I am not fit,"
I have dared to shield the folk
Of this woeful world

With my black-dyed sleeve —
I, who live on Mount Hiei.


Just in time
she grasped 
religion enough

to decline the "honor." 
Walk kindly, kindly walk —
how do you

talk about that
for an hour?


This poet was abbot of Enryaku-ji. The Tendai temple at the top of Mt. Hiei, from which there was a view of Kyoto in one direction and Lake Biwa in the other. Buddhism's grip on the Japanese imagination had begun to slip a little, and the monks of the more powerful sects, such as Tendai, struggled to maintain their place in political life -- to the point of forming their own armies. In later years, unwilling to have the intractable armed monks in his rear as he marched on Kyoto, Nobunaga sent part of his forces to kill everyone on Mt. Hiei and burn the temples, including Enryaju-ji. More than twenty thousand died -- men, women, children. There are risks in engaging in politics in troubled times, risks in disengaging from them. Also in being simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Life, as so many poems in this collection underscore, is fragile and uncertain.

Here, the abbot declares himself as entirely focused on the needs of the people -- an appropriate goal for an aspiring Mahayana Bodhisattva. But what does he mean by it? Will he confine himself to ministry to the suffering? Or play kingmaker? Has he given up the first thing that must be given up -- an egoistic concern for his own comfort and safety?

Hokusai's Old Nurse has her suspicions. She sees the old abbot, following two acolytes to the altar to make offerings, with his entourage. The view of the pines outside is glorious. But ... where are the people? The best offerings are nowhere in sight.

Risa recalls having been called to the "ministry" -- to go on a speaking tour on behalf of an interpretation of religion to which, till that moment, she had ascribed. But she had a sudden vision of the scope of a life of faith: to offer good food to the hungry, clean water to the thirsty, nursing to the sick or dying, and comfort to the imprisoned and exiled. Where in the doing of these things does one find a hundred thousand words?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015






Sangi Masatsune

From Mount Yoshino
Blows a chill, autumnal wind,
In the deepening night.

Cold the ancient hamlet is —
Sounds of beating cloth I hear.


The cashier makes
change. I look
to see if she's

still in there —
but nothing doing.
What will it take

to bring us both
to life again?


Sangi (or Asukai) Masatsune (1170-1201 C.E.), deftly threaded his way through the politics of the era partly through his skill in kemari, or court kickball, which pleased a warlord who enjoyed the game. He eventually came under the patronage of the retired emperor, and was chosen as one of the compilers of the Shin Kokinshu poetry collection.

A former capital, the town mentioned in this tanka was a somewhat deserted backwater when Asukai wrote of it. Pounding clothing with a fuller's mallet was women's work, often that of a wife whose husband was absent, hence its connotation as a lonely sound, appropriate for autumn.

There is currently no known Hokusai print or drawing for this poem.

Risa's thought, upon seeing the poem, was of the clerk who had rung up her groceries that evening. Both the clerk and she were not at their best, and the deepening darkness outside the store windows was particularly gloomy, matching the apparent isolation of both women.






Kamakura no Udaijin (Minamoto no Sanetomo)

Would that this, our world,
Might be ever as it is!
What a lovely scene!

See that fisherwoman's boat,
Rope-drawn along the beach.


The rough-spoken 
surprises himself —

offering a drink
to me.


Minamoto no Sanetomo, 1192-1219 C.E., was the third Shogun of the Kamakura Shogunate. He was installed as a puppet Shogun in childhood. Knowing he was marked for assassination, he devoted his young life to poetry, studying with Fujiwara no Teika, the compiler of this collection. He produced 700 competent tanka in the short time available to him. In this poem which begins tritely enough, the poignancy of his situation is brought home to us by his closing with a sharply observed detail. To see (or at least to be able to sense) is to live. You can't take it with you, though you may perhaps leave it to others in a poem.

Hokusai's Old Nurse likewise focuses on a sharply observed moment by the seashore. But her choice is not the fisherwoman's boat with its small rope; she sees men occupied in the considerable effort it takes to operate a rope-walk. The massive rope they are winding together is more suitable for use in the rigging of a large ship. Everything is one, as the strands of the rope become one, and men (and fisherwomen) are embedded in the moment.

Risa, a tourist when she goes to the shore, recalls being offered water in a kindly enough manner by a fisherman who had just been cursing tourists.






(Lady) Nijo-no-In no Sanuki

As a rock at sea,
At ebb-tide is hid from view,
So is my tear-drenched sleeve –

Never for a moment dry,
And unknown to human ken.


We stand together
looking to the hills.
We stand together

Looking to the sea.


Nijo-no-In no Sanuki was a court lady-in-waiting (late 1100s C.E.) and noted competition poet, represented in multiple collections. She became a Buddhist nun in 1196. Here she takes a creative turn with the tear-drenched-sleeve trope, showing how she hides her sorrows (salt tears) by drowning them in the salt-laden waters of the ocean (human suffering in general?).

Hokusai's Old Nurse shows a woman with a nursing infant (perhaps a love child?) soldiering on. She apparently easily carries her end of a heavy load of freshly-dug clams, while keeping her thoughts and feelings to herself.

Risa speaks silently to her love of their long life side by side with shared goals and experiences, yet perhaps without coming to a full understanding of one another. Some things remain hidden -- in plain view, so to speak. Luckily this doesn't seem to weaken their resolve to see it through.






Go-Kyogoku no Sessho Daijodaijin (Fujiwara no Yoshitsune)

On a chilling mat,
Drawing close my folded quilt,
I must sleep alone,

While all through the frosty night
Sounds a cricket's forlorn chirp.


Not meaning to be
unkind, I
caught crickets

at their singing —
then flung them
out far, to hear fish

rising to my gift.


Fujiwara no Yoshitsune (1169 – 1206 C.E.), regent and chancellor who fell upon adverse fortunes, could be missing a lover or bewailing a political fate. One way of reading the poem is that the lonely cricket is chirping on the snow -- a way of expressing exile.

Hokusai has a distinct sympathy for the situation of women in society and so the Old Nurse switches our view to the missing lady and it is she that is listening to the cricket. "Will my man stand me up yet again? Or have I been callously tossed aside? My life is so empty, it has shrunk to the sound of a single cricket."

Risa, a country girl and fisherman's daughter, grew up rather callous to the perspectives of insects. Here she tosses one into the pond to see if the bass are awake. Years later she remembers this, with at least a slightly increased sensitivity. If we think ours is sometimes, if not mostly, a cruel world, how is it we recognize this cruelty? Perhaps we should look within.

Monday, February 2, 2015






Impu Mon-In no Taiu (attendant to princess Ryoshi) [Sukeko]

Let me show him these!
Even the fisherwomen's sleeves
On Ojima's shores,

Though wet through and wet again,
Do not change their dyer's hues.


You must know
the meaning of
the dory-boatmens'

daily beaching
at full throttle,
risking all between

two waves.


This lady-in-waiting, a member of the Fujiwaras who died in 1219, attended a poetry competition and found a courtier's poem of wet sleeves (emblem of tears of sadness and/or frustration) somewhat unoriginal and trite. "Check out these sleeves, Sir!" she responded. "See how my weeping has run the dye? Even the women who fish the sea bottom have not ruined their sleeves!" She won.

The Old Nurse has provided an oblique scene in which a nobleman's horse and attendant are waiting outside a house -- a place of assignation? Perhaps, if the print had been made, this horse would have matched the one in the print shown mounted on the wall in the preceding drawing, connecting the poems in the viewer's mind. Meanwhile the life of the common people goes on, as real as that of the high-born lovers. Possibly the three women at center are carrying  ... fish!

Risa reminds her lover that courage and decision are required in love, just as they are in the risky life of the dory-boatmen of the Oregon coast, who drive their fishing craft right through the surf and up onto the beach at the end of the day.

She has been known to be terribly cowardly herself, but never mind that.






(Princess) Shokushi Naishinno

Life, you string of gems --
If you must end, end now.
For, if yet I live,

All I do to hide my love
May at last grow weak.


We two laughed
together, saying:
it would never do

in the house; we
are never silent!
At which thought

sudden silence came.


Shikishi (or Shokushi), who died in 1201, was an imperial princess and author of a large number of classical waka that have come down to us. A close observer of nature and of the seasons, she was lady in residence at the Shinto Kamo Shrine and never married; later she became a Buddhist nun.

The poem, as with so many Japanese waka, can be mined for a range of meaning. It can mean she is going about her daily life with a heavy secret which is wearing away at her -- at this rate she will soon be discovered, so great is her love. The forest within which the shrine is located is called The Forest Where No Lies Can Remain Concealed, which may add poignancy.

The Old Nurse regards the lady as slowly losing resolve (along with her maids) as the lover is revealed to be a no-show. They had prepared themselves with considerable effort; if we meet the man we must surely upbraid him for his unforgivable thoughtlessness!

Risa remembers that a barn loft gave privacy to a relationship -- for awhile. What? This was a very long time ago and we were young. As it turned out, everyone knew.






Koka Mon-In no Betto (an attendant to Empress Koka)

For but one night's sake,
Short as is a node of reed
Grown in Naniwa bay,

Must I henceforth long for him
With my whole heart, till life's close?


You, who seemed
least impassioned,
longest stayed.

So I did not
panic when my world
changed overnight.


This well-born and highly placed lady-in-waiting (of whom we know relatively little else) has immortalized herself with a single laser-focused metaphor. One night of love is as short, in its way, as a single joint of reed. Yet it can be enough to trigger a lifetime of obsession, like a whole bayful of reeds!

The old Nurse obliges the young lady by having carters bring her a groaning load of reeds! But also, Hokusai puts wheels where he is thinking of Dharma -- the turning of the wheel of the law of life. Be careful, young lady. A lifetime of metaphors might do to thatch a roof, but will they hold out the rain?

Risa recalls that a young family member who has been reticent about his feelings for years was the one who stood longest by the resting place of his grandparents. Seeing this was a great comfort to her. There are many kinds of lifelong yearning.

Sunday, February 1, 2015






Jakuren Hoshi (monk)

Lo, an autumn eve!
See the deep vale's mists arise
Among the fir-tree's leaves

That still hold the dripping wet
Of the chill day's sudden showers.


Even as I came
to a suitable cliff
thinking to jump,

clouds opened
to a splendid view —
Before me, in silence,

a hawk rode wind.


Jakuren (1139–1202 C.E.) Was another friend of Teika's who had become a monk at a relatively early age and traveled and wrote poems, like Saigyo. He was one of the compilers of the Shin Kokin Wakashū, in which he is well represented.

The poem evokes the dropping temperatures and increasing mists and rains of the approach of winter by focusing on the myriad tiny droplets that are caught and held by fir needles. Hokusai's Old Nurse focuses on the guards and grooms of a traveling nobleman who are gearing up for this weather from boxes that contain rain hats and capes. It is a very powerful drawing, and one wonders how it would have looked as a completed woodblock print.

Risa is still thinking about that grief-laden ten-day hike in the rain. Despair, early in the journey, brought her to a cloud-shrouded precipice, where she easily considered what is thought to be the unthinkable, but was stayed by a sudden dazzling break in the mists, in which a hawk appeared, riding a thermal not ten feet away, looking straight at her. This happened in 1973.






Saigyo Hoshi (monk)

Is it then the moon
That has made me sad, as though
It had bade me grieve?

Lifting up my troubled face
I am all tears.


I built a tall fire,
fed it dry bark
through the cold.

At midnight a bobcat
stepped through ferns 
to watch with me.


We are come to the lifetime of the compiler of these poems. Saigyō (1118 – 1190),  formerly of the retired Emperor's guard, was an itinerant monk/poet and friend of the compiler of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. They encouraged each other in innovation and their influence on Japanese poetry lasted into the twentieth century. 

The poem wonders whether the poet's tears have been caused by the moon's beauty (which is often thought of as sad) or some grief of his own (of which he does not tell us).

Hokusai's Old Nurse offers us a more serene communion between poet and moon -- in fact he looks, in very advanced age, as though both he and the moon have sorted through all of his long life's business and come to an understanding in which former griefs are now light as a feather. It is a very Buddhist interpretation of a very Buddhist personality.

Risa's reaction to the Old Nurse's interpretation is to hark back to her Appalachian Trail journey, and a night when she cam in from the rain to an Adirondack shelter (the kind with one side open to the fireplace) and built a fire of hickory bark, which she tended well into the night. After she had climbed into her sleeping bag, a huge bobcat walked in from the darkness and stared rather companionably into the flames. Risa felt more at peace after that than she had done in many days.

Friday, January 30, 2015






Shunye Hoshi (monk)

Now — as through the night
Longingly I pass the hours,
And the day's dawn lags –

Even my windowshades
Heartless are to me.


Come home from
sesshin, he
has arranged his affairs.

In his room, only
mat and pillow;
from window

only views.
He has one 
complaint: I never

get mail.


Shunye has lived almost his entire life as a monk. Celibacy has not always been a big part of Japanese monasticism, so the poem could be about longing for companionship or longing for a better world. And who has not awakened at false dawn and felt insignificant in the face of so much darkness? It is a wide world and it does not much consider us.

The Old Nurse may be thinking of relationships as she shows a high-born lady awakening at pre-dawn alone and rising only to observe the chilly new moon. What is she thinking or experiencing in this moment?

Risa's energetically intellectual friend goes to Japan for Zen training, and returns to Oregon to work from his house, which is sparsely furnished, cool and rather dark inside, like eternal night. He remarks, as they near the entrance, that his mailbox is always empty. Is he being plaintive or ironic? She can't tell.