Tuesday, May 31, 2011





Sarumaru Dayu

In the mountain depths,
Treading through the crimson leaves,
Cries the wandering stag.

When I hear the lonely cry,
Sad — how sad — the autumn is!


I walk along
the ridge crest
with nothing in my hands.

Where are you now?
and how is it
I am alive here —

as snow begins
to fall?


Risa laments the death of someone -- who had thoroughly captured her heart -- from brain cancer at the age of forty-two. They had gone to lunch together only a month before the end. The friend had concealed the condition, and focused on other topics. Some years later, as Risa's health was mysteriously deteriorating, the doctor suddenly asked -- are you carrying a hidden grief? Risa burst into tears.

Sarumaru Dayu, dating from around 700 CE, is almost unknown other than through poems, and is one of the 36 immortals. This poem seems to parallel a buck's loss of a beloved doe with the poet's loss of a beloved through death. It rings true.

Hokusai's Old Nurse, on the other hands shows a buck and doe together on a distant hill at sunset, as women return home from work with rakes and pack baskets. One of the women turns and points out the two to her friends.


Saturday, May 28, 2011





Yamabe no Akahito

When to Tago's coast
I the way have gone, and seen
Perfect whiteness laid

On Mount Fuji's lofty peak
By the drift of falling snow.


Remember climbing to
the lakes basin?
How, rounding

that last bend, we
were hammered down
by the glory of

summer snow —
Even the gray jays
alighting on our knees

to seek crumbs
could not long bend
our eyes away.


Here, Risa is remembering a hike with a much beloved friend to a place high in the wilderness. They were there several days, mostly sitting and watching the clouds' shadows drift across the face of the area's highest mountain. The photograph was taken on that journey, which was in the nineteen-eighties.

Yamabe no Akahito was one of Japan's Poetry Immortals, active around 725 CE. He was a member of the Emperor's court and wrote of his observations of scenes on their travels.

Hokusai's elderly observer does visualize the likely viewpoint from which Akihito took his view. But she focuses on the  toil of the laborers in the emperor's train, bringing along the voluminous belongings of those in Akihito's class.

This morning, Risa is thinking of Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), a set of seven depictions of actual dreams that had come to him. In one of them he depicts the demise of Japan as the result of the explosion of "the six nuclear reactors" -- this would be Fukushima Daiichi. She feels that there is little she can do to help this situation -- perhaps if there will eventually be an exodus that even includes the "common people," prepare a bedroom for someone? Until then, she will study Zen and serve green tea.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011





Kakinomoto no Hitomaro

Ah! the foot-drawn trail
Of the mountain-pheasant's tail
Drooped like down-curved branch—

Through this long, long-dragging night
Must I keep my couch alone?


I took a room
and called it
Susuki-Grass Room

to honor Narihira.
Tonight, however,
I think of

Hitomaro, who slept
alone. Streets
below grow quiet.

in dream I climb,
wayside benches —

I call, but your answer
is a single
pheasant feather

by the moonlit trail.


Hitomaro was a court poet active around 700 CE, noted for expressing longing during absences of the beloved.

Hokusai's Old Nurse refers only obliquely to the poem, through imagery that evokes "drag" and "long."

Risa speaks of the room in which she lived alone, thinking of the one was absent. Hitomaro's poem was in her thoughts, because she was taking the poems of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu in order for these meditations, but she was also thinking of a poem by Narihira (a different poem that the one of his included in the collection). He, too, was thinking of an absent love, and was suddenly struck in the middle of the night by a fear that she had died (as it happened, she long outlived him). Susuki-grass surrounded the room in which Narihira's loneliness so forcibly struck his imagination.
    The wayside benches are placed along a trail on a mountain where Risa had sometimes walked with her love. Pheasants are sometimes seen there.


Sunday, May 22, 2011





(Empress) Jito Tenno

Spring, it seems, has passed,
And the summer come again;
For the silk-white robes,

So 'tis said, are spread to dry
On the "Mount of Heaven's Perfume."


She moves in spring
as one who
has carried herself

all winter among
famous people.
Yet she does

her own housework;
knows, as her
ancestors knew,

to spread white wash
over rhododendrons
in bright sun, like

remnants of snow —
glimpses, which some
have seen, of

the mountain, robed
in blue ice.


There is said to be a hint here that the robes need to be washed and aired out because of discreet encounters over the course of the winter, a regular feature of life at Court. The empress may or may not have seen, in the year in which she is writing, the robes drying on Kaguyama. This might obliquely express a regret that, as Empress, she has fewer options in some ways than her ladies. Or she may simply be thinking of the beauty of spring tasks, in contrast to the enclosed life of winter.

Hokusai's Old Nurse sees fabric being brought to the sea by the laundry workers for washing, and carried by them from the sea for drying.

Risa is thinking of a time when she washed and hung out her laundry when snow was still on the mountains, and observed the white of the household sheets against the white of the skyline. No one else was around, and she was stirred with melancholy that the moment could not be shared. 


Friday, May 20, 2011





(Emperor) Tenchi Tenno

Coarse the rush-mat roof
Sheltering the harvest-hut
Of the autumn rice-field —

And my sleeves are growing wet
With the moisture dripping through.


Sleeves dripping
from a hike
through heavy

autumnal rains,
I find shelter
amid tall books:

drying my hands,
I find one, lifting it
down with care from

a high shelf:
Hokusai. Prints,
depicting with love
hard country lives —

sudden tears.


The emperor had stepped out into the fields on a rainy day and taken refuge in a rude hut of the kind constructed by field hands to get in out of the weather from time to time. He feels a connection with their lives and finds water on his sleeves -- a metaphor for weeping.

Taking refuge in the Art Library one day in 1999, with rain bucketing down on the quad, Risa moved to the Oversize section and lifted down a heavy volume of prints by Hokusai. It was her first introduction to the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. The phrase "as explained by the old nurse" in Hokusai's title for his print series surprised her by moving her to tears.
    She was living alone at the time, indulging herself in a "midlife crisis." After the rains ceased, she went home to her small room near campus and wrote one hundred small poems over the course of the next ten days.

Hokusai's Old Nurse shows busy farmers in the rice field. It is not raining, and the harvest hut is empty. Perhaps the Emperor has not yet arrived. Or perhaps it is Hokusai's own time, and the emperor came here hundreds of years before, and is long dead and forgotten by the rice farmers ...


100 poems

100 poems

risa bear
Copyright  1999, 2010 Risa Bear and stony run press. These poems first appeared at http://risashome.blogspot.com. ISBN 0-9645574-3-6

Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each) is an anthology of one hundred tanka (31-syllable poems) compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the year 1235 C.E. It is one of the best-known works in Japan, and has been translated into English many times. The present collection consists of original poem/commentaries written over the course of several days to explore my feelings in response to the Japanese poems. The model for this is the series of prints by Hokusai, "One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each As Explained by the Old Nurse," in which the artist explores the poems not so much in relation to their original setting as in relation to the artist's personal sense of universal experience.
    The poetic method in this response is not syllable counting as in the original tanka, but achieves a similar compression in a manner appropriate to English through the use of mostly two-stressed lines, except where one stress carries the thought. The arrangement into, mostly, tercets (three-line stanzas) is purely arbitrary. Yes, the poems are somewhat autobiographical; but of this I will say no more; every human heart holds secrets.
    To set these poems by an Oregonian together with those to which they respond, I have provided the Japanese poems with MacCauley's translation (1917).