Wednesday, June 29, 2011







Truly, this is where
Travelers who go or come
Over parting ways —

Friends or strangers — all must meet:

The gate of "Meeting Hill."


Semimaru saw not:
I can barely hear.
In my room

I steam rice, make tea,
dress myself
to meet people.

I make them tell me
their names twice,
then help them as I can.

Though I play no lute,
I hope they will feel
as though they hear one

lilting among trees.


Active in the 900s CE, Semimaru was said to have been in line to become Emperor, but was disqualified by blindness. He moved out of Kyoto to a hillside near a crossroads, built a hermitage, wrote poetry, and studied and taught the biwa, an instrument translated here as "lute." He took a compassionate interest in the stream of humanity passing by, as a emblem of the impermanence of all things.

Risa, at the time she wrote her responses, was undergoing a midlife crisis and lived temporarily in a room with shared kitchen and bath, known as a "quad," near the campus where she worked. Living without feeling especially poor on an allowance of $425 a month, she possessed one shelf of books, a bicycle, some clothes, a few dishes, a laptop, a rice cooker, and a dulcimer. She often played the dulcimer while her rice and dandelions were steaming, and thought about the lives of her many student workers and fellow students (she worked full time and attended graduate school on lunch hours). A university is a place of transition, very like a crossroads. The bit about "telling their names twice" refers to her deafness, which sometimes affected transactions with co-workers and patrons in the library where she worked. She felt there were some parallels between her exile and Semimaru's -- and while she has never been in line to become an empress, she did recover her mission, during this time, to become her true self.

Hokusai, in an incomplete drawing for a woodcut, shows Semimaru leaning on a staff at the entrance to his hut, listening to the movement of the passers-by. From his posture and expression, Semimaru seems to have achieved some measure of enlightened resignation. While this was not, perhaps, the life he had expected, he made it his own.

Thursday, June 23, 2011






Ono no Komachi (Lady)

Color from the flowers
Having already passed away,
On trivial things, in vain,

Have I set my gaze
While passing through the world.


Did she remember
Narihira's sad dream
that she had died?

— when she journeyed
across the land,
years after he himself

was grass? -- and
have not we
done as he,

lying awake hour
after passing hour,
filled with dread

for love?


One of the most famous poets in this anthology, Ono no Komachi was a noted beauty at Court, and then became a mendicant nun, living well past the age of eighty while wandering about the countryside, regarded by some as a holy woman and by some as simply mad. Many poems, plays, tales, and prints take her as their subject. Active around 850 CE, she is one of the Six Laureates and Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals.

This poem, unlike her earlier love poetry, appears to have been written in Komachi's later years. She contrasts a shallower appreciation for beauty in her "thoughtless youth" with the clarity that comes with an unsentimental Buddhist awareness of autumnal ephemerality.

Hokusai deliberately depicts peasants at work on assorted tasks in spring, recovering from winter, preparing for the year -- a rice paddy is cultivated; barrels are stacked in a side room of a farmhouse, waiting to be filled over the summer; a door has been dismounted and is being cleaned or repainted. Through all this passes an old woman, leaning on a cane. She pauses to look intently at the cherry blossoms, knowing she will not pass this way again, perhaps.

Risa's poem again refers to Narihira's panicked dream that Ono no Komachi had died. Though Ono in her old age steadfastly eschewed talk of love, Risa identifies with Narihira, one of Komachi's many lovers, whose touching irrationality Risa finds emblematic of the human condition. There is a time to be old and Empty and ready to depart -- but before that there is a time for glorious foolishness.

Saturday, June 11, 2011





Kisen Hoshi (monk)

A lowly hut have I,
Southeast from the capital,
Where I have chosen to dwell –

And the world in which I live
Men have named "Mount of Gloom."


I lived two years
in a mountain's mists.
No one came to visit

the abandoned quarry.
I had fish every day,
and short summer's

sun seemed brighter
than ever it did
in town.


Not much is known about Kisen Hoshi, active in the 800s. He was a monk whose hermitage was on a mountain near Kyoto known as Mount Sorrow or Mount Gloom. There is now a Buddhist temple on the site. The word is similar to that for "deer," which might be why Hokusai shows hunters about to shoot deer (sadly enough for the deer) in his illustration -- which otherwise seems to have little connection to the poem.

Risa once worked as a member of a forestry cooperative, and lived in a tiny house built on the back of an old flatbed truck. Most of the work was in the winters, and she spent two summers parked in an abandoned quarry in Oregon's Coast Range. Her income would not have permitted a permanent address such as an apartment or even a rooming house. A stream at the foot of the quarry road provided trout, and foraged greens, along with a sack of potatoes, formed the rest of her diet. Sunrises, sunsets, and good books were her companions. Some might have thought her unhappy there -- she would have disagreed with a slow smile.

Monday, June 6, 2011





Abe no Nakamaro

When I look abroad
Over the wide-stretched "Plain of Heaven,"
Is the moon the same

That on Mount Mikasa rose,
In the land of Kasuga?


Moonrise, and I
am here.
And where you are —



Risa responds here with a haiku, echoing Nakamaro's evocative tanka. Her beloved, at the time she is remembering, was three thousand miles away, so it is a bit of literary license.

Abe no Nakamaro, active circa 750 CE, was an administrator who worked in China; perhaps here he is simply homesick for Japan. 

Hokusai's Old Nurse's depiction of him is straightforward -- of course Japan is in the direction Nakamaro is facing as the moon rises, shown indirectly as a reflection in the sea. The wind is coming from the east -- unusual, as, when night falls, the sea breeze usually is replaced by a land breeze. this may represent the strength of Nakamaro's feelings as he stands, lost in thought, while his attendants await his pleasure unheeded.

Saturday, June 4, 2011





Chunagon Yakamochi

If Magpie Bridge
By flight of magpies spanned,
White with frost I find,

With deep-laid frost made white:
Late, I see, has grown the night.


Under stars
diamond hard,
I cross the log bridge

where we fed birds
by the lake,
skating my boots

like a young girl,
hoping to find you,
this time, cabined,

building a fire
on the open hearth.


In Risa's poem she is remembering a fragmented and anxious dream of love, involving an icy bridge. Perhaps she should say no more.

Chunagon Yakamochi was one of the Thirty-Six Poetry Immortals and active about 750 CE. This is a complex poem; there was a bridge in the Imperial Palace called the Magpie Bridge, but the reference to a flight of magpies evokes the legend of the maiden and her lover, stars separated by the Milky Way (thought of here as a river). The magpies build for her a bridge on the seventh day of the seventh month to go and see him, once a year.

Hokusai's old woman's response is suitably oblique; passengers on a Chinese boat point to passing magpies. The legend was from China.(*)