Monday, September 3, 2012






Chunagon Atsutada(Fujiwara no Atsutada)

Having met my love,
Afterwards my passion was,
When I measured it

With the feeling of the past,
As, if then, I had not loved.


Though I turned
away when you
watched me

braid my hair —
this, beyond all
that went before,

sheds on my life
continual light.


Chunagon Atsutada was a tenth century C.E. court nobleman and one of the Thirty-six immortal poets. He is of the same family line as the compiler of this anthology.

Atsutada's poem comes off a little trite in translation. Who has not experienced love, every time, as something unique to which all former loves seem but a shadow? But see what Hokusai's Old Nurse makes of it! One of those "former loves" will nail the man's effigy to a sacred tree, calling upon the local deity to help force the miserable effigy to behold itself in the mirror upon her breast. How dare he break a sacred trust? Emotions are powerful, but relationships are meant to supersede them. This print is one of Hokusai's masterpieces.

Risa instead focuses on the moment when a relationship suddenly somehow intensifies the bonds of trust. "All /that went before" may refer to the earlier stages of the courtship, rather than to a promise glibly made and broken.

Sunday, September 2, 2012






Kiyowara no Motosuke

Have we not been pledged
By the wringing of our sleeves,
Each for each in turn –

That over Sué's Mount of Pines
Ocean waves shall never pass?


I have stood
many times
beside this ocean,

and you have
never seen it —
I yet believe

what we said
was true.


Kiyowara no Motosuke (or Kiyohara) was a poet and literary editor active in the 900s C.E. He was one of the compilers of the Gosen Wakashū. He served twice as a provincial governor and is regarded as one of the Thirty-six Poetry Immortals.

Hokusai produces for this poem an unfinished drawing of a courtier whose palanquin has been set down for the moment, and to whom someone, in an attitude of obsequious respect, appears to be explicating the poem by indicating an item of cloth being wrung out by the seaside, where it has been soaked. A woman meanwhile sews another such cloth, listening in.

A promise holds great power and either keeping or breaking it can lead to widening circles of damage, thinks the Old Nurse. Do not weep over your vows unless your tears and your intentions and abilities match.

Risa's poem would not much impress the Old Nurse. She has crossed a continent to begin a life without someone. The decision will haunt her for the rest of her days, and perhaps she has no business applying selective memory, as she seems to do here.