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.

Thursday, January 29, 2015






Fujiwara no Kiyosuke Ason

If I long should live,
Then the present days
May be dear to me –

Just as past times, though filled with grief,
Gently return to mind.


Though I burned
with sorrow and shame,
losing you, I now

only remember
your affectionate
surprise that sunny

day, finding me
on the lakeshore.


Fujiwara no Kiyosuke, active in 1100s C.E., was a prolific poet and anthologist. It has often been conjectured that he is speaking not of unconsummated love but of evil times. It could go either way, couldn't it? The poet is aware that memory of these times, should he live so long, will not be the times themselves. So, as HK of notes: what is real?

Many artists were stymied by this one. How do you show, with no landscape or season so much as hinted at, a thought about thought? Hokusai's Old Nurse has no trouble. She thinks of the doings of the rich and famous re-enacted on a country stage. Whatever was remembered of the events depicted was different than the events; what was written down in the chronicles was different from what was remembered; the play which was adapted from the chronicles was different from its source; and each new actor re-interprets the role. Furthermore, each spectator experiences the play from a unique perspective, both bodily (sitting, standing, left, right) and mentally (personal experiences leading up to this moment, as well as one's present mood, etc.). This would be true even for the young ladies, who appear to be twins! And now we have Hokusai's hands rendering this scene -- what is he thinking? Already, perhaps, it is different from what he thought as he began it ...

Risa remembers that a rejection was very painful at the time, but two years later, when she unexpectedly met her former love on the shore of a large lake, what mattered was that she could be of assistance -- there, in the now, in the glorious sunshine. And afterward the sunshine, eternally glinting from the water, is all that remained.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015






Kwotai Kogu no Tayu Toshinari (Fujiwara no Toshinari)

Within the world
No way of flight do I find.
I had thought to hide

In the mountains' farthest depths;
Yet even there the stag's cry sounds.


I walked alone 
to the green hills.
 It rained every day; 

my shoes were ruined.
I came to a shelter
able to walk

no farther.
There I found,
with a note --

"You will need these" --
a pair of dry boots
my size.


Fujiwara no Toshinari or Fujiwara no Shunzei, 1114-1204 C.E.,  a commoner, became chamberlain the dowager Empress and advanced, by the favor of the Emperor, to become an important Court poet, compiling the Senzai Wakashū. He was father of the compiler of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. Taking Buddhist orders at 63, he lived to ninety. In this poem, he playfully seeks a place of quietude for contemplation but finds the world and its living beings are everywhere -- just as they should be.

The Old Nurse includes not only the bugling stag (and his mate) but rock-mushroom pickers and a farmer in the busy scene. Wherever the aging samurai and the person in the litter think they are going, there's little prospect of of escape from the world. And should there be?

Risa recalls a time when, bitterly disappointed in love, she went, ill-equipped, to the Appalachian Trail and walked for ten days in the rain in solitude. She ran out of food, and also there was no way to keep her feet dry. On the last evening above the clouds, she staggered into an Adirondack shelter wondering how she would be able to get down to the Nantahala River where she might be able to find food and a ride home. She was saved by a dry, dusty, cobwebbed pair of cowboy boots in her size, parked in a dark corner of the shelter, with a note to any person in need to take them.






Doin Hoshi (monk)

Though in deep distress
Through a cruel blow, my life
Still is left to me;

But my tears I can not stall;
They will not my grief endure.


I'm told he
came to his
vocation by

sighs and tears.
What if one comes
to one's vocation

by smiles and joy?


Denied his love by the hierarchy, the young poet shaved his head. But then he lived a long time in the midst of warfare and disaster. Morse points out that in his very old age, already famed for his poems, he prayed that he might master the art of poetry, and that Hokusai said much the same of his painting and drawing. I would add that Kurosawa, upon receiving the lifetime Oscar, gave a short speech expressing the hope that he might yet learn to make movies! Undoubtedly echoing his predecessors consciously.

The Old Nurse shows us a young courtier in exile, head not yet shaven and attitude not yet centered, perhaps. But it looks like he will get the hang of it. A servant is preparing tea. A half-buried wheel is prominently buried in the garden. The usual Buddhist wheel has eight spokes, and is the emblem of the eight ways to relieve unnecessary suffering. This may be intended as a thirty-two spoked wheel, reminder of the thirty-two marks that will identify Amida Buddha, who invites us to come to the Pure Land. Doin Hoshi has his work cut out for him.

Risa is not a nun, though she always felt a pull in that direction. It is also a time of wars and disasters. When she was young she struggled to make the world better. Then she grew tired, and began to work within the system, making an effort to live "a normal life." She has had a largely happy middle age, working in academia and maintaining a household. Her children are all grown, and the house has become quiet. She has increased her zazen practice, and after sitting often has tea, looking out on the gardens and orchard around her. What is different about such a life? What is the same? Is it too late to learn poetry?






Fujiwara no Sanesada

When I turned my look
Toward the place whence
I had heard the cuckoo* —

All that was there
Was the moon of early dawn.



I rushed to open
to someone's knock --
in frosted grass

before the door,
no footprints. 


Fujiwara no Sanesada was a Minister of the Left and poet active in the 1100s C.E., and a relative of the compiler of the 100 Poets.  His poem is on a traditional subject, the call of the Japanese cuckoo at dawn, and evokes what a painter might call white space -- a significant absence.

Hokusai's Old Nurse, who has little patience with traditional poems on subjects traditional mainly for the ruling classes, shows us not the gentleman who wrote the poem but a lady with a case of morning-after. She has one shoe off and one shoe on, and needs to arrange her robes -- and where is her lover? The hototigisu has sung its song and day has begun. "This bird has flown."

Risa thinks of a time when she lived away from the others in a tiny room she had built for herself in the barn. In the middle of the night, there was a raucus pounding at the door, which she threw open only to find there were mo footprints in the glittering moonlit frost -- in any direction. This mystery went on for weeks until she found that the rooster, living with his flock in the other end of the barn, went through the motions of crowing yet without giving voice, every night about four in the morning. The improperly secured roost was banging against the wall. These eventful nights remain strong in her memory: the forthright nightly visitor who made no tracks in frost and who was not there.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015






(Lady) Taiken Mon-In no Horikawa

If it be forever
That he wills our love should last?
I do not know;

This morn my anxious thoughts,
Like my black hair, are confused.


We remember what
we said in the night,
but do the men?


Lady Horikawa was a poet/lady-in-waiting to the Empress Dowager Taiken, who later became a nun. She is said to have been asked to write a slightly risqué tanka, and this was the result. She doesn't know the man's intentions, and as a result, her mind is full of loose ends, like her hair. The poem touches upon a matter much deeper than its surface eroticism, however.

The Old Nurse, like the poet, is in the present, which is what is known as the "morning after." "You had better pull yourself together," the drawing suggests, "And here are some things to help with that." Two servants bringing bath water and makeup, perhaps (Morse).

Risa addresses the veiled expression of inequity directly. A woman has much to lose from an affair, and very little leverage when it comes to promises that have been made. What makes a man manly is not his capacity to love 'em and leave 'em but his capacity to keep a promise. This is what we look for in their eyes and hope for in their absences.






Sakyo no Tayu Akisuke (Fujiwara no Akisuke)

See how clear and bright
Is the moonlight, finding its way
Among the riven clouds

That, with drifting autumn-wind,
Gracefully float on the sky!


You said, how beautiful!
The more so 
to me,  your having 

seen it so.


Fujiwara no Akisuke was a magistrate and poet/courtier active in the 1100s C.E. whose work was included in several collections. He compiled the Shika Wakashū. The poet plays with the concept of the moon appearing and disappearing amid racing clouds, which could have also been oblique political commentary in difficult times.

The Old Nurse continues, in this poem, her close study of working people, in this case mochi makers pounding rice. Rice-sheaves nearby indicate autumn. Although a monk pauses to admire the moon, the workers merely get on with their tasks, which go round-the-clock when the moon is full.

Risa notes that shared fleeting beauty adds value, especially when shared with a loved one.





Minamoto no Kanemasa

Guard of Suma Gate,
From your sleep, how many nights
Have you waked at cries

Of the plaintive birds
Migrant from Awaji's isle?


a meadowlark
guarded her eggs,
practicing on me

the ruse of
a "broken" wing. 
I have guarded

my wounds from you
twenty years
the same way.


This courtier/poet was active in the early 1100s C.E. and later became a monk. He is found in various collections, including one of his own. 

The poem invokes a standard trope of animal sounds in the night, which become more prominent to the ears of one whose lover is absent. Hokusai's Old Nurse again relegates the poet to the background (perhaps he is in the house being approached by the distant birds). In the foreground women are carrying out a small-scale industrial activity (brewing, I'm told). They seem to have little interest in the birds or the island on the horizon.

Risa realizes that the most cogent facts about her were hidden from everyone for decades -- even from the love of her life -- and that her method of carrying out this subterfuge had resembled that of certain birds.

Monday, January 19, 2015






(Emperor) Sutoku

Though a swift stream be
By a rock met and restrained
In impetuous flow,

Yet, divided, it speeds on,
And at last unites again.


Even as I turned
toward the green hills,
I plotted how I might

return to you
forever. The green
hills had plans of

their own.


Emperor Sutoku reigned from 1123 through 1142 C.E. Deposed, as noted in the notes to the preceding poem, he became a monk and copied scriptures (in his own blood, it is said) and sent them to court, where they were refused as they were regarded to be possibly cursed. He died soon after, and was regarded to have resented the refusal to the extent that he became a demon and did curse the court, leading to the fall of imperial power and the rise of the shoguns. While the poem ostensibly is for lovers' separating and reuniting, one can see political ramifications as well.

The Old Nurse sees no rock, only the stream rushing around a bend and underneath a bridge. Two women, a rich one who is traveling, and a farm woman who is perhaps much nearer home, stop to gaze on the water. In the moment, they too are united.

Risa recalls a moment that she thought of at the time as temporary separation, but life does not always take us where we think we are going, does it?






Hoshoji no Nyudo Saki no Kanpaku Daijo-Daijin (Fujiwara no Tadamichi)

Over the wide wild seas
As I row and look around,
It appears to me

The white waves, far away,
Are the ever shining sky.


I rode in the bow
till we lost sight
of land. Waves

caught us athwart,
and I stood

reaching for Japan.


Fujiwara no Tadamichi (1094-1157 C.E.), son of the regent, was a poetry-loving denizen of the Fujiwara clan, who was slighted by his father in favor of his more warlike brother. Tadamichi chose to support the sitting Emperor's party during a major rebellion, and his brother and father were on the losing side. His brother was killed in the fighting, and their father captured. Tadamichi interceded for the old man that had so long hated him. In such times, how can one tell the sea from the sky?

The Old Nurse reprises Hokusai's Great Wave, but with rocks. Look out, Tadamichi, politics is dangerous!

Risa has been out of sight of land exactly once, reef fishing with her father from a boat out of Newport, Oregon in 1981. She has a distinct memory of going forward, hooking a leg over the bow rail, and riding there until the boat lost way to prepare for fishing, and a wave came over the foredeck and buried her to the waist in the Pacific. She was impressed with how calmly she took it -- perhaps the overall experience convinced her that the ocean was more -- real -- than anything she thought about it. Perhaps size matters, after all.

Saturday, January 17, 2015






Fujiwara no Mototoshi

Though your promise was
"Like the dew on the moxa plant"
And, to me, was life,

Yet the year has passed
Even into autumn time.


Did I not
No, I did not.

So you showed me
the letter, written
in my own hand.


Fujiwara no Mototoshi, d.1142, was a noted (and feared) judge at poetry competitions. Here he describes the effect of a broken promise as like vanishing dew or even the approach of death.

Hokusai's Old Nurse shows us a throng of people streaming into a temple, where vows are often made only to be broken not long after the oh-so-ardent pilgrims get home. As much as to say, dude, what did you expect?

Risa recalls not having recalled a promise long ago made and broken, and her shame at being shown the proof of it in her own handwriting!

Friday, January 16, 2015






Minamoto no Toshiyori Ason

I did not make prayer
At the shrine
That the unkind one

Should become as pitiless
As the storms of Hatsuse's hills.


I sought from you
one kind word, and you
showed me the door.

Now I am alone
in wilderness.
Ah! That then

was kindness.


Minamoto no Shunrai (1055 -1129) aggregated the Gosen Wakashū and was friend to two emperors. The goddess of love has a shrine in hills having a cold and unforgiving climate. He has made his way there under difficult conditions, yet she does not answer his prayers as he would wish.

The Old Nurse knows an affirmative answer is not necessarily a blessing. She, too, ignores the courtier and shows us the common people enduring the blustery conditions and not complaining.

Risa remembers a relationship that turned out badly, except that it was one that surely would not have been good for her, and the ensuing freedom was good for her. There is a Chinese story about a farmer whose son, on whom he depended, was to be taken by the army, and his friends came by and said, too bad! To which he replied, "hmm." And then his son fell off the roof and broke his leg, at which the army chose not to take him, and the friends came by and said to the old farmer, well that was lucky! And he said, "hmm." And so on. Life is what it is. No more, but also no less. __()__






Gon-Chunagon (Oe no) Masafusa

On that distant mount,
O'er the slope below the peak,
Cherries are in flower;

May the mists of nearer hills
Not arise to veil the scene.


The mountains and
the flowering dogwoods
Were never so beautiful

as that day our brakes
completely failed
as we rolled down.


Gon-Chunagon (Oe no) Masafusa, 1041-1111 C.E., was an official and close friend of the Emperor. Here he simply notices the evanescent beauty of a mountainside booming in cherry (the blossoms fall very quickly after opening) and expresses the wish the mists, which do tend to rise as day advances, will for once "choose" not to do so, preserving the view.

We can almost hear The Old Nurse's snort. She reverses the scene and shows us the cherry trees in close-up. The people beneath them have the view to themselves, as the place where the old lord is standing is now completely obscured!

Risa vividly recalls an incident in which a precommercial thinning crew's crew vehicle (she was the driver) lost all its brake fluid to a sharp branch just as they began a thousand foot descent down a steep road. Life is very beautiful in the eyes of those who expect they will soon lose it!

Thursday, January 15, 2015






(Lady) Yushi Naishinnoke no Kii

Well I know the fame
Of the fickle waves that beat
On Takashi's strand;

Should I go near that shore
I should only wet my sleeves.


We old-timers told
our moldy tales.
I asked: full

of ourselves, huh?
The newbie answered:
now I feel better!

For a bit I thought
you were just
full of yourselves!


Long a lady-in-waiting, Yushi Naishinnoke no Kii is now known only for her poems. This masterpiece of youthful flirtation is said to have been produced in her 70s. If she goes too near the shore (the attentions of men) she will get her sleeves wet (it will all end in weeping).

Hokusai's Old Nurse understands that male privilege is a constant danger and so visualizes the lady on the beach approached by an intermediary on behalf of one whose advances cannot with complete safety be refused.

Risa remembers an interesting moment in a nomadic tree planters' camp, when the men who have been members of the crew for many years regale a new crew member (an attractive woman) with stories of their (manly) adventures. Risa tells one of her own, undermining the masculine narratives with comic relief, to the merriment of her young friend.






Dainagon Tsunenobu (Minamoto no Tsunenobu)

When the evening comes,
From the rice leaves at my gate
Gentle knocks are heard,

And, into my round rush-hut,
Autumn's roaming breeze makes way.


Hear the difference
when there is wind
against a new house

and against an old house.


A military governor and prolific poet, Minamoto no Tsunenobu lived from 1016 to 1097 C.E. After the rice harvest, sheaves of the cut stems are stacked for later use and their dried foliage rustles in the winds, a sign of approaching winter. Thus they figure in much Japanese poetry.

The Old Nurse instead envisions an earlier stage of the harvest, with the hard-working common people (as noted by Morse) carrying and washing rice to be pounded for making rice cakes. It's like she is saying, "when you live, LIVE. When you are ready to stop working, lie down and DIE. Enough with the romanticism about the approaching darkness."

Risa holds to the romanticism, to an extent. She notices that the mournful piping winds of popular imagination have to do with houses that have no insulation, with the cracks between the boards serving as whistles -- increasingly a rural experience, or having to do with abandoned buildings. These sounds were more common in the "developed" world in "simpler" times, and may become so again.






Ryozen Hoshi (monk)

In my loneliness
From my humble home gone forth,
When I looked around,

Everywhere it was the same —
One lone, darkening autumn eve.


I made a circle
to wait for a sign.
Mice all night

chewed the cowhide
of my dancing bells.
Only after many

years did I
their role.


Poet and musician from a family with a long line of poets, two of whom also appear in the collection, Ryozen creates the quintessential "autumn sadness" poem.

By Hokusai's time, the trope has had a lot of wear. His Old Nurse comes in at right angles to the poet's evocation of loneliness by visualizing a group of revelers dancing their way to an autumn festival, beating drums. Morse notes that they pass an official notice board, which signifies the government is always with us, whether we think ourselves alone or not. -- death and taxes.

Risa recalls having climbed alone to a peak in Northern Idaho with the culturally appropriating idea of conducting a vision quest. To her chagrin, she found in the morning that mice had eaten some of her dancing gear. She left right away, slightly wiser.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015






Noin Hoshi (monk)

By the windstorm's blast,
From Mimuro's mountain slopes
Maples' leaves are torn

And as rich brocades, are wrought
On Tatsuta's quiet stream.


In summer I rest
beneath maple leaves.
In fall I rake them

for the garden,
to grow and eat
next year

last summer's shade.


Noin Hoshi, a priest, was also a noted literary critic. He won a poetry contest with this offering in 1049 C.E. The Tatsuta River with its famous drifting maple leaves in autumn was a conventional topic, as we have seen elsewhere in this collection.

The Old Nurse seems more interested in the laborers along the stream than the maple leaves. There are log raftmen, fishermen, and a boy with, perhaps, a net. The leaves from the mountain are almost a ghostly presence -- or absence -- in this drawing.

Risa "farms" one acre; that is, she maintains a large garden and a number of fruit trees, and enjoys, by the sweat of her brow, a certain level of food independence. But she must gather organic matter every year to replenish the soil, and the seasonal fall of the leaves thus becomes a colorful part of her work.