Saturday, April 02, 2016

The ink dark moon

I read in the New York Review recently of another new translation of Murasaki's The Tale of Genji and recalled that it is not that long ago that The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon was reissued in a new version by Penguin Classics.  Strange then that their great contemporary Izumi Shikibu (c. 974-c. 1034) remains relatively unpublished and neglected in comparison.  However, anyone curious about her poetry can find a rewarding set of translations made in the late eighties and published in 1990 by Jane Hirshfield with Mariko Aratani.  Their book, The Ink Dark Moon also contains a selection of earlier poetry by Ono no Komachi (c. 834-?), the only woman writer included among the 'Six Poetic Geniuses' of Japan by Ki no Tsurayuki, writing in the Preface to the Kokinshū, c. 905.

It is a bit of a stretch to make a connection between The Ink Dark Moon's short love poems and themes of landscape, although both writers' inner emotions find their objective correlatives in the sounds, scents and colours of nature.  In one of her poems Ono no Komachi, picturing the evergreen pine trees of Tokiwa Mountain, wonders whether they recognise the coming of autumn in the sound of the blowing wind.  Izumi Shikibu observes that pine trees may keep their original colour, but everything that is green looks different in spring.  As Jane Hirshfield says in her notes, it is interesting to see in these examples the different use made of the idea of unchanging evergreen trees.  Many Japanese poems feature this trope, although it is not actually true that pine trees retain their colour, since the older needles turn brown and fall to the ground.  Edwin A. Cranston mentions this in his note on a poem in the second of his monumental waka anthologies, in which a sad lover sees that 'even the treetops of the pines' are changing colour.  'The possibility of paradox is not lightly to be dismissed from poetry - or from considerations of the workings of the human heart.'

In Jane Hirshfield's own poetry written over the decades since The Ink Dark Moon she has occasionally written about Japanese and Chinese culture.  'Recalling a Sung Dynasty Landscape', for example, describes moonlit mountains and a solitary thatched hut, a place to rest the eye.  She concludes that
... the heart, unscrolled,
is comforted by such small things:
a cup of green tea rescues us, grows deep and large, a lake.
In other poetry the influence of studying writers like Izumi comes through in the metaphors she uses.  There is, for example, a poem in her collection The Beauty on 'The landscape by Dürer / of a dandelion amid grasses' (the painting appears on the cover of he Bloodaxe edition).  In this she sees 'exiles / writing letters / sent over the mountains' - the exiles are the flowers and their messengers the passing horses and donkeys.

There are two Jane Hirshfield poems in the Bloodaxe ecopoetry anthology Earth Shattering - one of which 'Global Warming' is particularly striking (you can Google it but as ever I'm trying to adhere to fair-use copyright rules here).  The clip below is a short talk on ecopoetics that she delivered in 2013.  It traces environmental attitudes in literature from Gilgamesh cutting down the cedar forest, to Gary Snyder, whose haibun series 'Dust in the Wind' achieves a balance between the human and natural worlds.  Hirshfield wrote a beautiful poem herself in haibun form (prose:haiku) which can be found in the collection Come, Thief.  It describes walks over the course of a summer in which she sees an old man building a boat until, 'finally, today, it is being painted: a clear Baltic blue.'  This boat, at rest on its wooden cradle, resembles a horse waiting in a stable.  She thinks of the way horses dream and of the hopes of the old man.  The brief concluding poem is simply the image of that blue boat, high on a mountain among the summer trees.

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