blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



I'm going to read four poems that have been inspired by Japanese art in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts collection. I ran across these pieces, actually all collected for me, in the Art and Engagement book that the Metropolitan produced in 2001 that was edited by Barbara Ford. Using this book for a year, and meditating a bit on many of the pieces in there, I ended up with a book-length manuscript of poems, which is going to be called Autumn Grasses and will be published in 2003 by Louisiana State University Press.

The first two poems in the four that I am going to read are "persona" poems. The speaker in the first poem, "Next Morning Letter," is a young woman dressed in a magnificent kimono with magnolias all over it and clematis blossoms, and the poem brings to life the old tradition in ancient Japan of sending a next morning letter to the lover youíve just left, from whose bed youíve just crept at dawn.

Next Morning Letter

Savoring each summer moment
lush and brief
I close my eyes to see

your white robe, falling open

as you call for your scroll
and ink stone, a brush
As your brush passes over the paper

my body shivers

How closely now you watch
at the open lattice
as your servant hurries away

the next morning letter

gracefully tied to
a spray of clematis
whose blossoms will not open

until they reach me

In the washbasin
your face is
the bridge that spans

the floating world of dreams

Now you are yawning
Now you are reciting sutras
bowing to the wind

When the letter arrives

all the leaves of the maple
outside my window
are stirred

I read your words

just once, then once again
bringing my fingers
to my lips, my hair

tucked back behind one ear

On the dawn's trellis
the scent of clematis
Now smell your fingers
The petals of my body
gather in your empty arms

How shall I respond?
The cry of the stag
is so loud

the echo answers

from the empty mountains
as if it were a doe
I tell you only what you know

Clematis—the scent
of your teaching surrounds me
My empty arms fill
Come night, the fragrant petals
fall in a heap at my feet

This was based on a hanging scroll that was painted by Kaigetsudo Doshin [Beauty Writing a Letter].

The next poem is called "Drifting Boat," and it's spoken by a character in The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. Her name was Ukifune and she was kept in an isolated house where she was the lover of one prince and became through a kind of hoax the lover of another man, and it was a very complicated story and Iíll refer you to Murasaki. This is just a moment. This one is based on an album leaf that was done in ink and color with gold on paper in the Edo period.

Drifting Boat

During the banquet
what poem can I say for him
as the wine cup comes
floating by on the winding
waters? I am not stone

in the garden, nor
an oak, nor a stalwart line
of night-mooring rocks
Not a ship held at anchor
nor the treasure sought at sea

I am what it means
to wander—Ukifune
a boat long adrift
in the sound of dark water
Outside the house at Uji

where I have been put
I hear rain swept hills calling
and the cry of deer
the rush of water falling
and the slow tolling of a bell

Who is it that hears?
So smoothly, so smoothly glides
my boat, that were I
to merge with the winter sea
would there be any ripple?

Snow falls on cedars
Snow melts from the bough also
Who is it that hears
the torrential ebb and flow
in the heart? In wine? In snow?

The speaker of this poem, "Summer Birds and Flowers," is just someone looking at a scroll by Shikibu Terutada from the sixteenth century. Itís called "Summer Birds and Flowers."

the coiled scroll

enacts the momentary

sweeping down the midday sky
of small birds

on a draft from the distant
blue ravines

and mountain ridges

into the windy clearing
of summer's

middle distance, so luminous
and near

it's hard to see

elegantly disguised
by graceful hollyhocks

and stalks of amber iris
that steeply

lean into the emptiness

that borders
the tended garden path

Any fear of what imperils
and impends

is tempered—

so that the tidal and jagged line
of the far mountains

seems merely an artful
mapping of the birds'

arc of flight

And such a glimmer of gaiety
as they dip and swoop

with unguarded ease
into the inseparable


my heart stops now
as I think of it

The last poem is called "Foxfire at the Changing Tree." There's a lot of folklore about foxes in Japan, and they are wily critters indeed. And rather than being worshipped at shrines as some people think, people go to shrines to offer offerings to foxes so that theyíll stay away from them and not bother them. In the New Year, the foxes take on the stolen forms of pious pilgrims and go to the shrines themselves.

This is based on Ando Hiroshige's drawing of this event called Foxfire at the Changing Tree on New Yearís Eve and the poem's simply called "Foxfire at the Changing Tree."

The burning that must
have been coming from me—

these are lines I'm stealing
from someone else's poem, just after

I've resolved not to lie, not to steal
to live in my evergreen

integrity as long as I can manage it
I'm much like these foxes

gathered on a night whose stars
might be flakes of snow

They have their burning torches
to lift and bear

down the road, fully camouflaged
once they've put on the stolen forms

of pious pilgrims
The bare, spreading tree above them

is fit for owls to inhabit
when a savory hunger makes them take

deadly aim
on any small rustle in the dry leaves

That's their true nature
however haunting their melancholy cries

But the foxes—for the love of me
(and it's exactly that)

I can't see why
I shouldn't want to touch them, stroke them

I might just rub the ruddy silk
of their coats against my cheek

And often have, you tell me bluntly
That friction, however

slight, sufficient to make me
spit fire, gnash my teeth

and lunge for the soft parts of your body
lifting my chin moments after

to say hotly, I didn't mean to
I didn't see it coming

As if I were the innocent one
blindsided, bloodied  

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