Posts Tagged ‘Japan’

Sumo Wrestling…..a haibun.

September 18, 2019

sumo

For the past 6 months, I have been watching sumo bouts.  It doesn’t matter that your honorable opponent might outweigh you by 50 lbs, it’s all in the technique.  Apparently, the point is to ‘unseat’ the man opposite you and do it in seconds.  These two refrigerators smash into each other, and you go for the shoulders.  This creates  2 tons of power in the smashing.  Sure there are other things that go into this sport, like slapping flesh hard, slapping  the face, grabbing the opponent’s belt and trying to hurl him across the ring of sand.  And out into the audience.  Generally these men are big and to have one land in your lap must hurt.  There is a lot more to sumo, but I’m learning.  Armchair, here.

Lady Nyo

 

I love Sumo wrestling. Or at least I think I do. Perhaps it is the only sport where I don’t feel like I have to hold in my stomach sitting there. Watching those mountains of flesh-men grapple with each other makes my heart beat hard. There is such history around this sport, and such a deep tradition. The fact that they gorge themselves with a purpose makes my heart sing. How wonderful that you can eat and eat without any concern for weight or fashion!

And, did you know that those belts they wear can cost a million yen? Or so I have read. I have also read that Sumo Wrestlers are some of the most humble and gentle of men. Here, have another bowl of rice.

Mountains of flesh pound

A ring of sandy earth

Cunning and strength vie.

 

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2019

Lafcadio Hearn on “Bits of Poetry”

August 10, 2019

Japanese Lovers II

Utamaro Kitagawa

The wonderful thing about having a blog is being able to share what excites you.  Lafcadio Hearn’s writing is remarkable and illuminating, written at a time (somewhere in the 1890′s) when cultural Japan, and Japan itself was barely become ‘known’.  His writing is fresh, startling and provocative.

Hearn was born in Greece, moved to Ireland, the US and then to Japan during the last 14 years of his life.  He was a man of depth, insight, poetic imagination and  and embraced Asian culture with remarkably sympathy.  He acquired the difficult language and married a Japanese woman.  He was respected in Japan and was one of the first great interpreters of Japanese culture for Western readers.  He taught and wrote extensively in Japan until his death in 1904.

I have the greatest sympathy for Hearn and anyone else trying to learn the Japanese language.  For six months I have plowed into this difficult language, set up a daily study, and still I am very poor student.  It will take a long time for me to get my head and mouth around the sounds and the word order.  I do have the bemused sympathy of a Japanese sushi maker at Whole Foods who tolerates and gently corrects my sentences, though my progress is very slow.  “Sumimasen” were the opening words (“Excuse me”) and though that is so elemental, it is hard to mess it up.  Further sentences bring a broad smile to his face, and he is maintaining his gracious humor at my distortion of his beautiful language.

Perhaps being immersed in the daily culture like Hearn makes it faster and easier, but still, Hearn’s sensitivity to the poetic forms make his writing sing and soar for me.  He has made clear in a few pages what the last two years of hunt and peck study hasn’t.

Although he is writing about Japanese culture in the 1890′s my friends in Japan assure me that much of what he says is still true.  At least about poetry, which is the only point of this short entry.  I will quote some of his words from “In Ghostly Japan” because they are so illuminating.

“Poetry in Japan is universal as the air. It is felt by everybody.  It is read by everybody.  It is composed by almost everybody,–irrespective of class and condition.  Nor is it thus ubiquitous in the mental atmosphere only:  it is everywhere to be heard by the ear, and seen by the eye!

As for audible poetry, wherever there is working there is singing.  The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse: and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of the cicadae.  As for visible poetry, it appears everywhere, written or graven, as a form of decoration.  In thousands and thousands of dwellings, you might observe that the sliding-screens, separating rooms  have decorative texts upon them and these texts are poems.  In the houses of the upper classes there are usually a number of gaku, or suspended tablets to be seen, each bearing a beautifully written verse.  Poems can be found on almost any kind of domestic utensil; for example upon braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort, even toothpicks!  Poems are painted on shop-signs, panels, screens, and fans.  Poems are printed on towels, draperies, curtains, kerchiefs, silk-linings, and women’s  silk underwearLetterheads, envelopes, purces, traveling bags, cut into bronzes, enameled ware.  Even suspended in blossoming trees during festivals and at more ordinary times.”

(Hearn goes on to something that hits at the kernel of Japanese aesthetic theory.)

“The common art-principle of the class of poems under present consideration is identical with the common principle of Japanese pictorial illustration.  By the use of a few chosen words the composer of a short poem endeavors to do exactly what the painter endeavors to do with a few strokes of the brush–to evoke an image or a mood, to revive a sensation or an emotion.  And the purpose of this- depends altogether upon capacity to suggest and only to suggest.  A Japanese artist would be condemned for attempting elaboration of detail in a sketch intended to recreate the memory of some landscape seen through the blue haze of a spring morning, or under the great blond light of an autumn afternoon.  Not only would he be false to the traditions of his art: he would necessarily defeat his own end.  In the same way a poet would be condemned for attempting any completeness of utterance in a very short poem: his object should be only to stir imagination without satisfy if.  Praise is reserved for compositions that leave in the mind the thrilling of a something unsaid.  Like the single stroke of a temple bell, the perfect short poem should set murmuring and undulating, in the mind of the hearer, many a ghostly aftertone of long duration.”

—–from “In Ghostly Japan”

Ah. What a wonderful explanation that goes in my estimation to the heart of poetry! Not only Japanese, but to our attempts in the West.  I have to confess a intolerance for a lot of what passes for poetry that I have read recently: overly long, convoluted word play that confuses me and does not haunt.  This last is most important.  Poetry can be best when there is a very light and glancing touch.  Of course, there are wonderful exceptions to this ‘rule’…and I have read some.  But sometimes poetry is just an excuse for rage, for self-display, for reaching beyond something and it becomes a jumble to readers.  I have written lots of such poetry and  am trying to reform.  It will take a long time I think.

Of course, as Hearn says, for the same reason that Japanese short poems may be said to resemble Japanese pictures, a fuller comprehension of them requires an intimate knowledge of the life which they reflect.  In many cases, these would signify almost nothing to the Western mind.  But a little familiarity of Japanese culture, just a bit, will bring the pathos and beauty of these poems to life.  One example is below.

“Oh, body-piercing wind!

That work of little fingers

in the shoji!”

It didn’t mean much to me on first reading until Hearn explained.  It means the sorrowing of a mother for her dead child.  Shoji is the name given to those light white-paper screens which give privacy and stop the wind, but emits light.  Children delight to poke their little fingers through the soft paper: then the wind blows through the holes.  Even though I have read this poem numerous times, it still drives me to tears.

Lady Nyo

“O vapory Spring moon,

rising in a pale, silken sky

shedding upon earth

reclaiming  innocence.”

Jane Kohut-Bartels

copyrighted, 2011

 

 

“Musings On A Closing Day”

July 19, 2019

black kimono

I move my chair

to observe Mt. Fuji–

monstrous perfection

topped with the cooling crust

of spring snows.

 

Languid movement

of a branch,

like a geisha

unfurling her arm

from a gray kimono,

makes petals fall,

a scented, pink snow

covering my upturned face

with careless kisses.

 

Timid winds caress

my limbs,

a fleeting relief

to tired bones

brittle now with

a sullen defeat of life.

 

Raked sand of garden

waves barely disturbed

by feet like two gray stones

as grains flow

round ankles.

I realize once again

I am no obstacle to

the sands of time.

 

My heart is quieted

by the passage of nothing

for in this nothing

is revealed the fullness of life.

 

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2016-2019

“Sumo Wrestling”….a haibun.

August 8, 2018

sumo

Sumo Wrestling

 

I love Sumo wrestling. Or at least I think I do. Perhaps it is the only sport where I don’t feel  I have to hold in my stomach sitting there. Watching those mountains of flesh-men grapple with each other makes my heart beat hard. But women are not to enter or touch the sand of the ring. There is such history around this sport, and such a deep tradition. The fact that they gorge themselves with a purpose makes my heart sing. How wonderful that you can eat and eat without any concern for weight or fashion!

And, did you know that those belts they wear can cost a million yen? Or so I have read. I have also read that Sumo Wrestlers are some of the most humble and gentle of men. Here, have another bowl of rice.

 

Mountains of flesh pound

A ring of sandy earth

Cunning and strength vie.

 

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

 

“The Geisha”

June 26, 2018

Geisha

Computer really screwed up today: If I am slow (or swimming in the wrong direction) please be patient with me.  I don’t know what happened but perhaps if I go eat ice cream it will self-correct?  Dogs want some, too.  93 today. Ugh.

Toni Spencer (from d’versepoets.com and other sites) and I have been recently discussing jisei, death poems of samurai and others. At the end is a further explanation of this ritual and definitions.  Toni is an expert on Japanese poetry and culture.

Lady Nyo

THE GEISHA


Moon sits low
above solemn pines.
The night is cold.
As dawn breaks
the geisha kneels, waiting.

Plum tea kimono wraps
her tightly-
white would be right
color of mourning,
color of death.

Her lover, disgraced
has embraced
Death-
blood the sacrifice
to wipe clean a
particular stain.

She to follow
Honor fulfilled,
death follows death
rigid path of decree.

A life mostly of sorrow.

Opening her gown,
she exposes white skin,
her maid, quietly weeps
slides back the shoji
exposing a winter landscape-
white snow on rocks
white snow like her skin
soft, soon to disappear,
one to melt,
one to white ash.

Yes, life mostly of sorrow.

Outside
winter is silent,
no wind at all,
snow falling like silken petals
Ah! She will never see spring
or cherry blossom time!

Floating over muted,
glassine air
comes the sound-
two monks
playing flutes
welcome the day.
Shakuhachi artists,
mournful sound,
sound that brings
peace to an anxious heart.

 

She bows her head,
picks up the tanto-
and opens the vein.

Blood of her line
answers to that
of another.

Life.
So full of sorrow.

I wrote this short poem listening to Shakuhachi artists. The sound of their intertwining flutes, poignant, heartbreaking, set this poem going. The raw, alien nature of their music was transporting, bringing peace.

There are a few issues to explain. This is a ritual suicide, (for women, called jigai) not uncommon in feudal and even modern Japan. A geisha, an entertainer, could take lovers, and even become a favored member of a family. She could not get married and remain a geisha.

This geisha has decided to follow her disgraced lover into death. However, she is wearing a kimono that is not ‘proper’ for a ritual suicide. I think she does this to embarrass the officials. Perhaps it is a personal protest. The tea ceremony is imbued with its own ritual and I link these two together.

Depending on the original offense of her lover, his death and the death of part of his family would restore the honor of the family. She chose to sacrifice her life for his honor.

A tanto is a short knife. A woman would not cut her abdomen (seppuku), but would open the main vein in her neck. She would have tied together her legs at the knees, over her kimono, so she would have some modesty in death.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2010-2018

 

“The Kimono” Chapter 17

April 10, 2018

Kimono Cover 2

 

Mari stood at the window, a copy of the Man’yōshū in her hand. It was a book of love poems, the “Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves”. She couldn’t read the language but a scribe had taken the time to carefully illustrate this book with erotic drawings. They were exquisite, though rather pornographic in her opinion. Compiled during the 8th century, this book was considered the pinnacle of Japanese verse, even in this more “modern” 17th century. To the Japanese, eroticism didn’t seem to have many boundaries. Sex, and even nudity, was very natural to them. They did not have a concept of sin, at least none she understood.
Lord Tetsu had ordered Lady Nyo to teach her to read and write. He was of the opinion, according to Lady Nyo, that Mari should be entertained while learning a difficult language. Therefore, he gave her this book, the Man’yōshū. Entertained? How different their cultures, stretching across the centuries like two oceans separated by mountains and sand.
It was now two months since her miscarriage but Lady Mari’s mood had not greatly improved. Her heart was a mass of confusion. She would wake in the night, sweating. She dreamed constantly but could not remember much, just disjointed scenes in clashing and violent colors. Dreams before were fathomable, but now? They were strips of some unrolling and unending painting, without words or knowable meaning to her. Just confused sensations with a hidden terror.
With patient instruction by Lady Nyo, Mari was beginning to recognize some Japanese words. She still couldn’t construct a decent sentence. There were all sorts of issues with the Japanese language and her attempts in forming a sentence sent Lady Nyo into peals of laughter. Well, at least she was entertaining to someone if not exactly “entertained” herself.
The house was a flurry of activity. Lord Tetsu was to visit sometime in the afternoon and Mari felt anxious. He had not visited her since her miscarriage. Lady Nyo said he had come to see her but apparently she was asleep due to the medicine prescribed by the doctor. The only evidence of his visit was a short poem inked on his fan. Something about laughter and fireflies.

 

 
Mari turned from the window. There were two small women kneeling outside the entrance to the room. They bowed their heads to the wooden floor as soon as she saw them. Lady Nyo came up behind them and bowed to Mari.
“So sorry to disturb you, Lady Mari. These women are here to attend to the house. Would you please come out to the rokka and view the niwa?”
Mari nodded and put her book down on a small chest. She recognized the word “rokka” as the porch overlooking the garden and “niwa” as garden. She was beginning to learn the names of things in her environment.
“Oh, Lady Mari! If you would like, I will come with you and we can read those wonderful poems together.”
What she really meant, thought Mari, is I can read these poems because you are still stupid about our language. Of course, Lady Nyo was the picture of decorum and would never say such but Mari was foul in mood and took offense secretly at many things.
The house was like a cottage with small, bare rooms constructed from a central passageway, closed off by shoji screens. They walked through the house towards the back where Lady Nyo kneeled and pushed a screen open. They faced a narrow platform looking out upon a small garden.
Enclosed by a low stone wall, the garden was very old and had a misshapen tree in the middle. There were raked pebbled paths and small green bushes with buds and a few open flowers beneath. Upon the wall were small plants growing out of the rocks. The cherry trees were almost ready to blossom. This event was as important to the Japanese of this century as much as it was in Mari’s. She heard how beautiful they were in the castle grounds when in full bloom.
The kasumi, the morning mist, had lifted but there was a possibility of rain. Mari liked the rain, it suited her moods. She could withdraw from the company of Lady Nyo and look out her window, wrapped in a silk quilt against the cool air. As she recovered, she spent less time sleeping late and would get up earlier. She liked the kasumi, it comforted her. It put a barrier between her and the world. Any rain or mist was welcomed by the people around her. There had been a drought for a couple of years. Lord Tetsu had mentioned that rice production had dropped. Famine was always around the corner.
Mari sat on a wooden bench on the rokka overlooking the garden and above the pebbled paths. The mists had all evaporated from the morning, replaced by a gentle wind. White cranes lifted off the water down by the shore, their black legs trailing like stiff ribbons behind white bodies.
It was peaceful. She felt her nerves untangle, fall away. Breathing in quietly, she could smell the scent of plum trees within the garden wall. The wind made cascades of plum snow litter the raked pebbles.
“Lady Mari, I have brought your book. If it pleases you, may I read a few poems aloud?”
Mari could not refuse this simple request. Lady Nyo’s role was to educate her in the finer arts. It was not as if it were her idea to do this. Clearly, it came from Lord Tetsu. Lady Nyo was devotedly following orders.
“Oh, Lady Mari! Here is a poem by the Princess Nukata. She was very famous many centuries ago for her lovers. She was wife to Prince Oama and then the Emperor himself!”

 

As I stay here yearning
while I wait for you, my lord,
the autumn wind blows,
swaying the bamboo blinds
of my lodging.

 

“Oh, isn’t that the most romantic of poems?” Lady Nyo clasped the book to her flattened bosom.
“Well, I would think it would be a matter of taste, my Lady.” Mari didn’t want to sound sour but the poem did not move her as it obviously did the reader.
“Oh, Lady Mari,” said Lady Nyo plaintively. “Perhaps the part of the poem that is more obscure is the key here. The autumn wind in this poem represents the visitor…or builds yearning for him. And this morning we have such a lovely, gentle wind blowing.” Lady Nyo looked at Mari with hopeful expectation. Mari laughed and asked her to read more.

 

Tonight, too,
does my woman’s pitch-black hair
trail upon the floor
where she sleeps without me?

 

Mari sat up straighter, her interest piqued. Now, that poem had interest and was modern in sentiment but why were the man and woman separated? There were more secrets than answers in this sort of poetry. “Read more.”
Lady Nyo smiled and looked for another poem to please her.

 

Though I sleep with
a single thin rush mat
for my bedding,
I am not cold at all,
when I sleep with you, my lord.

 

Lady Nyo smiled over the top of the book, again clasped to her bosom. “She must have been a poor woman to be only able to afford such bedding. But here’s another poem that speaks to men.”

 

Though I sleep beneath
soft, warm bedding,
how cold my skin is,
for I do not share my bed
with you, my woman.

 

“Now, that is nice,” said Mari wishfully. And how modern, she thought. A man who shows his main concern in bed: warm feet.
Lady Nyo read another:

 

Brave man like the catalpa bow
that, once drawn,
does not slacken–
can it be that he is unable to bear
the vicissitudes of love?

 

As soon as Lady Nyo read this particular poem, she blushed deeply.
Mari saw her reaction. “Lady Nyo, I am a stranger here. I have no history among your people. That is obvious. But please tell me: does Lord Tetsu have a wife or children?”
Lady Nyo’s face showed a sadness. She moved closer to Mari and spoke softly. “This was a long time ago but I believe Lord Tetsu still mourns. It is hard to tell with men but Lord Tetsu, though a powerful daimyo, is still a man. Years ago, before my Lord Nyo and I were vassals to Lord Tetsu, he lost his young wife and children to the sea. They were sailing to a city on the southern coast when a terrible storm took hold of the boat and all were lost. Lord Tetsu was not with them, he was on land. I understand he travelled to a sacred mountain and for years lived in the forests. He talked to the ghosts of his wife and children and shunned all men.”
Mari’s breath caught in her chest. Perhaps this was the key to his personality. He was certainly a strange man, even for a 17th century daimyo. “But surely he has remarried? Does he have a wife in the castle I have not seen?”
Lady Nyo’s eyes widened. “Oh, no! To my knowledge, Lord Tetsu has never remarried. If he had, his wife would be amongst the women with Lady Idu. Oh, it would be hard to ignore a daimyo’s wife!”
Yes, she would be first among all the women in the castle, thought Mari. “But perhaps he has a wife that lives apart from him?”
Lady Nyo shook her head. “No, not that I have ever heard, Lady Mari. Of course, many husbands and wives do not live together, which would explain why we know nothing about a wife. If that were the case, surely my husband would tell me, but in all these years, he has said nothing.”
The expression on Mari’s face took Lady Nyo by surprise.

“A man and wife don’t live together? How strange.” As soon as Mari spoke, she realized her mistake.
“Oh, Lady Mari! Surely the married people where you come from don’t live together after marriage?”
“Well, actually, they do, except if the husband has to travel…for business.”
“Oh! People are so different it seems. Here, only the farmers live together but that is because their women are needed in the fields.”
That morning, Mari learned that among the upper classes, and especially within the aristocracy, men and women lived apart. Visits were planned and each was notified by a messenger. That poem about autumn winds and swaying bamboo blinds now made sense. These marriages were conjugal visits.
“No,” continued Lady Nyo. “Lord Tetsu has no wife, as far as I know, but the finest courtesans do visit him…or he them, from time to time. It is only right and proper. He is not a hermit.”
“Who? Tell me, Hana, do you know the women? What do they look like? Have you seen them?”
Lady Nyo, heartened that Mari would use her name, blushed and shyly touched Mari’s hand. “Well, there was the beautiful courtesan, Midori, last year. Oh, Lady Mari! You should have seen her kimonos! Such silks and colors! She looked like a beautiful butterfly!” Lady Nyo giggled like a girl and rushed to explain. “I was passing from one hall to another on some endless errand and I saw her with attendants. She was so beautiful! Her skin was as white as a lily and her hair as glossy as a blackbird’s wing. Long, too. She wore it unencumbered and it swept her hems.”
Mari chuckled to herself. So, Lord Tetsu wasn’t the hermit he appeared at first to her. He was man enough.

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

 

” Moon Viewing in Japan”, two poems.

April 7, 2018

 

Kohut-Bartels-LS-10

Painting by the author

 Written after the tsunami….

 

 

 

Is there a moon viewing party

In Japan tonight?

Destruction, sorrow

Covers the land,

Despair, loss

Regulates the heart.

 

Perhaps the moon’s presence

Is of little interest

And less comfort.

Perhaps sorrow goes too deep

To raise eyes above shock and debris.

 

Yet,

Her gleam falls upon all

A compassionate blanketing

Of the Earth,

Softening the soiled,

Ravaged landscape,

A beacon of promise

Of the return to life,

Beauty to nature.

 

Two weeks and the cherry blossoms
Would have opened in Sendai.
Beautiful clouds of scented prayers
Falling upon upturned faces,
The eternal promise of hope for the earth,
Swept out to sea
With a good part of humanity.

I will sit beneath the moon tonight
Listening to frogs sing,
An owl in the woods
The birds settling in the dark—

My cherry tree is blooming
A small cloud of satin blossom–
I will count falling petals,
And offer these  as prayers.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted, 2011-2018

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2018

“The Stillness of Death”

February 6, 2018

Japanese Lovers II

 

From “Song of the Nightingale”.  this is the first episode of “Song”.  A few readers were curious about this series, so…..

Lady Nyo

 

 

“My heart, like my clothing
Is saturated with your fragrance.
Your vows of fidelity
Were made to our pillow and not to me.”
—-12th century

Kneeling before her tea
Lady Nyo did not move.
She barely breathed-
Tomorrow depended
Upon her action today.

Lord Nyo was drunk again.
When in his cups
The household scattered.
Beneath the kitchen
Was the crawl space
Where three servants
Where hiding.
A fourth wore an iron pot.

Lord Nyo was known
For three things:
Archery-
Temper-
And drink.

Tonight he strung
His seven foot bow,
Donned his quiver
High on his back.
He looked at the pale face
Of his aging wife,
His eyes blurry, unfocused.
He remembered the first time
pillowing her.

She was fifteen.
Her body powdered petals,
Bones like butter,
Black hair like trailing bo silk.
The blush of shy passion
Had coursed through veins
Like a tinted stream.

Still beautiful
Now too fragile for his taste.
Better a plump whore,
Than this delicate, saddened beauty.

He drew back the bow
In quick succession
Let five arrows pierce
The shoji.
Each grazed the shell ear
Of his wife.

Life hung on her stillness.
She willed herself dead.


Death after all these years
Would have been welcome.

Jane Kohut-Bartels
Copyrighted , 2015

Song Book cover

 

“Ten Thousand Leaves”, Love Songs from the Man’yoshu.

November 22, 2016

spring garden 4

(my spring garden of a few years ago.)

 

“Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you

Like the layers

Of endlessly falling snow

Upon the cedars.

“Come to me at night, my man.”

—– from the Man’yoshu

 

 

It was the first golden age of Japanese civilization.  In the eighth century appeared the great metropolis of Nara, (the imperial capital) its broad avenues lined with magnificent temples. Culture rushed in from Korea, China and over the Silk Road, from as far away as Persia, and even from Venice.

We think of Japan in isolation, as it was to become centuries later, but in the 7th to the 10th centuries (approximately) the cultural influences were vast and wide and foreign.

In the 8th century, Japan found it’s first voice, a clear and powerful voice to become one of the most impressive, sophisticated and frank compilations of poetry the world has ever seen.  (There are other earlier and then later collections of poetry, but the Man’yoshu is considered to be the best of the poetry collections.  There are many reasons (cultural and court changes, etc) but this is a long study and can’t be done in this short presentation.

There are not 10,000 poems (leaves) but over 4,500.  Most of these are love poems, where lovers speak with disarming frankness and clarity, speak to us across 1300 years as if they were us.

Actually, the poems express a decided lack of neurosis that we have come to view sex in the last few centuries.  There is nothing of barriers when it comes to the human heart, longing, emotions and sexuality in these poems.  Many of them are openly, expressly erotic.

The authors or contributors of these poems extended from Emperors, Empresses, courtesans, samurai, priests, beggars, fishermen, peasants: a cross section of remarkable variety.  A truly democratic endeavor.  This was never again to happen in Japan, not at least to this extent.

Otomo No Yakamochi (718-785) is considered to be the main compiler of the Man’yoshu.  These poems actually span a 130 year history, from around 630 AD to 759 AD.

There are three basic divisions of the poetry in the Man’yoshu.

 

Banka: elegy on the death of an Emperor or a loved one.

Somon:  mutual exchanges of love or longing poetry.

Zoka:  Poems of Nature, hunting, etc.

This short presentation will focus only on the Somon form.

Generally the Man’yoshu poetry is considered to be declarative rather than introspective, imagistic rather than abstract.  There is an incredible freshness to it all.

There are basically two forms of poetry in the Man’yoshu: choka (long poem, 5-7-5-7-5-7, etc. ending in 7-7) and tanka.  (5-7-5-7-7). The ‘long poem’, choka (which isn’t very long by our modern and Western standards) died out of fashion, and tanka became the predominant form of Japanese poetry for the next 1200 years.

Although one would think so, there isn’t a lot of Buddhist influence in the poems.  If any religion, there is more Shinto influence especially in the Zoka form, but even that isn’t large.  This may seem strange to us, with our notions of culture in Japan, but even centuries later, with the Priest-Poet Saigyo, there is little Buddhist thought within his poems.  Religion just doesn’t play such a dominant role in most Japanese poetry, especially at this time.

“Going over the fields of murasaki grass That shimmer crimson, Going over the fields marked as imperial domain, Will the guardian of the fields not see you As you wave your sleeves at me?”

— Princess Nukata

This poem is considered by many to be one of the greatest poems in the Man’yoshu.  It is presented near the beginning of the collection, giving it prominence.  The answer by her former husband (she is now married to the Emperor) Prince Oama, (his brother) is a beautiful poem in its own right.

“If I despised you, who are as beautiful As the murasaki grass, Would I be longing for you like this, Though you are another man’s wife?”

— Prince Oama

“Do not let men find out By smiling at me so apparently, Like the clouds that clearly cross Over the verdant mountains.”

— Lady Otomo Sakanoue

There are more poems by this poet than any other woman in the Man’yoshu.  What is remarkable are the amount of women poets included in the Man’yoshu.  This is only possible because the Confucian philosophy was not prominent yet in Japan.  When it became influential, women lost much status: before they were allowed to own property, title, name, divorce, to keep custody of their children.  After, they were relegated to indoors, stripped of much power and status.

“Whose words are these, Spoken to the wife of another? Whose words are these, That bade me untie The sash of my robe?”

— Anonymous

Many of the poems in the Man’yoshu were folk songs, or parts of folk songs. And this repeated interest in ‘the wife of another’ was an object of male desire; the Man’yoshu is full of this theme.

“As I turn my gaze upward And see the crescent moon, I am reminded Of the trailing eyebrows Of the woman I saw but once.”

— Otomo Yakamochi

This was written by Otomo at the age of 16!

“I have fallen into a yearning With no requite, For a girl who, when night comes Sleeps pillowed in another’s arms.

— Anonymous

“If men can touch Even the untouchable sacred tree, Why can I not touch you Simply because you are another’s wife?”

— Otomo Yasumaro

 

To finish with some anonymous poems:

“The flowers of the plum, Were covered with fallen snow Which I wrapped up But when I tried to have you see It was melting in my hands.”

“This body of mine Has crossed the mountain barrier And is here indeed! But this heart of mine remains Drawing closer to my wife.”

“The moon crossed the sky And I saw him only once In its pale light Yet, the person whom I saw Does appear to me in dreams.”

“I shall not take a brush To this hair that lies Disheveled in the morning, For it retains the touch Of my dear lord’s arms that pillowed me.”

— Anonymous

I’ll prime the pot with one of my own:

“Glimpse of a white wrist

Feel the pulse of blood beneath-

This is seduction!

But catch a wry, cunning smile

One learns all is artifice.”

Or something a bit different.  Many of the poems were built one upon the other, answers brushed upon a fan, or something suitable, even a large leaf. In the ‘spirit’ of this method that is found in the Man’yoshu, I offer this modest poem:

Thick and fast stream my thoughts of you Like the layers Of endlessly falling snow Upon the cedars. “Come to me at night, my man.”

 

Come to me

If  only in my dreams

Where my head rests upon my arm

And not yours–

Let this veiled moon

Above and these dark, brooding pines below

“Be witness to our love, my man.”

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels (aka Lady Nyo)

Copyrighted, 2015

 

The Geisha

April 16, 2016

 Geisha picture 2016

The tragedy in Japan continues.

I wrote this short poem listening to Shakuhachi artists. The sound of their intertwining flutes, poignant, heartbreaking, set this poem going. The raw, alien nature of their music was transporting, bringing peace.

 

 Lady Nyo

 

The Geisha

 

Moon sits low

above solemn pines.

The night is cold.

As dawn breaks

the geisha kneels, waiting.

 

Plum tea kimono wraps

her tightly-

white would be right

color of mourning,

color of death.

 

Her lover, disgraced

has embraced

Death-

blood the sacrifice

to wipe clean a

particular stain.

 

She to follow

Honor fulfilled,

death follows death

rigid path of decree.

 

A life mostly of sorrow.

 

Opening her gown,

she exposes white skin,

her maid, quietly weeps

slides back the shoji

exposing a winter landscape-

white snow on rocks

white snow like her skin

soft, soon to disappear,

one to melt,

one to white ash.

 

Yes, life mostly of sorrow.

 

Outside

winter is silent,

no wind at all,

snow falling like silken petals

Ah! She will never see spring

or cherry blossom time!

 

Floating over muted,

glassine air

comes the sound-

two monks

playing flutes

to welcome the day.

Shakuhachi artists,

mournful sound,

sound that brings

peace to an anxious heart.

 

 

She bows her head,

picks up the tanto-

and opens the vein.

 

Blood of her line

answers to that

of another.

 

Life.

So full of sorrow.

 

 

Jane Kohut-Bartels

Copyrighted, 2015


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