Saturday, March 23, 2019


At 7:45 this evening I sat in a chair, reading a poem by W. B. Yeats. As I looked to the left out the front window, I could see the last light of the day -- pale pink-blue, with an undertone of yellow -- above the silhouettes of the Olympic Mountains to the west.  The waters of Puget Sound, which had been dotted with sailboats in the morning and afternoon (the first race of the season), were still and empty, save for a single freighter leaving port, headed north.  Bound where?

At that moment, to my right, beyond the window that faces the back garden, a robin began to sing.  The garden, in the shadow of the house, was already dark.  Yet the robin -- somewhere in a cherry tree or an apple tree (I could not see him or her) -- sang and sang.

As the robin sang, I read this poem:

   Gratitude to the Unknown Instructors

What they undertook to do
They brought to pass;
All things hang like a drop of dew
Upon a blade of grass.

W. B. Yeats, The Winding Stair and Other Poems (Macmillan 1933).


Giffard Lenfestey (1872-1943), "Evening, the Stream"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

How Little We Know

Ah, what bundles of quirks and tics, impulses and imaginings, hopes and delusions, we are.  In short, individual human souls.  Abiding for a brief time in "the vale of Soul-making."

On the other hand, we live in a politicized culture in which a predominant tendency is to place people into groups based upon various characteristics.  This taxonomization of human souls proceeds apace.  History tells us something about where this sort of thing leads, but I shall refrain from commenting further.

haiku by Masaoka Shiki comes to mind:

   After I'm Dead

Tell them
I was a persimmon eater
who liked haiku.

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems (Columbia University Press 1997), page 63.

Shiki wrote the poem in the autumn of 1897.  He had contracted tuberculosis in 1889, and had been in nearly constant pain since that time.  He died in 1902 at the age of thirty-four.  He did indeed love to eat persimmons.  And he did indeed love haiku.  In 2009, the Japanese postal system issued a stamp with an illustration of two persimmons hanging on a branch, accompanied by one of Shiki's best-known haiku:

   Stopping at a Teashop
      at Hōryū-ji Temple

I eat a persimmon
and a bell starts booming --

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 42.

I am wholly in favor of placing oneself into categories such as "persimmon eater" or "lover of haiku."  Or "rain gazer."

Evening shower --
and gazing out into it,
a woman alone.

Kikaku (1661-1707) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 377.

Or "snow watcher."  Two centuries after Kikaku wrote his haiku, Shiki wrote this:

From a rear window
in the falling snow
a woman's face looks out.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 22.

Helen Johnstone (1888-1931), "Tolbooth Close"

Back in early December, I wrote about the robins that gather here in small flocks in winter.  I have grown increasingly fond of them.  For now, they still congregate in flocks, but, when spring arrives, I expect to see them pair off into couples.  On a sunny afternoon earlier this week, I saw a group of them spread out across a wide field of grass (green from the winter rain), feeding.  The robin world seems a simple world, but I'm sure it is not.  Yet, on that warm, nearly-spring day, they seemed at peace in their robin lives.

          Once Seen, and No More

Thousands each day pass by, which we,
Once past and gone, no more shall see.

Robert Herrick, Hesperides, Poem 671, in Tom Cain and Ruth Connolly (editors), The Complete Poetry of Robert Herrick, Volume 1 (Oxford University Press 2013).

As I walked beside the flock, I focused my attention on one of the robins.  I believe it was a female, because her breast feathers were a paler orange.  She made her way across the field with her companions, slowly but steadily, pecking the ground, occasionally lifting her head to look around, hopping forwards and sideways, chattering now and then.  I thought of the spark of Life she was.  I suddenly realized that she was this robin, not a robin.  There was nothing else like her in the world.

               The Railway Junction

From here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; and one of these
Wheels onward into darkening hills,
And one toward distant seas.

How still it is; the signal light
At set of sun shines palely green;
A thrush sings; other sound there's none,
Nor traveller to be seen --

Where late there was a throng.  And now,
In peace awhile, I sit alone;
Though soon, at the appointed hour,
I shall myself be gone.

But not their way:  the bow-legged groom,
The parson in black, the widow and son,
The sailor with his cage, the gaunt
Gamekeeper with his gun,

That fair one, too, discreetly veiled --
All, who so mutely came, and went,
Will reach those far nocturnal hills,
Or shores, ere night is spent.

I nothing know why thus we met --
Their thoughts, their longings, hopes, their fate:
And what shall I remember, except --
The evening growing late --

That here through tunnelled gloom the track
Forks into two; of these
One into darkening hills leads on,
And one toward distant seas?

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (Constable 1933).

Catriona Barnett (1934-1972), Untitled

Rain gazers.  Persimmon eaters.  Snow watchers.  Haiku lovers.

The crocuses have now arrived in earnest.  A bit late due to an unusually cold winter.  They border the sidewalks in the neighborhood:  dark purple; white; deep yellow; pale purple streaked with white.  After I'm dead, tell them I waited each year for the crocuses.  And watched the flocks of robins in the winter.

   Written on Seeing the Garden Pines in the Rain
                    on the Morning of May 21st

Pine needles,
each needle strung with its
drop of bright dew,
forming, then falling,
falling, then forming again.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by Burton Watson), in Masaoka Shiki, Selected Poems, page 104.  Shiki wrote the poem in 1900.

Mary McCrossan (1865-1934), "Umbrellas and Barges, Venice"