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"


Deb said...

"...she was this robin, not a robin. There was nothing else like her in the world."

We lost a beloved cat a few days ago, and I was saying to my daughter that this was what I found the most difficult to deal with, the loss of that particular individual, with all his delightful quirks. To know that we'd never see that again - in this life, at least. It keeps happening over and over as we get older, the losing.

Todo Boffin said...

Thank you, Stephen.

To watching and waiting, don’t forget to add ‘loving’. Your post reminded me of young Rupert Brook:

I have been so great a lover: filled my days
So proudly with the splendour of Love's praise

These I have loved:
White plates and cups, clean-gleaming,
Ringed with blue lines; and feathery, faery dust;
Wet roofs, beneath the lamp-light; the strong crust
Of friendly bread; and many-tasting food;
Rainbows; and the blue bitter smoke of wood;

And washen stones, gay for an hour; the cold
Graveness of iron; moist black earthen mould;
Sleep; and high places; footprints in the dew;
And oaks; and brown horse-chestnuts, glossy-new;
And new-peeled sticks; and shining pools on grass;—
All these have been my loves. And these shall pass.

(Rupert Brooke, The Great Lover)

I love your descriptions of changing seasons in your part of the world. We had an uncommonly warm February in the UK and my local south-east London park awoke for the occasion. The cherries are blossoming; the resident pair of Egyptian Geese have produced 9 chicks and last year’s signets look ready to shake off their last grey flecks and shine in full glory. On my way to work last week I heard unusual birdsong and found perhaps twenty Redwings hungrily gobbling up whatever they could find. I stopped to listen for a few minutes. Next morning they had gone, back on their road north.

A field is enough to spend a life in.
Harrow, granite and mattress springs,
shards and bones, turquoise droppings
from pigeons that gorge on nightshade berries,
a charm of goldfinch, a flight of linnets,
fieldfare and January redwing
venturing westward in the dusk,
all are folded in the dark of the field,

all are folded in the dark of the field
and need more days
to paint them, than life gives.

(Helen Dunmore, Crossing the field)

Let us keep your precepts in mind, and be loving always.

Anonymous said...

how lovely to be slowed down time and again when i come and read here. i thank you.
you help me to find a cadence i often find myself longing for.

crocuses and robins seem an awfully long ways off for us in the north. our snow banks are yet four feet high or much higher. however, today is the first real day of rain this year and so change comes.

your particular robin reminds me of a particular raven my husband wrote about. i'm hoping you don't mind my sharing it.


Love Poem for this Morning’s Raven on the Leafless Walnut Branch
by James Owens

It is stunning enough that the world makes a raven,
incomprehensible that it makes this raven, with the broken

feather at the edge of its left wing,
the little gargling hitch halfway through its call.

Why caress the unique so hotly? The idea “raven”
may be necessary to complete the cosmos,

but why this bewildering specificity, each
raven a singular, night-colored pivot for the sky,

each a black keyhole slit in the air, where we
fall through a raven’s eyes and fade?

This is how we know the world is poetry, not philosophy.
If philosophy were the world, it would say “raven” once

and be still,
but since the world is poetry, it repeats

“this raven” infinitely, lingering, sensuous, over
the small particulars of plume and beak and sheen.

Maggie Emm said...

Myself - friend of insects and lover of small things - amongst other things! Oh, that has suddenly reminded me of a poem....
It's taken me a while to remember it - 'Pied Beauty' by Gerard Manly Hopkins - one of my favourites.
'Glory be to God for dappled things...' - a lover of dappled things.
I'm rather concerned about your recent posts but I'm trying not to think about it - just when I found you!
Take care and enjoy your robins - they are very singy now! x

Nige said...

A lovely post, as ever. It made me think of Thomas Hardy's Afterwards – 'He was a man who noticed such things...'

Nige said...

'Used to notice such things' I should say!

Nikki said...

This is one of the few blogs I capture the ineffable beautiful moments that get lost in this noisy, social media world.

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: I'm sorry to hear of your loss. Your observation is a lovely one, and so true: cats and dogs (our companions) are indeed unique individuals -- each, as you say, with their own "delightful quirks" and personality. You put it well: "To know that we'd never see that again."

As for the losing we experience as we grow older: this is something I have been increasingly aware of as well. Life begins to take on yet another aspect.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Todo Boffin: Thank you very much for those lovely thoughts. Yes, "loving" should indeed be added to "waiting" and "watching." As you may recall from several of my prior posts, daily gratitude for life and for the World is something I always try to keep in mind (but often forget). "Love" and "gratitude" go together.

Thank you as well for the poems by Rupert Brooke and Helen Dunmore. Brooke's poem brings to mind a poem by Ivor Gurney (which you are probably familiar with): "Common Things." Its opening stanza is: "The dearness of common things --/Beech wood, tea, plate-shelves,/And the whole family of crockery --/Wood-axes, blades, helves." I hadn't heard of Helen Dunmore before, so I appreciate the introduction.

Your description of the activity in the park is wonderful: a bustling early spring. We still await the cherry blossoms here.

Thank you very much for stopping by again. It's good to hear from you.

Stephen Pentz said...

Erin: Thank you very much for your kind words about the blog. And thank you for sharing the poem by your husband (and of course I don't mind you sharing it). It is lovely and fits perfectly here: "this bewildering specificity." And this is wonderful: "This is how we know the world is poetry, not philosophy." And I like the coincidence between "this raven" and "this robin." Exactly.

As ever, thank you for visiting. And please tell your husband thank you for the poem.

Stephen Pentz said...

Maggie Emm: Thank you for sharing your own catalogue of loves. "A lover of dappled things" resonates with me. "Pied Beauty" is a wonderful poem, isn't it? It's nice that you mention it, since its list of the World's beauties ("rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;/Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings . . .") goes together well with the lists that appear in Brooke's "The Great Lover" and Gurney's "Common Things."

"Concerned about [my] recent posts"? Why so? Too much talk about mortality? Have no worries, please: all is well here. Perhaps the tone is due to my reading about Shiki, and reading his poetry, over the past month or so: whenever I return to him and to his poems, the shortness of his life saddens me and gets me to thinking about mortality (something I tend to do anyway, as you have no doubt noticed).

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for taking the time to comment. Yes, the robins are indeed singy these days: I was noticing that just yesterday.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nige: It's a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

Ah, yes, "Afterwards" does fit well here. I long ago gave up on the idea of picking my "favorite" Hardy poems -- the list rapidly becomes unmanageable -- but "Afterwards" would certainly be in the group. In addition to the line you quote, I particularly like: "He was one who had an eye for such mysteries." (It's wonderful to think that it was published as the final poem in Moments of Vision (in his 77th year) as a possible valediction, but that he then went on to publish three more substantial collections.)

As always, thank you for stopping by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Nikki: Thank you: that's very nice of you to say. As for the "noisy, social media world," I studiously avoid it: I find it to be anything but "social." "Dysfunctional media world" seems like a more appropriate phrase.

Thank you very much for visiting again.

Issa's Untidy Hut said...


As always, simply superlative.

Don Wentworth

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Wentworth: Thank you very much for your kind words. I'm pleased you liked the post. All of the credit goes to Masaoka Shiki, however (and to Burton Watson, Robert Herrick, Walter de la Mare . . . and the robin). I suspect you are very familiar with Shiki's haiku and his life. As I suggested above in my response to Maggie Emm's comment, I am always moved when I return to him. He provided the inspiration for the post, and the lovely haiku and waka.

It's good to hear from you again. Thank you very much for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

I am slow to respond to this lovely post.
Nige's reference to Hardy's "Afterwards" is so appropriate. I'm always happy to be reminded of that poem, which my cousin read at her mother's memorial.
Spring is advancing at a glacial pace in New York City this March. I now have my father's copy (bought in England in March of 1930) of "Collected Poems of Thomas Hardy". Looking at the table of contents recently, I found the perfect poem: "A Backward Spring".
But how lovely your spring already sounds.

Stephen Pentz said...

Susan: I'm delighted to hear from you again. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding to your thoughts. Thank you very much for your kind words about the post.

"Afterwards" is a wonderful poem, isn't it? It's lovely that your cousin read it at her mother's memorial service: a fine remembrance and tribute.

Thank you very much for mentioning "A Backward Spring": I read it after receiving your comment, and I couldn't recall if I had come across it before. But that is part of the joy of reading Hardy's poetry, isn't it? Given the number of poems he wrote, one is always coming across old favorites and new discoveries, as well as ones that fall in between: "Have I read this before, or is it new?" (Age plays a role in this uncertainty!) In any case, "A Backward Spring" captures well the feeling of how some springs arrive: slowly and haltingly. Ours seemed to arrive overnight after two unseasonably warm days for this time of year (nearly 80 degrees).

I hope that your spring has arrived at last. As ever, it's a pleasure to hear from you, and I greatly value your continuing presence here. Take care.