Friday, April 19, 2019


On a grey, cool morning earlier this week I ran a few errands.  My drive home took me along a street that runs straight up a hill for a quarter-mile or so.  I noticed that, a few blocks ahead, the gutters on both sides of the street were white.  Water reflecting the grey sky? Cement or sand washed down to the street from a home construction site?  Neither.  The gutters were filled with white petals.  The cherry trees lining the sidewalks on either side of the street were nearly empty of blossoms.

A brief sigh of wistfulness passed through me.  But I did not hear or feel "the strumble/Of the hungry river of death."  (Hilaire Belloc, "From the Latin (but not so pagan.")  The sight of the petals was too beautiful for that.  We live in a World in which, each spring, the gutters of the streets are filled with the fallen petals of cherry blossoms.

               The Drift of Petals

Firm-footed, small, she thrust my pram
its endless uphill, downhill way,
intent on country air.

I can recall our sheltering
beneath a hawthorn in a lane,
a dark cloud dowsed the sky.

And as we watched the slanting drops
a drift of petals settled on
my buttoned coverlet.

A wide road now that lane, with cars;
the hedges rooted out; the fields,
on either side, built-up.

And of that moment what survives
in these numb syllables, except
an old man's gratitude?

John Hewitt, Time Enough: Poems New and Revised (Blackstaff Press 1976).

John Aldridge (1905-1983), "Roofing a New House"

Later in the week, I walked past two large Yoshino cherry trees that stand in the front yard of a nearby house.  The boughs of the trees extend over the sidewalk, creating a white-blossomed canopy at this time each year.  The sidewalk is now covered with a carpet of petals. We live in a World in which, each spring, we can fill our cupped hands with the fallen petals of cherry blossoms.

               Fallen Blossoms on the Eastern Hills

Cherry blossoms filling the ground, sunset filling my eyes:
blossoms vanished, spring old, I feel the passing years.
When blossoms were at their finest I neglected to call.
The blossoms did not betray me.  I betrayed the blossoms.

Ishikawa Jōzan (1583-1672) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Gilbert Spencer (1892-1979), "From My Studio" (1959)

The camellia bushes along the north side of the house -- one with pink blossoms, one with white blossoms -- bloomed late this year, likely due to a winter that was longer, colder, and snowier than usual. But their petals are now falling, fallen, as well.  The squirrels scamper over them.

A few years ago, a pair of doves nested in one of the bushes.  In the mornings, I could hear their soft coos outside the window.  I miss their company.  But who knows what may happen?  Spring has hardly begun.

                Black and White

A blackbird flew to a hawthorn bush
and brushed a flutter of petals down;
they tumbled and turned like a flurry of snow
and settled slow on the waiting stone.

And, if that blackbird, all summer through,
could sing so long as there's light to see,
he would never fling a song as bright
as that lyric flight from the hawthorn tree.

John Hewitt, The Chinese Fluteplayer (1974).

Adrian Paul Allinson (1890-1959), "The Cornish April"

Monday, April 1, 2019


Each spring arrives in its own fashion.  The day before the equinox, we unexpectedly had a day of nearly 80-degree, sunny weather.  The World took this as a sign, and spring appeared overnight, right on schedule.

Now, above us, we have cherry, plum, pear, and magnolia blossoms. At our shoulders we have camellia blooms.  And at our feet we have -- joining the previously-arrived crocuses -- daffodils, hyacinths, and a few early tulips.  This is only a partial inventory.  As for the trees: they are still biding their time, although their branches are tipped with green leaf-buds, at the ready.

          Pear Blossoms by the Eastern Palisade

Pear blossoms pale white, willows deep green --
when willow fluff scatters, falling blossoms will fill the town.
Snowy boughs by the eastern palisade set me pondering --
in a lifetime how many springs do we see?

Su Tung-p'o (1036-1101) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-p'o (Copper Canyon Press 1994), page 68.

"Snowy boughs."  The confusion of spring fruit tree blossoms with snow-filled branches is a venerable poetic conceit, isn't it?

For instance:

                    The Cherry Trees

Under pure skies of April blue I stood,
Where, in wild beauty, cherries were in blow;
And, as sweet fancy willed, see there I could
Boughs thick with blossom, or inch-deep in snow.

Walter de la Mare, Memory and Other Poems (Constable 1938).  De la Mare uses the word "blow" (line 2) in a sense that is now, alas, considered archaic:  "to blossom; to bloom."

This also comes to mind:

                    Nailsworth Hill

The Moon, that peeped as she came up,
     Is clear on top, with all her light;
She rests her chin on Nailsworth Hill,
     And, where she looks, the World is white.

White with her light -- or is it Frost,
     Or is it Snow her eyes have seen;
Or is it Cherry blossom there,
     Where no such trees have ever been?

W. H. Davies, The Loneliest Mountain and Other Poems (Jonathan Cape 1939).

James McIntosh Patrick (1907-1998), "Glamis Village in April"

The blossom-snow confusion leads many of us to return to a poem we visit each spring.  Mere habit, perhaps.  Or ritual.  But, consider this: we are not who we were last spring, are we?  We have no way of knowing how the poem will make us feel this spring.  There is something to be said for habit and ritual in the midst of a feckless world.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy years a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad, Poem II (Kegan Paul 1896).

"To see the cherry hung with snow."  For some of us, this line is the embodiment of spring.  The novelist J. L. Carr (A Month in the Country) served as the headmaster of a primary school in Kettering, Northamptonshire, for fifteen years.  Through the streets of Kettering, "under the cherry trees, Carr would march his entire school in the spring, all chanting, 'Loveliest of trees . . .'"  (Byron Rogers, The Last Englishman: The Life of J. L. Carr (Aurum Press 2003), page 153.)

James McIntosh Patrick, "A City Garden" (1940)

So, dear readers, here we are again:  at the intersection of Beauty and Evanescence, in the land of bittersweet wistfulness and wistful bittersweetness.  Also known as Life.

"In a lifetime how many springs do we see?"  Su Tung-p'o wrote that line in 1077.  Eight centuries later, in 1895, A. E. Housman wrote: "And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow."  The good poets, in all times and in all places, know what is humanly important, know where our attention should be directed. Human nature was the same in China in 1077 and in England in 1895.  And wherever you are at this moment.

                              Spring Night

Spring night -- one hour worth a thousand gold coins;
clear scent of flowers, shadowy moon.
Songs and flutes upstairs -- threads of sound;
in the garden, a swing, where night is deep and still.

Su Tung-p'o (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Selected Poems of Su Tung-P'o, page 19.

James McIntosh Patrick, "Glamis Village" (1939)