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"


E Berris said...

I have just been catching up with some of your recent blogs, perfect for the time of year, but I have a question. Your choice of poets ranges quite widely, which I appreciate, but the artists you show tend to be mainly British, with few from other countries.. Is there a reason for this?? PS I'm British so this also pleases me.

George said...

One of the fine qualities of the cherry blossom is the way its petals remain decorative after they fall and before they disappear. The magnolia blossom is showy on the tree, but depressing when fallen, its size making it conspicuous as the petals turn brown.

I noticed this afternoon that the flowers of the eastern redbud make a subtle show when they fall.

Esther said...

Lovely! You have an admirably Japanese sensibility about the cherry blossoms (if I say so myself). There is even the Japanese word, hana-ikada (flower raft), to describe a mass of individual petals floating on a river to the sea.

Half-heard in the Stillness said...

Hello again...I just wanted to say calling in on your blog whenever I can I am assured of THE most lovely poetry and wonderful paintings and illustrations!
The poems you chose are always the exact ones I would choose too. So I am really saying 'Thankyou, it's such a pleasure to read your words.


hart said...

Lovely post. I think I like the cherry blossoms as they fall almost better than on the tree.

Stephen Pentz said...

E Berris: It's good to hear from you again. I'm pleased you liked the posts.

As for the prevalence of British artists. I'd say my favorite period of art is British art from about 1900 to about 1960. Of course, not everything from within that period. But the sort of paintings (and watercolors, drawings, and engravings), exemplified, coincidentally, by the sort of paintings you see in this post. The source of this attraction? Hard to articulate. It has something to do with poetry. And with two long ago visits to England and Scotland, during which I fell in love with the landscape. I harbor a no doubt idealized, romantic view of the English and Scottish countryside. And I'm sure many of the places I visited are now nothing like they were then. In any case, it's all a matter of emotion and color and light, not of study or thinking.

Thank you very much for visiting. I appreciate your long-time presence here. And thank you for "frozen ink," which has always been right up my alley. (For instance, your recent post with the two paintings by Stanley Spencer. And here in this post we have Gilbert.)

Stephen Pentz said...

George: Thank you for pointing that out. There is a magnolia tree a few doors down from the house that has the Yoshino cherry trees, and each spring I notice the sad state of the large, waxy-looking magnolia blossom petals after they fall. The same is true of fallen camellia petals: they quickly turn brown. As you suggest, cherry blossom petals maintain their beauty, whether on the bough, falling, or fallen.

No eastern redbuds here (to my knowledge), but I checked the internet: lovely.

As ever, thank you very much for stopping by, and for sharing your thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: Thank you very much for your kind thoughts.

There are so many lovely compound words in Japanese, aren't there? Thank you for sharing "hana-ikada," which is wonderful. Another beautiful cherry-related compound (which I'm sure you know) is "hazakura": "cherry tree in leaf (after the blossoms have fallen)," or, more generally, the period in spring when this occurs. Wistful and sad, yet hopeful, with the fresh green leaves replacing the blossoms.

It's always a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you for visiting.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jane: Thank you very much -- that's quite kind of you to say. I am grateful for your long-time presence here, which I greatly value. Thank you for visiting again, and I hope you will return soon.

Stephen Pentz said...

hart: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. Your feeling about the falling of the blossoms perhaps being more beautiful than the blossoms on the boughs resonates with me: it's difficult to choose, isn't it? The snowfall of the petals is beyond description. We live in a wondrous World, don't we?

Thank you for stopping by again. It's always nice to hear from you.

Esther said...

And all these years I have been laboring under the delusion that hazakura referred to a certain type of cherry tree! This just illustrates the Japanese proverb, "It is always darkest at the base of the lamp." I also agree with Hart. My favorite time is just past full bloom, when the slightest breeze brings down a shower of petals. There is a word for this, too: hana-fubuki, or petal blizzard.

Don Wentworth said...

Lovely work by John Hewitt. Ishikawa captures our modern sense of time speeding by so quickly we betray the blossoms (though he wrote so many years ago). Hewitt points to one solution in the modern world: memory, as Proust so lyrically revealed to us all. Hewitt's thankfulness is humbling. Isikawa's sorrow deeply felt.

Lovely all around. Thanks.

Stephen Pentz said...

Esther: "Hana-fubuki": another lovely phrase! Thank you for sharing it.

This discussion reminds me of a wonderful passage in Burton Watson's The Rainbow World, a collection of essays about his life in Japan. (He was in the Navy during World War II, arrived in Tokyo in September of 1945, and fell in love with Japan. He eventually ended up living there until his death, at the age of 91, in 2017.) One day while on a hike in the mountains near Kyoto (he had returned in 1951 to take post-graduate courses at Kyoto University), Watson heard the cry of what he thought was an uguisu (a bush warbler), but it was a bit different than usual. After returning from the hike, he described the sound he had heard to a Japanese friend. His friend told him that the sound he had heard was "uguisu no tani-watari." Watson asked him: "And what does tani-watari mean?" His friend replied: "It's the cry the uguisu makes when he is crossing from one valley to another."

Watson then writes: "I stared incredulously. A special word for one particular species of bird? One has heard that some languages have highly specialized terminology in certain areas of reference, but this seemed too much to believe. I rushed to another room to consult my Japanese-English dictionary. There it was in Kenkyusha in unmistakable print: 'tani-watari -- the song of a bush warbler flying from valley to valley.' . . . uguisu no tani-watari -- there was a gem of language to cherish the rest of my life." (Burton Watson, The Rainbow World, page 82.)

All of this talk is making me miss Japan a great deal! As you may recall, I once lived there for a year, and have visited it several times. Thank you very much for your follow-up thoughts.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Wentworth: Thank you very much for those thoughts. I'm pleased you liked the poems. It has been a while since I returned to Hewitt's poetry and, reading him the past few weeks, I realized that I ought to be visiting him more often. I had completely missed "The Drift of Petals" before. As you say, it is lovely. Your observation about Ishikawa's poem is a fine one: the "modern sense of time speeding by" is in fact timeless, isn't it? And Watson's/Ishikawa's "I betrayed the blossoms" is indeed, as you say, "sorrow deeply felt." Very well put.

As always, thank you for visiting.