Monday, September 9, 2019

All There Is

This afternoon I sat beside an open window, reading a poem.  I heard rain falling on the leaves of the maple, apple, and cherry trees in the garden.  Softly.  This is what I read:

            Rest Eternal

I shall not forget that place
Where the dead were:
Only the rain, the rain,
No-one astir,
None with me when I found
The church in its fallow ground;

Oh there was nothing there
But nettles and rain and grass,
So tangled you could not tell
Where the churchyard was,
And below in the plain
Grey fields and fields of rain.

Only the ebony rooks
Into the early light
Out of the ebony trees
Silent took flight.
I was afraid to hear
A voice in my ear.

No sound but a rook on the wing,
And of endless summer rain
The vasty whispering,
Yet close to my ear again,
(No stir from the tangled weed),
I heard, "Perpetual seed,"
And still, "Perpetual seed."

Joan Barton, The Mistress and Other Poems (The Sonus Press 1972). A subscript to the poem states: "November 1931."  Joan Barton turned 23 in that year.  For more about her, please see my post from March of 2011.  "Rest Eternal" previously appeared here in November of 2011.

Rain on the leaves.  A poem.  A late summer September afternoon. These things arrive in their own time and after their own fashion, don't they?

John Mitchell (1862-1922), "The Waterfoot, Carradale" (1921)

Last Friday morning, I read this waka:

On an evening
     set aglow with the crimson
          of plum blossoms,
the willow boughs sway softly;
and the spring rain falls.

Kyōgoku Tamekane (1254-1332) (translated by Steven Carter), in Steven Carter, Traditional Japanese Poetry: An Anthology (Stanford University Press 1991), page 244.

Of the many wonderful things about Japanese waka and haiku, perhaps the most wonderful is that each poem you read provides you with a beautiful reminder that life is to be lived in the present moment, and that the entire World is present in that moment.

Charles Kerr (1858-1907), "Carradale"


Maggie Turner said...

I once wrote a poem called "All There Is", about my Granny in her garden. Loved this offering of yours. Comments seem, somehow, unnecessary for such a contemplative piece, but nevertheless, here it is.

John Ashton said...


As you may imagine it is very busy at the university with a new semester about to begin, but I wanted to respond to your post and to Joan Barton’s wonderful poem.

I recall you posted some of her poems previously, and being very moved by them. The second and third verses of Rest Eternal are redolent for me of approaching a church I am familiar with in north Norfolk, and as the light fades from an autumn afternoon, I can see from the small graveyard the river and fields and crows coming down to roost in the trees.

Your post and the poem put me in mind of this haiku of Basho.

A solitary
crow on a bare branch--
autumn evening

Translated by Sam Hamill

Stephen Pentz said...

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

That sounds like a wonderful poem. Coincidentally, in a recent conversation with a friend over lunch, I mentioned my fond memories of my grandmother, and of the carrots and radishes (among other things) she grew in her garden each year. Of course, there was much more to her and to her life, but it is often these "small" (but not so small) things that stay with us, and remain evocative, isn't it? "All There Is."

Thank you for visiting again. I greatly appreciate your long-time presence here.

Stephen Pentz said...

John: Thank you very much for those thoughts. I have only been able to visit a few small churches and churchyards in England and Scotland, but I found them wonderful, rain or shine. Your description of the Norfolk church is lovely. Your "crows coming down to roost in the trees" put me in mind of two lines from what is perhaps T'ao Ch'ien's (372-427) best-known poem: "The mountain air is fresh at the dusk of the day;/The flying birds two by two return." (Translation by Arthur Waley.)

Thank you for sharing Bashō's haiku, which, as you know, is a touchstone of both haiku and Japanese culture. Sam Hamill's translations of Japanese (and Chinese) poetry are wonderful. Here is R. H. Blyth's translation of the same haiku:

Autumn evening;
A crow perched
On a withered bough.

Blyth adds this footnote: "'Perched' is of course the past participle." (Blyth is always quite sure of himself!) I think both versions are lovely, but I wonder why Hamill omitted "perched" and added "solitary" (which is not in the original). The original is as follows: "Kare eda ni/karasu no tomarikeri/aki no kure." "Kare eda" is "withered [or dead] bough [or branch]"; "ni" is "on"; "karasu" is "crow"; "no" is a particle which designates "karasu" as the subject; "tomarikeri" is a form of the verb "tomaru," which means "to alight, to perch"; "aki" is "autumn"; "kure" is "evening"; "no" is a particle that functions as "of" [i.e., "evening of autumn." My apologies for the annoying detour, but I couldn't help myself: these translation decisions always interest me. But, again, I think both versions are lovely -- which is what I ought to be focusing on! I agree with you that the haiku goes well with the poems in the post.

Joan Barton's poems are indeed wonderful, aren't they? It is unfortunate that her work is not better known. Still, as long as a few of us are reading her poems, her poetry will be preserved.

As always, thank you very much for stopping by. Best wishes in the new semester, and I hope you enjoy the coming autumn.

David said...

Your piece put me in mind of a haiku (I think by Buson) that for some reason I find quite haunting -

This is all there is;
the path comes to an end
among the parsley

It also reminds me of a visit from a couple of Jehova's Witnesses to my home a few years ago. It was a magical, sunny day in spring and I was sitting outside enjoying a morning coffee. Behind me the wisteria that grows up the front of my house was blooming and the air was thick with the drone of bees in the blossom. Somewhere a blackcap warbler was singing. My two visitors introduced themselves and then one of them asked me with a sweeping gesture of her arm: 'Do you think this is all there is?' I was lost for words.

Bruce said...

At the risk of annoying you, being a fellow that will not shut up, who keeps harping on the one thing his modest mind can seem to summon, but, and I know I am shameless, Stephen, please indulge me and let me say once again that "all there is" includes not only what is "out there" but what a human sensibility brings to what is "out there." What else can account for that dreadful woman I once heard declare the Grand Canyon, "nothing but a big damn hole in the ground." Perhaps Blake says it best: "a fool and a wise man don't look at the same tree." A fool and a wise man don't look at anything the same way. If beauty exists--and you and I believe it does--then it is, as Wordsworth says, half created by a human imagination.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you very much for Buson's haiku, and for your anecdote of the two visitors. I too would have been struck dumb by "Do you think this is all there is?" Well, we each make our way through the World the best we can. In my younger days, I might have come up with some words in response. Not now. I wouldn't feel qualified to respond to her.

The haiku by Buson sent me to R. H. Blyth's Haiku, where I found it in Volume 2: Spring (page 377). His translation parallels yours, with the exception that he uses "seri" rather than "parsley." (Blyth does note: "[Seri] is sometimes translated as 'parsley'.") I am quite fond of this haiku. I understand your thought that you find it "haunting." But very beautiful. And true.

On the preceding page, Blyth (with his encyclopedic knowledge of haiku) places another haiku by Buson in which "seri" appears:

The old temple:
A baking pan
Thrown away among the seri.

Another instance of "this is all there is."

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

Stephen Pentz said...

Bruce: You are at no risk of annoying me. First, I have resolved (with imperfect implementation of the resolution) to try my best not to be a querulous and complaining old man. Life is too short. Moreover, I find nothing annoying in what you say: you are exactly right. The quotation from Blake is wonderful. I was reminded of Wittgenstein's "The world of the happy man is a different world from that of the unhappy man." (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Proposition 6.43.)

And you and I are always in agreement (if I am not being too presumptuous) when it comes to Wordsworth's thoughts on the role of imagination in human life (as well as his thoughts on much else). The thought that beauty is "half created by a human imagination" brings to mind this haiku (the meaning of which is, admittedly, a bit elusive, particularly in translation):

The one looking --
he also lends some color
to the moonlight.

Shinkei (1406-1475) (translated by Steven Carter).

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