Thursday, April 30, 2020


A path I often follow takes me past a row of six willows.  They stand at the edge of a wide meadow which slopes down to the bluffs above Puget Sound.  I suspect the trees were planted sometime in the previous century, when what is now a city park was an army post.  I have wondered whether they were placed there by someone far away from home who longed for the willows of their past.  I have thought about the thousands of soldiers who transited through the post during World War II on their way to the Pacific.  A willow is a redolent thing.

Over the last month, their leaves have gone from yellow-green to green-yellow to full green.  As I walked beside them on a windy day earlier this week, their boughs tossed and swayed with the deep sound of summer.  As I came to the final willow in the row, a single green leaf floated down in front of me.

A random occurrence.  Just one of those things.


When sorrow lays us low
for a second we are saved
by humble windfalls
of mindfulness or memory:
the taste of a fruit, the taste of water,
that face given back to us by a dream,
the first jasmine of November,
the endless yearning of the compass,
a book we thought was lost,
the throb of a hexameter,
the slight key that opens a house to us,
the smell of a library, or of sandalwood,
the former name of a street,
the colors of a map,
an unforeseen etymology,
the smoothness of a filed fingernail,
the date we were looking for,
the twelve dark bell-strokes, tolling as we count,
a sudden physical pain.

Eight million Shinto deities
travel secretly throughout the earth.
Those modest gods touch us --
touch us and move on.

Jorge Luis Borges (translated by Hoyt Rogers), in Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems (edited by Alexander Coleman) (Viking 1999).

Harald Sohlberg (1869-1935), "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)

Tuesday, April 21, 2020


What most human beings want is a little peace and quiet, don't you think?  Although we may be caught up in unwonted Events at the present time, the cultivation of "A Quiet Normal Life" goes on. Marcus Aurelius is correct: "The things themselves reach not to the soul, but stand without, still and motionless.  All your perturbation comes from inward opinions about them."  Meditations, Book IV, Section 3 (translated by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, 1742). This is a roundabout way of telling you, dear readers, that it is once again time (begging your forbearance) to revisit my "April poem" (companion to my May, August, and November poems):

                    Wet Evening in April

The birds sang in the wet trees
And as I listened to them it was a hundred years from now
And I was dead and someone else was listening to them.
But I was glad I had recorded for him the melancholy.

Patrick Kavanagh, Collected Poems (edited by Antoinette Quinn) (Penguin 2004).

Most Aprils when I return to "Wet Evening in April" the weather in this part of the world is in harmony with the setting and the mood of the poem.  Thus, on more than one occasion I have read the poem on a rainy evening as birds converse in the trees before they settle down for the night.  But this April has been gratuitously brilliant, and on my walk this afternoon I passed through a "bee-loud glade," and the trees in all directions whispered: "Begin afresh, afresh, afresh."  I'm afraid I cannot muster any melancholy.  Yet the poem is as beautiful as ever.  We never know who we will be, or where we will find ourselves, when we revisit a poem, do we?

Robert Fowler (1853-1926), "Knaresborough"

The Events come and go, and take us or leave us.  But Patrick Kavanagh and Marcus Aurelius intimate that there is more to each of us than meets the eye.  The Events are not us.  Philippe Jaccottet brings this to our attention as well: "The imperceptible movement of an invisible soul and the enormous sun."  Philippe Jaccottet, notebook entry (October, 1967), in Seedtime: Notebooks, 1954-79 (translated by Tess Lewis) (Seagull Books 2013), page 159.  And this:

"Attachment to the self renders life more opaque.  One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless.  Thus does the soul truly become a bird."

Philippe Jaccottet, notebook entry (May, 1954), Ibid, page 1.

In each moment, the Events are absent, meaningless.  There is more afoot in the World.

     The spring rain:
Between the trees is seen
     A path to the sea.

Otsuji (1881-1920) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 104.

William Mouncey (1852-1901), "Kirkcudbright Harbour"

Sunday, April 12, 2020


Odd, the feeling of appearing to be at the whim of Events.  Surprising, disconcerting, interesting, and by turns a great deal else.  One's thoughts range from "Am I going to perish in the plague?" to "What if I run out of toilet paper?"  Not to minimize the situation in which we find ourselves, but those two queries (or ones of a similar nature and import) could have been posed a year ago -- or at any time between the present moment and the moment when each of us emerged out of the darkness into the bright World.

Well, then, here we are.  The Events have arrived.  Or perhaps they have been with us all along.  What shall we do?  Think back.  Hasn't that always been the pertinent question?


Sometimes, when walls and occupation seem
A prison merely, a dark barrier
Between me everywhere
And life, or the larger province of the mind,
As dreams confined,
As the trouble of a dream,
I seek to make again a life long gone,
To be
My mind's approach and consolation,
To give it form's lucidity,
Resilient form, as porcelain pieces thrown
In buried China by a wrist unknown,
Or mirrored brigs upon Fowey sea.

Then to my memory comes nothing great
Of purpose, or debate,
Or perfect end,
Pomp, nor love's rapture, nor heroic hours to spend --
But most, and strangely, for long and so much have I seen,
Comes back an afternoon
Of a June
Sunday at Elsfield, that is up on a green
Hill, and there,
Through a little farm parlour door,
A floor
Of red tiles and blue,
And the air
Sweet with the hot June sun cascading through
The vine-leaves under the glass, and a scarlet fume
Of geranium flower, and soft and yellow bloom
Of musk, and stains of scarlet and yellow glass.

Such are the things remain
Quietly, and for ever, in the brain,
And the things that they choose for history-making pass.

John Drinkwater, Loyalties (Sidgwick & Jackson 1919).

Harold Jones (1904-1992), "The Black Door"

In this part of the world, we are walking in the warm sunlight amidst snow showers of pink and white petals -- cherry, plum, and pear. What else can one do?

     Simply trust:
Do not also the petals flutter down,
     Just like that?

Issa (1763-1827) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 363.

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

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Another April

"But it is a sort of April weather life that we lead in this world.  A little sunshine is generally the prelude to a storm."  Thus wrote William Cowper in a letter dated January 3, 1787.  And now, here we are: another April.  More of the same, don't you think?

Yesterday was the sort of April day described by Cowper.  In the evening, I drove to a neighborhood sushi restaurant to pick up dinner.  (Although restaurants are closed for dining, take out is still permitted, and it makes sense to support family-owned businesses.) Just then the sun was out, but it would soon set beyond Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, both at my back.  The street I took runs straight down a long steep hill, levels out for a few blocks, then runs straight up another steep hill to the east.  From the top of the hill, I could see the cherry trees -- in peak white bloom -- lining both sides of the street that climbs the opposite slope.  The slope, and the houses on it, were covered in sunlight.  A rainbow suddenly appeared above the hill on the other side of the valley.  Descending, I passed blooming cherry trees, and, here and there, tall magnolia trees full of large pink-white blossoms.

Another April.  More of the same.  A paradise.

            A Short Ode

All things then stood before us
        as they were,
Not in comparison,
But each most rare;
The 'tree, of many, one,'
The lock of hair,
The weir in the morning sun,
The hill in the darkening air,
Each in its soleness, then and there,
Created one; that one, creation's care.

Edmund Blunden, A Hong Kong House: Poems 1951-1961 (Collins 1962).

The quotation in line 5 comes from William Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood": "But there's a tree, of many, one,/A single field which I have look'd upon,/Both of them speak of something that is gone."  I presume this reference accounts for Blunden's title (contrasting his ode of ten lines with Wordsworth's of over 200 lines).

Samuel Llewellyn (1858-1941), "Sailing at Blakeney" (c. 1938)

As is my usual practice, I have been doing my best to avoid "news."  I hear about things such as "lockdowns" by word-of-mouth.  But snippets inevitably seep through the interstices, despite my vigilance. For instance, I have recently been seeing and hearing the word "unprecedented" quite often.  "Unprecedented."  Is that so?

As is also my usual practice, I have been reading a poem soon after waking up each morning.  Yesterday morning I read this, a haiku of which I have long been fond:

     A night of stars;
The cherry blossoms are falling
     On the water of the rice seedlings.

Buson (1716-1783) (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 2: Spring (Hokuseido Press 1950), page 170.

I fell asleep last night thinking about stars in a dark sky and cherry blossom petals floating in dark water among rice seedlings.  Today I went out for a walk.  In puddles left by yesterday's rain, I saw blue sky, white clouds, and infinitely intricate tree branches, floating at my feet.  Another April.  Unprecedented.

Christopher Sanders (1905-1991)
"Sunlight Through a Willow Tree at Kew" (c. 1958)