Monday, April 21, 2014

Untitled by Ema Saikō

Yabase Shichoku planted a thousand cherry trees on Mt Kinshō and asked friends for poems; I was one of them.

Making flowers your life, keeping your pleasure unchanged,
a thousand, ten thousand clusters you've managed to plant.
Planting flowers and not loving them is like not planting them;
loving flowers and not regretting them[1] is like not loving them.
Loving them, we nurture greed; regretting them, melancholy;
these sentiments are confusing and clog the mind.
Protecting beauty with golden bells is such trouble to take;
a single petal flying away breaks my heart into smithereens.
Getting drunk under the bloom, unthinking, can't be surpassed,
profiting from enjoying the peak of spring as best one can.
Fresh sake in gold-lacquered tubs, the east wind gentle,
birds call above, below, the mild light slow to wane.
Come night, there'll be no need to light silver lamps;
the clear moon will illuminate this fragrant view.
Mountain cherries on the whole mountain, just transplanted,
I've learned to enjoy them with everyone else.

[1] That is, when the flowers scatter and fall.

from Breeze Through Bamboo, by Hiroaki Sato. Copyright © 1998 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

This week's editor is Janis Freegard.

I chose this poem because I've been enjoying reading Saikō's work recently. This poem is a good example of her themes: her appreciation for nature, her observations of daily life, the pleasures of travel and sake, and taking an active part in the poetry community. Japanese poems of her era are often descriptive - noticing the moment. But this is also a reflective and philsophical poem - if you don't love what you've planted, you might as well not bother. It can be taken as a suggestion for how to write and how to live our lives as much as it is a poem about cherry trees.

There is inevitably something that gets "lost in translation" however good that translation is. Reading this in English, we can't hear the sounds of the original and no doubt miss many associations and nuances. But we would miss so much more if poems from other places and times were not translated.

Note: it is not uncommon for kanshi of Saikō's time to be headed with a note concerning the circumstances of writing the poem rather than a title per se.

I first heard of Ema Saikō when New Pacific Studio offered an Ema Saikō Poetry Fellowship, which I was fortunate enough to receive - three weeks in an idyllic setting with nothing to think about but poetry. By then I'd been reading her work and learning more about her life. 'Conversations' with Saikō over a pot of Japanese silvertip oolong started to work their way into what I was writing.

(Ema Saikō is pictured at bottom right)

Ema Saikō (1787 - 1861) was a Japanese poet and artist who was a noted writer of kanshi - poetry in the classical Chinese style. Kanshi offered the flexibility to write longer works with a greater range of subject matter than the traditional Japanese tanka and haiku forms. Saikō did not marry or have children, but dedicated her life to art and poetry. Saikō is a pen name, as was common for Japanese poets of the time. It means 'delicate scent' and is from a poem by Tu Fu which refers to the scent of bamboo when a breeze blows through it. Saikō was also an accomplished artist, with bamboo as a favourite subject.

Hiroaki Sato, Saiko's translator, is a Japanese poet and translator. He lives in the United States and received the PEN Translation prize in 1982.

Janis Freegard is the author of The Continuing Adventures of Alice Spider (Anomalous Press, 2013) and Kingdom Animalia: the Escapades of Linnaeus (Auckland University Press, 2011) and co-author of AUP New Poets 3. She lives in Wellington. 


Helen Lowe said...

Wonderful! Thank you, Ema and Janis.

Michelle Elvy said...

There is so much to admire in this poem, and it's new to me. I love the tiny details, the way we are brought into this world and can observe it and feel it.

And this:
Planting flowers and not loving them is like not planting them

Such wisdom with such simple words.

I also like your commentary, Janis. Thanks for sharing so much with us. I would love to hear some of the results of your 'conversations' with Saiko.