23 February 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/8

Melancholy Flower-Viewing

Melancholy cherries have begun smelling from a distance
cherry branches spread all around
the sunlight glitters and is exceedingly blinding
I live inside a tightly closed house,
daily eat vegetables       eat fish and duck eggs
the eggs and meat have begun rotting
distantly cherry blossoms sour,
the sour smell of cherry blossoms is depressing
now people put on their hats and go out for a walk
       under the outdoor air
and the sunlight is shining in the distance
nevertheless, I sit in this dark room alone
and send my thoughts under far-off cherry blossoms
send them to the men and women in their youth
        romping in the fields and hills
ah what a happy life they have there
what a joy is shining
under branches of cherry blossoms that spread all around
young girls dance dances
girls' white-polished arms and legs for dancing
pliantly swimming costumes
ah       here and there and everywhere       how beautiful
       curves are entangled
flower-viewers' singing voices are as peaceful as flutes
and reach me with an echo of boundless melancholy.
Now my heart, wiped with tears,
sobs feebly by the confining window;
ah this lone poor heart, longing for what life,
staring at what shadow is it crying
at the end of a beautiful world turned sour and rotten
       all around
I distantly hear the echo of flower-viewers'
       melancholy flutes.

Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated from the Japanese by Hiroaki Sato

There is an ancient tradition in Japan of going out, usually in organized parties, to view that early sign of spring, the cherry blossoms. The delicate beauty of these flowers doesn't last more than a week or two, so underneath the panorama of exquisiteness is a poignant reminder of the fleeting, catch-it-if-you-can nature of beauty, pleasure, and happiness (though undoubtedly for many participants the parties are less about aesthetics and philosophy and more about having an annual blow-out to celebrate the return of spring). In this poem, a Japanese poet of the early twentieth century draws out the philosophical and practical implications of the evanescent cherry blossoms: his description is less about beauty and pleasure than about melancholy: the glittering sun is blinding, the scent of the blossoms is sour, the blossoms as well as the food for his meals are already starting to rot. He thinks enviously of the young, having a happy life under the cherry trees. His heart – his heart, wiped with tears, sobbing by the window, his lone poor heart staring at shadows – will not allow him to join them (if he were there, no doubt he could not join in their joy – though perhaps their joy is only his projection, a way of heightening his own sense of isolation and sorrow). We are not told why he feels this way. His emotions are summoned up in a tumble of words and images, rushing past with the emotional consistency and logical leaps of a stream of passing thoughts. Joy is fleeting, melancholy and regret life-long.

I took this from Cat Town by Sakutaro Hagiwara, translated by Hiroaki Sato. It's part of NRYB Poets, the excellent and attractive new series from New York Review Books.

2 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

I've known this poet (figuratively, not literally), and it was awful.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Remember that old New Yorker cartoon (maybe by William Steig? it's several decades back) called "The Poet at the Picnic"? There's a group of people laughing and having fun under some trees, and off to one side is a brooding man, one foot up on a rock, staring off into the distance away from them.

Your comment made me laugh. A lot. I'm going to wander off now and listen to the distant echo of melancholy flutes.