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Written on the Sky

  • Image: Image
  • Translated From: Japanese
  • by: Kenneth Rexroth
  • Date Published: April 2009
  • ISBN-13: 978-0811218375
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 96pp
  • Price: $12.95
  • Review by: Vince Corvaia

These ancient Japanese poems, translated by Rexroth and selected by Eliot Weinberger, are mostly about love, and one who has never loved would be well advised to avoid them. The heartache in many of them is palpable, both through imagery and direct statement. Several, though, are nature poems keenly observed, as in this one by Fujiwara No Sueyoshi (1152-1211):

The crying plovers
On darkening Narumi
Beach, grow closer, wing
To wing, as the moon declines
Behind the rising tide.

But for the most part, these are laments from lovers past or lovers in turmoil, and can be as short as two lines, as this by Empress Yamatohime (7th c.): “Others may forget you, but not I. / I am haunted by your beautiful ghost.”

Kenrei Mon-in Ukio No Daibu (12th c.), writing as a lover in turmoil, combines simile with direct accusation:

My heart, like my clothing
Is saturated with your fragrance.
Your vows of fidelity
Were made to our pillow and not to me.

The despair of love is an equal opportunity tormentor. Here is Fujiwara No Atsutada (d. 961), in which there is no room for the natural world to impose itself:

I think of the days
Before I met her
When I seemed to have
No troubles at all.

And Lady Horikawa (12th c.), whose beautiful language is a testament to all of the poems here as supremely translated by Rexroth:

How long will it last?
I do not know
his heart.
This morning my thoughts are as tangled
with anxiety
as my black hair.
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Review Posted on June 01, 2009 Last modified on July 15, 2014

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