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    Everyone seems to be bitching about the return of the cicadas this year; of course, in Japan, the cicada is a major topic of summer-themed traditional poetry, mostly using its voice to evoke solitude or its short life to evoke the 無常 (evanescence, contingency) of This World. Basho Matsuo, the greatest of the haiku poets, wrote several such verses, and one frequently sees them in translation. One of my favorites, though, is this affecting, if less-profound, example, which doesn’t seem to make it into translation often:


    Ide ya / Ware yoki nuno kitari / Semi koromo

    Behold me! I wear
    the finest garments–the robe
    of the cicada

    A sucky translation, but hey, it’s the spur of the moment. I’m as drawn to the serious insights of traditional poetry as anyone, but I like the way the great writers such as Basho and Saigyo were able to find something enlightening about a relaxed, playful moment, too. The summer lightness of his simple, rough clothing makes Basho feel like a cicada with translucent wings. An image to savor now. Soon, most of Japan will be like the inside of a dumpling steamer; not even with the aid of air conditioning will the finest linen and cotton feel like anything but a soaked dishrag.

    Added at some ungodly hour Monday morning: It occurs to me that, since two people who might be reading this are into sewing, the poem above might have more impact if I make it clear that I think the main way Basho is drawing an analogy between his clothing and the wings/shell of the cicada is through their common texture. The summer robe of a priest would have been made of unfaced, loosely-woven raw cotton or silk. The uneven slubs would have created a texture very much like the veined wings of the cicada, and the folds created by the way it draped might have suggested folded wings, too.

    5 Responses to “Mimimimimimimi….

    1. Auntie Mame says:

      Have I ever mentioned how much I hate bugs? The emotional, totally irrational loathing, and uncontrollable reaction to their ickiness? It isn’t just spiders or bees for me. Nope. I hate them all. Grasshoppers. Ticks. Gnats. Beetles. Mosquitos. Even butterflies.
      I call all critters with an icky factor “bugs”: snakes, alligators, bats, lizards etc.
      I am not one with nature. I’m not even two with nature. I can think of nothing more terrifying, nothing that repells me more than “the woods.” (Shudders)

    2. Sean says:

      You would have made a great native speaker of a language that uses Sinitic characters. The radical 虫 refers–at least in Japanese–to only insects and worms when it stands alone as a word, but within a kanji, it just signifies that you’re talking about a critter: 蛾 (moth), 蚕 (silkworm), 蛙 (frog), 蛇 (snake), 蝙蝠 (bat). I know that Chinese characters aren’t ideograms, exactly, but that one has always looked to me like an unpleasant creature licking its lips.
      Atsushi hates all critters, including butterflies, too. He leaves the room when I turn on a Discovery Channel documentary that shows too much footage of insects! Happily, we’re on the third floor of a building with a lot of clean-fetishy housewives, so I’ve never seen anything in the flesh, so to speak, beyond the occasional little spider. How do you deal with eastern Texas? I was only there for an abortive six weeks, but I remember one absolutely stomach-churning invasion of our closets by tiny ants. Blech.

    3. Auntie Mame says:

      How do you deal with eastern Texas
      How else? I have two sons and a husband.

    4. Nathan says:

      Well, in some cases, they are exactly ideograms. It’s just that in many cases they’ve been evolved so much you can’t see it anymore. And in other cases, when they needed to make a new word, sometimes they would use an ideogram to indicate the pronunciation.
      So when people tell you that you cannot tell the pronunciation of an unfamiliar Chinese word, that’s only partially correct: if you are experienced in Chinese, you can sometimes make an educated guess and at least come close.

    5. Sean says:

      I thought that some of them were pictograms, but that none of them could be demonstrated to be ideograms–the individual radicals and elements, I mean. Japanese, having borrowed the pronunciations for most kanji in compounds, works the same way you describe: you can usually guess from one of the familiar elements what the pronunciation is likely to be. Not always, but usually.