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    And something is cracking / I don’t know where

    Posted by Sean at 09:04, February 24th, 2006

    Getting about time for spring poems to be appropriate again. The Vernal Equinox is still a while off, but not spring according to the traditional lunar calendar. I posted one of my favorites when I first began this blog:



    Iwama todjishi / koori mo kesa ha / tokesomete / Koke no shita mizu / michi motomuramu


    Even the ice that shackles the rocks has begun to melt this morning–the water under the moss will be seeking a pathway.

    the Priest Saigyo

    The Japanese are very big on what you might call “the moment before.” As in, the cherry trees are considered most poignantly beautiful immediately before they bloom–when you can see the buds straining to burst open. What Saigyo describes above isn’t the return of spring, exactly–it’s that moment when you get a sense that something is stirring under the remaining cover of winter.

    Of course, the Japanese can also poeticize the moment after. Another of my favorite poets, Yosano Akiko, included this among the first poems in her most famous collection:



    Yu-ami shite / izumi wo ideshi / Waga hada ni / fururu ha tsuraki / hito no yo no kinu

    Yosano Akiko

    Finishing my bath
    and emerging from the spring,
    I could hardly bear
    their chafing against my skin,
    the silks of the world of man

    Yosano Akiko

    I have a vague memory that the きぬ may have been glossed, in an old annotated version I read years ago, as just meaning “robe,” but if Akiko isn’t going to use kanji, then I’m going to assume she means “silk,” which in any case intensifies the heightened, raw sensitivity she feels. My guess is that the poem is from, if not now, some time in the winter, because that’s when you get out of an open-air hot spring and think, Man, it’s cold! Well, if you’re not a poet, like me. If you’re a poet, like Akiko, you think in tanka.


    Posted by Sean at 01:28, January 1st, 2006

    It is now the Year of the Dog in Japan. Japan follows the Chinese zodiac, but it celebrates the New Year on 1 January of the Western calendar. (The whole thing is very disorienting if you’re studying classical poetry, because you have to keep straight the Western calendar, the solstices, and the traditional lunar calendar by which months and seasons were actually named. Happily, I don’t have to contend with that right now, unless I decide to translate a poem at the end of this post.)

    The personality typology you hear discussed the most here is by blood type, but the year of your birth gets a lot of play, too. When Atsushi and I began to date, it was considered very auspicious that he was a Monkey and I was a Rat–no wiseacre comments from the peanut gallery, okay?–two signs that are held to be compatible. (Of course, my last boyfriend had been a Dragon, and our supposed celestial compatibility hadn’t seemed to help all that much.) With its preponderance of snakes, dogs, wild boars, and monkeys, the zodiac can start to sound like an extended lawyer joke, but none of the descriptions is negative in the main, of course.

    I was born in March, so I’m a Rat according to both Chinese and Japanese measurements. As with all such things, you read your typology, and some of it is so dead-on it’s kind of spooky…

    One of the Rat’s biggest fault is that they try to do too much at once. They often scatter their energies and get nothing accomplished.

    …and some of it is so off the mark it makes you laugh.

    They are very appealing. They have a bright and happy personality, and this keeps them busy socially. They love parties and other large gatherings.

    Yeah, right.

    In any case, those who are thinking about having a child may want to hurry things up so it’s born by the end of this year. The traits associated with the Year of the Dog aren’t bad at all:

    People born in the Year of the Dog possess the best traits of human nature. They have a deep sense of loyalty, are honest, and inspire other people’s confidence because they know how to keep secrets. But Dog People are somewhat selfish, terribly stubborn, and eccentric. They care little for wealth, yet somehow always seem to have money. They can be cold emotionally and sometimes distant at parties. They can find fault with many things and are noted for their sharp tongues. Dog people make good leaders. They are compatible with those born in the Years of the Horse, Tiger, and Rabbit.

    Notice how every sign is described as being eccentric, BTW? And I guess most parents wouldn’t be crazy about that “cold emotionally” part, though given the potential for heartache in life, it might come in handy later on.

    West End Girl

    Posted by Sean at 06:32, November 25th, 2005

    If you (1) majored in poetry and (2) are a Madonna fan, life can be very cruel. It’s not just that she sometimes produces lines that could have been written while she was waiting for a bus. (Imagine Madonna waiting for a bus! I’ll wait for your peals of laughter to die down.) I actually don’t mind the sort of time-honored placeholders that rhyme “burning fire” with “my desire” and the like. They’ve become conventions, and every art or craft form needs conventions.

    Thing with Madge is, she’s often ten times worse when she actually seems to want to say something of importance. I think my favorite thing on the new album is “Jump,” which is one of her always-charming songs about navigating through life with pluck and determination. There’s one on every Madonna album somewhere, and she always pours feeling into it.

    This is the second verse of this year’s model:

    We learned our lesson from the start
    My sisters and me
    The only thing you can depend on
    Is your family
    Life’s gonna drop you down
    Like the limbs of a tree
    It sways and it swings and it bends
    until it makes you see

    The top four lines are fine. Unimaginative, but sincere-sounding.

    The bottom four? I just…I don’t…I have this thing, okay? I can’t read a poem or listen to lyrics without trying to interpret them, and I am getting a serious cognitive short circuit here. It sounds as if “life” is what’s supposed to be parallel with “the limbs of a tree,” but it could be “you” instead. Is she comparing you to dead limbs being dropped by the tree? Dead leaves? The latter would be nicely seasonal, but they don’t have a whole lot of the life force she’s obviously trying to project. Maybe she’s telling her fans we’re all fruits (as if we didn’t already know)?

    Or maybe we’re supposed to be kitty cats who have climed up the tree and have to take the risk of jumping off even though the…uh…wind is blowing? That would make sense given the chorus–but what would the tree be making you see by swaying, of all things? Does swaying make trees more instructive, somehow? You’d think that would have stuck in the memory during life science class in eighth grade. And how much bending around does the poor tree have to do until you see whatever it is you’re supposed to see? I guess the other possibility is that the verse is supposed to work as a whole, so it’s a family tree we’re dealing with. Do family trees sway? I thought she just said family was the only thing that was stable.

    This song is going to be so much easier to handle in a disco while surrounded by cute boys, fueled by a vodka or two, and moving it under seizure-inducing colored lights.

    Chosen time

    Posted by Sean at 09:25, November 22nd, 2005

    What I love most about Madonna as a lyricist is her inventiveness with language, the way she’s constantly stretching her idiolect to accommodate new contours in her idiosyncratic inner world.

    For example, this is the chorus to “I Love New York” from the new album:

    Other cities always make me mad
    Other places always make me sad
    No other city ever made me glad
    Except New York
    I love New York

    It’s like you’re privy to her most private thoughts, huh?

    Okay, enough with the deadpanning. WTF? I could have written that. In fact, I think I did write it–in first grade when Miss Cramer gave us an assignment that was, like, “Write a poem describing where you’ll live after you grow up and decide you’re too fabulous for the Lehigh Valley.” Maybe Lourdes was helping Mommy at work that day?

    Madonna’s intelligence is generally, uh, of the non-verbal variety, and that’s okay–she’s a musician and dancer primarily. Her lyrics are almost never graceful–she likes clunky metaphors and lines that scan dicily–but when she’s at her best, they’re punchy and immediate. Frequently (as above), she’s at both her best and her worst in the space of the same song. Of course, maddeningly enough, I love “I Love New York” to death. It’s just, I swear I can feel that chorus making me dumber every time I hear it.


    Posted by Sean at 10:29, October 17th, 2005

    Autumn is prime moon-viewing time in Japan. The yearning summoned up by the combination of chill, moaning winds and a cloud-wreathed moon is one of the major clichés of Japanese aesthetics, known by now throughout the world. But like most clichés, it still seems stark and real in its original formulations. The following are from the Shin-Kokin Waka Shu:



    aki kaze no/itari itaranu/sode ha araji/tada ware kara no/tuyu no yuugure

    kamo no chōmei

    Though the autumn wind
    does not leave as it passes
    sleeves here touched, there untouched,
    on my sleeve alone settles
    the dew of this eventide

    Kamo no Chōmei




    tanometaru/hito ha nakeredo/aki no yo ha/tsuki mite nebeki/kokochi koso sene

    izumi shikibu

    I am not waiting
    for a suitor to arrive,
    but this autumn night
    I sit gazing at the moon
    without any thought of sleep

    Izumi Shikibu

    Kamo no Chōmei is most famous as the writer of the Houjouki, but quite a bit of his poetry shows up in the third of the great court anthologies. Dew in classical poetry usually represents tears of longing. Though Chōmei knows that the autumn wind blows equitably–it literally and symbolically scatters dew everywhere–he feels isolated in his yearning, as if he were the only one weeping into his sleeve with stirred memories.

    Izumi Shikibu is the daughter of Murasaki Shikibu, the writer of the famous (and massive) Tale of Genji . She’s no Princess Shokushi, but she often turns images very well. In this poem, she slyly underscores her melancholy by pointing out that not only is the beauty of the moon keeping her from getting any rest, but she also has no lover to refocus her attention.

    The Japanese have a worldwide reputation for loving nature, and that’s not unjustifiable; they’ve written about it for over a millennium. However, one of the reasons that many Western attempts at waka or haiku fail is that they just describe beautiful scenes…and that’s it. They sound merely quaint. Japanese poetry–the good stuff–doesn’t just document the existence of a stand of pine trees that were sitting there being pretty. It describes nature to convey a moment of keen feeling on the part of the writer, when inner thought and external environment had a spark of connection.

    One and one and one make five

    Posted by Sean at 05:23, July 20th, 2005

    Frequent commenter John has had his own blog for a few months–it’s very good stuff.

    There have been a lot of posts about math education floating around lately. His two (here and here) are great additions to the pool. Something that he says that more people need to understand (and that is pertinent to comparisons of American and Japanese educational systems):

    So being Americans, and enamored of the idea that everyone can become a genius, we came out with systems that emphasized creativity over memorization, forgetting that in order to be creative you need at least a few facts in your head, otherwise you live in a world of make-believe.

    Somehow, the conviction that your progress in life needn’t be limited by the circumstances you were born into has changed into the belief that you can bluff your way through anything. (That actually doesn’t work much better in literary study than it does in math, BTW, as anyone who’s lost hours of life to an assigned “critical theory” reading of zero meaning can attest. It’s just less noticeable because there’s at least some fudge room in interpretation and criticism. And misinterpreting a poem doesn’t make bridges fall down.)

    Leave your worries behind

    Posted by Sean at 23:45, July 18th, 2005

    Good weekend. It was sunny Saturday (it’s supposed to be the rainy season, remember), so the view from the mountaintop restaurant we went to was fantastic. We’d had lunch at a lakeside cafe not far from the airport. At one very Japanese moment, we were looking out at the (many) dragonflies buzzing around the window. The flightpath to the airport was in the middle distance, and suddenly, a landing airliner glided into view so that it looked the same size as the dragonflies flitting around inches away. They seemed to be playing together for a moment. It was beautiful.

    Sunday we went to the hot spring, stopping at an old aqueduct along the way. Water is released in a big, frothy arc for 15 minutes at noon; along with a lot of other tourists, we were there to take pictures and stuff. From there to the inn, Atsushi decided to follow the GPS map program’s suggested route. Apparently, the suggestions were made by dryads. We found ourselves on a one-lane road snaking over a mountain, with leaves growing in so closely the car touched them on both sides. (They were great for visibility, too. Poor Atsushi took a deep breath before every hairpin turn.) Most of the way there was no shoulder–and I don’t mean they didn’t bother to pave anything beyond the white line; I mean the vertical dropoff began at the white line. At one point, where the forest canopy converged what seemed like inches above the car roof, I said, “I keep expecting to see a witch’s cottage around every bend,” at which point my much-tried man muttered, “No self-respecting witch would be caught dead living back here.”

    The inn was worth it, though. It was new, so there were more man-made materials and obvious machines around than one might have liked for a hot spring, but you can’t get away from that. All the guest huts were named for flowering plants. We unfortunately didn’t get the one called after the flower of Atsushi’s family crest, but ours was on a high point with a great view of the valley and fields (and ubiquitous electrical-line tower–which wasn’t nearly as endearing juxtaposed with nature as the passenger jet had been). We were in one of the baths when the lashing rains and lightning drew near. When I was no longer able to count “1-one thousand” between the flash and the boom, we decided bath time was over for now.

    The drive back into the city was relatively uneventful. There’s a national park with flower gardens at the edge of Oita Prefecture, so we stopped there. It’s lavender season, so the fields were grey with it. It looked like purplish steel in the sun. We had lavender-flavored ice cream at one of the stands before heading back.

    Needless to say, all of this butching it up took a lot out of me. I’m back in Tokyo and headed to the office and may or may not feel up to posting tonight. On the other hand, there was an article about Japan in Atsushi’s latest Time Asia that got my blood boiling–Isn’t July a little early for such a big turkey? I thought while reading it. I may be banging something out about it before bed. Few comments I want to respond to, too.

    For now, I leave you with a summer poem by Princess Shokushi:



    kaerikonu / mukashi wo ima to / omohi ne no / yume no makura ni / nihofu tachibana

    Shokushi Naishinnô

    I float into sleep,
    a past that will come no more
    made now in my thoughts–
    at the pillow of that dream
    the scent of orange blossoms

    The Princess Shokushi

    The fragrance of orange blossoms is said to excite the memory. When the princess awakes, the scent makes her feel the more keenly that some nostalgic memory, which she knows she will never live through again, had actually returned to life in her dream. It’s a little late in the summer for this poem, I think, and it’s not one of those with 500 fascinating allusions you can write a thesis on. Lovely, though.

    Hope everyone else had a wonderful weekend.

    Added on 20 July: I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that I inserted that caesura above. Many Japanese waka are, in fact, constructed so that the first three lines (5-7-5 syllables) conjure up a feeling or reaction and the last two lines (7-7 syllables) give the concrete sensory stimulus for it. They can be difficult to translate because putting the caesura in the same place, in order to preserve the dramatic pause of the original as faithfully as possible, gives you less leeway in rendering each of the two parts.

    Princess Shokushi’s poem above is different. It’s one of those that come out in a long rush. The m and n consonants that dominate give the description a heady feel, when the images are actually rather plain. The whole poem is a long prenominal modifier for the final word, 橘 (tachibana: “orange tree,” which refers to a variety of citrus that’s a little different, of course, from those that produce the baseballs you buy with “Sunkist” stamped on them). If you translated it directly and in English word order, you’d get something like this (I’d like to apologize in advance to the Princess’s kami for the act of violence I’m about to commit):

    The orange tree wafts its scent at the pillow of the dream in which I’ve gone to sleep thinking that the past that will not return is now.

    Obviously, this was an occasion for compromise, and I figured that maybe making each line kind of self-contained and billowy would compensate for not being able to reproduce the liquidity of the original. It seemed most important to keep the orange tree at the end, where it supplies the moment of sensual awareness. I’m afraid the result was a little precious, though.

    Book stick II

    Posted by Sean at 03:54, June 18th, 2005

    Okay, third time’s the charm. Tom, Joel, and Susanna have all passed me that book thing again. I got it from Dean a while ago, so I’ll post an updated version of my original response:

    How many books you own

    On which land mass? If you count the books I have here, the ones I have at my parents’ house, the ones that are still in the apartment in New York with my old roommate, and the ones that are still at his parents’ house (yes, I plan to recollect them all eventually), uh, I’m going to say 1000. Of course, I pitilessly throw away books I think suck (Tokyo-sized apartment, kids).

    Last book you bought

    Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi (Ordered with a bunch of others from Amazon, of course; some day when I’m up to it we’ll talk about how much Kinokuniya or Tower or Book 1st shakes you down for imported books.)

    Last book you read

    The Division of Labour in Society by Emile Durkheim (No, I haven’t gotten around to reading it before. I should have stuck with French after high school, because the translation is pretty turgid; but anything that dense I would have had to read again, anyway, so it’s going to end up being the next book I read, too.)

    Five books that mean a lot to you

    • 恍惚の人、有吉佐和子作 (kokotsu no hito, ariyoshi sawako saku: “The Ecstatic Ones by Sawako Ariyoshi,” translated pretty effectively as The Twilight Years )

      This was the first novel I read all the way through in Japanese. It was first published serially in the early 1970s. It follows a housewife with a part-time job as she copes with the death of her mother-in-law and the realization that her widowed father-in-law is senile. It was written at a time of great transition in Japanese society, and Ariyoshi was very prescient about which issues would prove to be the thorniest as the Japanese household (the center of any society) evolved. It starts to lose focus and emotional charge toward the end, but the final scene is still devastating. I reread it every year.

    • A History of Civilizations by Fernand Braudel

      I’m terrible at keeping historical dates straight or, conversely, at reading what was going on in some corner of the world in 1350 and being able to recall what was happening at the same time elsewhere. Braudel’s book was written for high school students, but it was written for perceptive, industrious high school students to use as a basis on which to build further knowledge about specific historical facts. Some of his predictions (the book was written in the 60s) are outdated, but overall you get a real feel for the overarching development of social and political structures over time.

    • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

      Dickinson is the greatest American poet, and I will not deign to entertain counterarguments from supporters of that insufferable Whitman guy.

    • 新古今和歌集 (shinkokinwakashu), the third of the great anthologies of Heian poetry

      The earlier 古今和歌集 (kokinwakashu: “Collected Poems Old and New”) is usually regarded as the best of the three great anthologies, but, perhaps because of the way I was taught them, I like the third one the best. That’s especially true of the inclusions by the Priest Saigyo and the Princess Shokushi.

    • Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

      I think you have to be a certain kind of person to have your world reordered by this book, so I’m not sure how much universal value as art it has. Officially, it’s a mystery, but there’s less interest in the whodunnit aspect than in why protagonist Miss Pym thinks and acts as she does. It’s a really acute study of the unconscious factors that often impinge when we think we’re making clear-eyed ethical judgments: favoring people who are attractive and well-spoken, lazily drawing conclusions from circumstantial evidence, clinging to assumptions we’re comfortable with even after it’s obvious we should be questioning them.

    When I get that crazy feeling, I know I’m in trouble again

    Posted by Sean at 01:42, May 7th, 2005

    Yet another song you shouldn’t listen to on a crowded Tokyo commuter train. It was raining yesterday, the sort of chilly rain that reminds you how open to the elements you are as an organism, and in combination with Atsushi’s having gone back home on Thursday night, it probably made me a little more downcast and emotionally susceptible than usual. That wasn’t all of it, though. Tokyo isn’t populated by self-centered rock stars with celebrity doctors attending to them, but it is the sort of place where people frequently feel as if they’re being prodded from all sides to bury what they really think and perform, perform, perform for their handlers.

    I know that that’s a reductive picture. In the same way that “America is an individualistic society” doesn’t mean that we don’t have social rules and conformism, Japan is a free country with a lot of personalities on display. But last night, everyone looked unusually tired and spaced-out (first day back at work after a week-long holiday) and the rain and dark made the train feel like its own little isolated world. Hearing Roger Waters sing, “There is no pain / You are receding,” made me ache; it was so oppressively fitting. (Well, except that for most on the train, the show was over for the week and not about to begin again until Monday.)

    Despite its specific resonance for me, I don’t believe that I would try to argue that “Comfortably Numb” is a great modern poem, though. I was thinking that wry thought on the walk home from the station because my copy of Camille Paglia’s all-new book finally arrived a few days ago. I don’t know what took it so long to get here–amazon.co.jp can be weird that way. Anyway, it feels like another throwback to college, since the last time we had a whole new book of essays by Camille to read, I was a junior. Most of it is great. Even when she’s reading very familiar poems, she brings something new to them: I’m a big, bad Dickinson fan, but I don’t think I’ve ever been as chilled by “Because I could not stop for Death–” as I was when reading Paglia’s essay on it the other night. Her (Camille’s, not Emily’s) pushy, idiosyncratic voice has an odd way of making her readings universal. You get the feeling that you, too, with all your quirks, could find deep reserves of beauty and meaning in the same artifact, even if the actual points she makes sometimes seem a bit overworked.

    But, I’m sorry, not even Camille can brandish enough libidinousness and cosmic-geological history to make Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” a great poem, much less “possibly the most popular and influential poem composed in English since Sylvia Plath’s ‘Daddy.'” I am fully convinced that there are two pages’ worth of Significance in the sixteen words of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” But the six pages (!) devoted to “Woodstock” are the only passage in the book when you get the sense that Paglia yearns for literary value that just isn’t there. (I’m not the first to think this, as you might imagine.) And, while Camille almost always surprises you somewhere, about Joni Mitchell’s piece she says exactly what you expect her to say and no more: Flower power was a beautiful but incomplete dream; the Sixties visualized men and women as equal partners in civilization but underestimated aggression and sex differences; those fighter jets turning into butterflies are, like, totally trippy symbols of melting back into nature; and so on, and so forth.

    All good points, yes, but there’s another problem. When you finish reading her essay and go back to the lyrics, you find something you don’t with Shakespeare or Wallace Stevens: you have to keep consciously reminding yourself what Paglia said about this or that line in order to feel its importance. Despite Mitchell’s clear and mostly timeless images, the poem doesn’t reveal more about itself unless freighted with Paglia’s nostalgic interpretation. It’s an oddly satisfying way to end the book nonetheless. She’s so touchingly eager to make readers feel the vibrancy of the visions of the Sixties, even in the face of what four succeeding decades have done to them, that it makes you feel almost protective of her. And how often do you get the chance to feel protective of Camille Paglia?


    Posted by Sean at 09:28, April 12th, 2005

    You gotta love that Dean. He takes that book quiz that’s floating around and decides that one of the people he’s going to pass it on to is “Sean Kinsell because he’s fun to pick on.” (Word to youngsters in the audience: You know how your parents keep telling you that when you grow up, you’ll find like-minded people to hang around who will love and respect you for you you are? It’s a total crock. Trust me–the best policy is swift and unapologetic VENGEANCE.)

    I wasn’t going to do anything with this, but today happens to be exactly one year after my first post. I never really planned to start a blog; I liked commenting at other people’s places. But when Atsushi was transferred last March and I wanted something to help fill time while I felt sorry for myself, I asked Dean to set this up for me. As in, I got out my credit card and signed up for MT and hosting, and Dean presented me a week later with a blog ready for writing to (of course, I immediately set about changing the fonts and faggifying the color scheme, but I could have gone with his original template and had a respectable blue-and-white theme…sort of like on-line ticking). He’s also helped me out a lot with my dumb-ass tech problems and by linking to me frequently.

    And, as you can tell, I’ve warmed to it. The number of readers I get amazes me; I’m very grateful. And it’s been good, I think, for my relationship with Atsushi. His English is great, but we speak Japanese at home and watch Japanese television and have all Japanese friends. There’s nothing about that that’s a problem–it’s the life I’ve chosen–but it means that he rarely gets to see me be a full-bore American in my native tongue. With the blog, he does, and, while I know I don’t always show myself to best advantage here, I think it’s a good thing that he has a fuller idea what kind of man he’s with.

    Uh, so anyway, thanks again to Dean and to all of you. For more about the Real Me, here’s that book quiz:

    You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451, which book do you want to be?

    Don’t we all die, anyway? If I could be any book until either the firemen or the bomb got me, sheer arrogance would make me want to be the Bible (the KJV–none of that bowdlerized “accessible” crap), which is probably more important in Western history than any other single book.

    Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

    I really don’t think so.

    The last book you bought is:

    Singular? Like one at a time? This test was obviously not written by a book addict. Uh, say 破戒 (hakai: “broken commandment”) by Shimazaki Toson. That wasn’t actually it, I’m pretty sure, but it’s kind of first in line for me to read next.

    The last book you read is:

    To be brutally honest? There was a copy of The Rules lying around our office–heaven only knows why–and I drifted through it while waiting for a friend.

    What are you currently reading?

    The book I’m carrying around with me and officially trying to get through is The Golden Bowl by Henry James; this time I’m going to finish it.

    Five books you would take to a desert island.

    Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

    I beg your pardon! I don’t discuss my stick with anyone but my boyfriend.