Kokinshu #480

Tuesday, 16 December 2014 15:25
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Not that this project isn't still on hiatus, but I realized I had a draft translated and simply hadn't finished reading up on/writing commentary. So posting what I have, at least.)

Topic unknown.

    Such astonishment! --
my longing isn't even
    a messenger,
yet it has taken my heart
and delivered it to her!

—undated (late 2013?)

Original by Ariwara no Motokata, who does a bit of syntactic play that's more skillful than I expect of him, putting his "astonishment" in the middle line. The other bit of wordplay, of whether tsuku should be understood to mean "approach" the heart of his beloved or "entrust" his heart as one does a letter to a messenger, is more standard but no less tricky to render. In the end, I couldn't replicate the first and duplicated the second -- and regardless, neither trick makes this a particularly convincing love poem.

tayori ni mo
aranu omoi no
ayashiki wa
kokoro o hito ni



Monday, 3 November 2014 08:13
lnhammer: colored smoke on a white background - caption "softly and suddenly vanished away" (disappearance)
Time to slow down
Time to rest head
Time to close eyes
Time to sleep

—October 2014

My current bedtime litany.


3 June

Friday, 6 June 2014 12:38
lnhammer: two saguaro cacti in a desert thornscrub landscape, with canyon walls behind (desert)
Today I heard the first cicada of the season -- almost exactly on time:

    In a green-room tree,
a solo cicada coughs,
    then starts warming up
on scales of a single note --
summer concerts will soon start.

5 May

Monday, 5 May 2014 12:54
lnhammer: two saguaro cacti in a desert thornscrub landscape, with canyon walls behind (desert)
    From the west desert,
the afternoon wind carries
    a touch of -- not heat --
a warmth that brushes the skin:
the dragon of summer stirs.

Getting warmer ...


10 April

Friday, 11 April 2014 07:16
lnhammer: two saguaro cacti in a desert thornscrub landscape, with canyon walls behind (desert)
10 April

    Along the creek-bank
as the young trees bud and bloom,
    three old cottonwoods
dressed in mature green leaves toss
their fluffy seeds to the wind.

—April 2010

While I'm at it, another.


20 March

Wednesday, 9 April 2014 07:19
lnhammer: two saguaro cacti in a desert thornscrub landscape, with canyon walls behind (desert)
Goodness, it's been a while. I see there's quite a bit of dust, anyway, which would explain this lingering cough. It's not that I haven't been working, on poetry even, but not on Kokinshu though. To tide you over, a bit of original verse, such as I used to post when I started this journal -- a couple weeks late, to be sure, but still.

20 March

    To a newcomer,
the desert looks deserted,
    all thin thorny scrub
and creosote flatlands --
    far mountain ranges,
dry washes, and endless dust.
    Where are my colors,
where are my running rivers,
    where are my green trees
with leaves changing in autumn?
    But once I adapt
how I look at the landscape,
    see on its own terms,
I notice life everywhere -- 
    especially now
at spring's equinoctial start:
    the dawn mating calls
of birds too noisy to count,
    the early dances
of two yellow butterflies,
    the colored carpet
of bright desert wildflowers
    catching the first light
of a broad golden sunrise --
    as jackrabbits leap
and paired falcons pirouette,
    two coyotes trot
down the street toward the dry wash.
    Under the wide sky
with its uniform clear blue,
    this desert is home
to those who catch its cadence
in the rhythm of the year.


    Yellow marigolds,
red mallows and penstemons,
    deep violet lupines --
and through the colored carpet
a coyote hunts for mice.

Kokinshu #479

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 07:06
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
After going to where people were picking flowers, he wrote and sent this to the home of someone who had also been there.

    Like mountain cherries
that are just faintly discerned
    through breaks in the mist --
just so am I longing for
someone I have barely glimpsed.

—8 December 2013

Original by Ki no Tsurayuki. Gaps in curtains, in snow, and now broken mist. The headnote is gender-neutral but we're to understand (through the cherry blossom imagery -- that the cherries are blooming is omitted-but-understood) the person was a woman. The phrase honoka ni mo miteshi, "even dimly seen," is a singular pivot applying to both the prefatory flowers and the person longed for. As common for this construction, the effect is an implicit comparison. Untranslatable overtone: the mountain cherries on the slopes suggest a "flower of the high peak" (takane no hana), an idiom for someone unobtainable, heightening (so to speak) his flattery.

kasumi no ma yori
honoka ni mo
miteshi hito koso

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
When he went to the Kasuga Festival, he sent this (after inquiring about her family) to the home of a woman who had come out to watch.

    Like those first grasses
sprouting through the bare patches
    amid the snowfall
upon Kasuga Plain,
so wert thou, ah!, scarcely seen.

—27 November-3 December 2013.

Original by Mibu no Tadamine. After the old-fashioned direct statements of the previous couple of poems, this has a more sophisticated style, using an imagistic preface hinged upon a pivot-word (with the effect of an implied comparion). Exactly what the pivot is, however, is debated: clearly the preface ends with part of hatsuka ni, "scarcely," but it could be either just ha = "leaf/blade" or hatsu = "first." Arguments for the latter point out that "first/young greens" is a common metaphor for youth and beauty, making it even more of a compliment to the woman, and that Kasuga Plain was famous as a place for gathering them (see #17ff). The spring festival at Kasuga Shrine is, for what it's worth, held in the Second Month. The self-consciously archaic final exclamatory particles wa mo, which hadn't been current since the capital was in nearby Nara, warrant for once a bit of forsoothiness.

kasuga-no no
yukima o wakete
kusa no hatsuka ni
mieshi kimi wa mo


Kokinshu #477

Wednesday, 4 December 2013 07:10
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)

    Knowing, not knowing --
why do you uselessly speak
    of distinguishing this?
It is love, and only love,
that can act as your guide.

—25 November 2013

Original by an unknown woman. So decoding the poetic persiflage, Narihira essentially asked, "Will I be able see you?" and she replied, "Why worry about seeing? If you really love me, you'd find a way for us to meet!" This is about as direct a come-on as you'll find in classical Japanese. Some commentaries claim that the hi, "fire," of omo(h)i, "feelings" here rendered as "love," suggests a torch lighting the way -- and maybe it would to someone steeped in the tradition of the time.

(One of these days I'll have to decide whether, when romanizing, to always treat the inflection of a nari-adjective as a suffix or, as for their modern Japanese descendents, a separate particle. For, yanno, consistancy's sake.)

shiru shiranu
nani ka aya naku
wakite iwamu
omoi nomi koso
shirube narikere

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
On the day of the archery meet of the Right Horse Guards, when a woman's face was faintly visible through the lowered blinds of a carriage across the way, he wrote and sent [her]:

    Both not unseen
and yet not seen -- if I long
    for such a person,
will I be spending today
uselessly lost in thought?

—24 November 2013

Original by Ariwara no Narihira. From rumors to tantalizing glimpses: aristocratic women traveled in ox-drawn carriages enclosed with hanging blinds to prevent them from being seen, or at least seen clearly. And with the love poems, Narihira enters his forte -- here he evokes several emotions and shifting realities in a poem that sounds beautiful as well. The exact nature of the occasion is uncertain, but the most common explanation is that the imperial Horse Guards held an annual ceremonial competition involving archery and horseriding on successive days for the left and right divisions -- with the Right Horse Guards, which Narihira commanded, holding theirs on the Sixth Day of the Fifth Month. The incident, including the woman's reply (see next), also appears in both Tales of Ise and (with a different reply) Tales of Yamato, suggesting it had strong contemporary interest -- or maybe it was Narihira's popularity as a famous playboy.

mizu mo arazu
mi mo senu hito no
koishiku wa
aya naku kyou ya


Kokinshu #475

Tuesday, 26 November 2013 07:03
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    Isn't it always
like that in this world of ours:
    I long for someone
I cannot see any more
than I can the blowing wind.

—1 November 2010, rev. 20 November 2013

Original by Ki no Tsurayuki. Previously posted but slightly revised. More wind as symbols of rumors about one's beloved, here used indirectly. This, like the next couple poems, uses an old-fashioned style of direct statement of emotions, here bound up with a skillful use of image and symbol.

yo (no) naka wa
kaku koso arikere
fuku kaze no
me ni minu hito mo

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    Over and over --
My heart's fixed on that person:
    even when elsewhere
I am thinking, "how precious!"
-- like white waves in the offing.

—20 November 2013

(Original by Ariwara no Motokata.) To my surprise, Motokata again manages to achieve not bad -- no better than ye standard Kokinshu poem, but competent. (That puts him at 2 out of, um, I think it's 9 so far.) Pivot-word: okitsu means "set" one's heart upon / "off-shore," and the latter sense forms an image association with "white waves" and "repeatedly." The effect of bracketing the main statement with those last two phrases, which ordinarily would make a preface, is not readily reproducible in English but is important enough to warrant scrambling the main statement in the attempt.

aware to zo omou
yoso nite mo
hito ni kokoro o
okitsu shiranami

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    While I keep hearing
of you through these whispers
    from Mount Wing-Whisper,
down here near Meeting-Hill Gate
I am, ah!, passing the years.

—19 November 2013

Original by Ariwara no Motokata. For Otowa ("wing-sound") and Ôsaka ("meeting-hill"), see #142 and #374, respectively; they are close together in the hills southeast of the capital. More heavy-handed wordplay by Motokata: the oto of Otowa being a pivot-doublet for its meaning of "sound/rumor" -- I loosely translate Otowa's name to replicate the effect. "Of you" is, as often, interpretive, with the pronoun chosen as much for gender-neutrality as anything.

oto ni kikitsutsu
ôsaka no
seki no konata ni
toshi o furu ka na


Kokinshu #472

Wednesday, 20 November 2013 07:05
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    Yet even for ships
that travel without a trace
    into the white waves,
the very winds are, I know,
bringing word of where to go.

—17-19 November 2013

Original by Fujiwara no Kachion. On the literal level, winds guide ocean-going ships into port -- however winds can also be, and in poetry often are, a symbol for rumors about one's beloved, a sense here reinforced with a pun: tayori can mean "tidings" as well as "reliance." Even ships get this help, but the speaker, it's implied, has heard nothing. (Contrast with #13, where the winds are a literal guide/messenger.)

shiranami no
ato naki kata ni
yuku fune mo
kaze zo tayori no
shirube narikeru

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    Swift as the water
down the Yoshino River,
    its waves high upon
the rocks -- so was my starting
to long for that person.

—16 November 2013

Original by Ki no Tsurayuki. A return to the the traditional manner of #469. How seriously should we take the claim that the lead editor didn't know why he wrote something? This is generally taken as evidence that "not known" often means "rather not say" (and it's sometimes speculated that a similar discretion may also apply to some of the "author unknown" attributions). Singular pivot-word (see #469): hayaku is "swiftly" for the water and for the speaker's falling in love -- the effect being an implied comparison, requiring just a couple additional English particles to render. "Starting to" uses an interesting idiom, somu, meaning literally to "dye" -- though it's a general-use auxiliary verb, the image of staining one's heart with longing is an overtone, one used more directly a few times later on. Here, however, the stain clashes with the tempestuous imagery, making it hard for this clever and polished assertion of passion to be convincing.

iwanami takaku
yuku mizu no
hayaku zo hito o


Kokinshu #470

Saturday, 16 November 2013 09:04
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
(Topic unknown.)

    I, just hearing rumors,
and white dew on chrysanthemums --
    we arise by night,
by day can't endure longing
in her sun and waste away.

—8-15 November 2013

Original by Sosei. In direct contrast to the previous, this is a highly wrought poem in the epitome of the Kokinshu manner, with two or three pivot-words. The clear ones are kiku meaning "hear" / "chrysanthemum," which joins the introductory first line to the rest, and okite meaning "settle" (for the dew) / "wake" (for the speaker). The disputed one is omo(h)i = "longing" / hi = "sun," which if accepted results in two simultaneous readings of the last three lines: "(dew) settles at night and, in the day, cannot last in the sun and vanishes" and "(I) am awake at night and, in the day, cannot last these longings and waste away." Despite the complication this creates (and that it means redundantly including both "by day" and "the sun"), the implied comparison feels like the heart of the poem, so I stretched for that at the expense of literal accuracy. This starts a series of poems of love "before seeing," provoked by reports of the beloved -- courtly decorum required ladies not show their faces to any men outside their family, making rumors of her all but required to start the ball rolling, especially on the man's side. (I'll try to point out the persona when not obvious, such as when different from the writer, but I may forget -- for example, in the previous poem, the speaker could be either gender.)

oto ni nomi
kiku no shiratsuyu
yoru wa okite
hiru wa omoi ni
aezu kinubeshi

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
Topic unknown.

    The little cuckoo
is crying, ah!, and sweet-flags
    in the Fifth Month --
alas, feeling this longing
whose sweet cause I do not know.

—6 November 2013

Original author unknown. Enough word games -- on to a more heartfelt topic with this start of the first (of five) book of love poetry. Just as the seasonal books are organized chronologically, so are these poems, following the phases of an idealized love affair -- beginning here with the first intimations of love. The poem is very much in the traditional manner and would not have been out of place in the Man'yoshu. And speaking of traditions, back in book III we saw the summertime cuckoo used as an occasion for pensiveness, an association created with love poems such as this. Pivot-doublet {see below}: ayame = "sweet flag" (an early summer lily that resembles and is often confused with a common iris, used at the time as decorations during the festival of the Fifth of the Fifth Month) / "(logical) reason/source." I translate the latter loosely to reproduce the repetition. (And now I'm imaging a visual novel context that allows rendering it as a "sweet event flag." Ah, technology -- you change us so little.) Commentaries debate whether to understand this as the onset of ever being in love -- a first love ever.

{Digression: I need to declare my personal terminology, all the more so given there's no consensus in English or Japanese criticism on what to call these figures. A pivot-word is when sounds are used in two meanings at once, typically one sense with the phrase before and one with the phrase after, though more complicated patterns are possible. Example: "with you gone I pine trees moan in the wind" understood as "with you gone I pine -- pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is sometimes an implied comparison but more commonly it's two separate statements, and because the two senses can rarely be made the same sound in English I usually double-translate the pivot. A singular pivot-word is similar, only the word is used in the same sense with both phrases: "I am a lonely pine trees moan in the wind" understood as "I am a lonely pine -- pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is often an implied comparison that can be rendered as something like "I am lonely like pine trees that moan in the wind." A pivot-doublet is also similar to a pivot-word, only (as in this poem) with the sound repeated instead of collapsed together into a pivot-word: "with you gone I pine; the pine trees moan in the wind." The effect is typically associative -- the sound and often also the sense of one word reminding the speaker of the other.}

naku ya satsuki no
ayame mo shiranu
koi mo suru ka na


Kokinshu #468

Wednesday, 6 November 2013 07:17
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
Composed when someone told him to write a poem starting with "ha," with "ru" at the end, and including "nagame" (scenery).

    Because I, thinking
"How could I tire of looking?"
    passed through the flowers,
it feels like my heart indeed
has scattered away with them.

—3 November 2013

Original by Archbishop Shôhô. Shôhô or Shôbô (832-909, lay name Prince Tsunekage, a 6th-generation descendent of Emperor Tenji) founded Daigo Temple in 874 as well as the now-extinct Toyama school of esoteric Shingon Buddhist practice. This is his only poem in the Kokinshu. ¶ The book ends with another kind of acrostic, though the first+last syllable game doesn't seem to have been as popular as hidden topics or start-of-line acrostics. The two syllables together make haru, "spring," the time of the poem. The hidden topic nagame could mean "prospect/view," "long/pensive gaze," or "long rain," all of them spring topics (see #113) that fit the content. Slight mistranslation: beranaru usually indicates conjecture based on visual evidence, but "feels like" is more clear in English than "seems that." Being distracted by the beauties of the world is, of course, a failing in Buddhism, making this a nicely orthodox sentiment from a clergyman. Compare #132.

And after this book ends with someone losing their heart, comes the first book of love poems. Expect much elegant mopiness, seasoned with occasional surprises of joy.

hana no naka
me ni aku ya tote
kokoro zo tomo ni

lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)

    Though these are seedlings
of late-sown rice whose planting
    and growth were delayed,
it won't be fruitless to rely
upon these fruits of the field.

—29 October 2013

Original by Ôe no Chisato. Chimaki is sticky rice wrapped in bamboo or similar leaves and steamed, eaten for the festival of the Fifth of the Fifth Month (currently observed as the Dragon Boat Festival in China and Children's Day in Japan), giving something of an associative connection between topic and poem. Pivot-word: ta no mi = "fruit/grain of the field" / tanomi = "request/depend on." I replicate something of the doubling effect by rendering ada ni, "in vain," as "fruitless." It's possible to read this (by mishearing mi as refering to himself) as a lover's coded protestation of faithfulness, with the late growth being of the speaker's feelings. The original has interesting aliteration in the first three lines, which I couldn't reproduce.

nochimaki no
okurete ouru
nae naredo
ada ni wa naranu
tanomi to zo kiku


Kokinshu #466

Saturday, 2 November 2013 08:59
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
Embers (okibi)

    A river of tears
so deep the source it flows from
    can't even be seen --
when this ocean has dried up,
will its bottom then be known?

—27 October 2013

Original by Miyako no Yoshika, the literary sobriquet (meaning "good fragrance of the capital") of scholar, historian, and poet-in-Chinese Sukune no Kotomichi (834-879), whose erudition was famous enough to become the subject of literary anecdotes, many involving Sugewara no Michizane. This is his only poem in the Kokinshu. ¶ Hiding "embers" in a decidedly drippy poem looks to me like deliberate irony. This is the only place in the Kokinshu where a "river of tears" is appears outside of the love poems; given that usage, we have here an exaggeratedly weeping lover claiming to be completely unnoticed by absolutely everyone. Untranslatable wordplay: soko, "bottom/bed," can also be heard as "that place," referring back to the wellspring. "So deep" is interpretive, added to clarify the ocean metaphor.

kata dani mienu
oki himu toki ya
soko wa shiraremu



Warning: contents contain line-breaks.

As language practice, I was translating classical Japanese poetry -- most recently, book 11 (love part 1) of the Kokinshu anthology. This project is, however, on hiatus. Past translations are archived here. Suggestions, corrections, and questions always welcome.

There's also original pomes in the journal archives.

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