From Round to Square (and back)

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Endings (4)—Tales of Ise

Click here for an introduction to the Round and Square series "Endings." 
[a] Far from the capital

[b] Ise view
Once, on a bus hurtling toward the southern tip of Honshu (Japan's main island), I found myself in an animated conversation about Japanese literature with an obviously well-read man of about fifty. The sights from the bus windows were riveting. Almost every scrap of land looked like it eased off into foamy white, followed by pale blue, and then dark blue waters. Beautiful though the coastline was, however, the conversation was even better. After several decades of reading the literature of the islands, I was having a chance to speak deeply about poetry and prose to a lover of literature outside of a university (note to self—get out more; stop talking only to professors, just because of where you work).

[c] Swelling moisture
The topic came, as it often does in such conversations, to our favorite bits of Japanese literature (he phrased it, of course, as "favorite bits of literature." I told him that he needed to give me a minute, but asked him to name his. He was about to speak, when I interrupted him (politely—this was Japan, after all, and there were more than our fare share of ちょっとs and other politesse in the conversation). "I have it," I said, suspecting (I don't really know why) that we might have the same scene from the thousands we could have chosen. Why I thought that, I can only guess. We were in a neck of the woods (as we say) that might have conjured it up. Still, I had an inkling. "Tell me yours and I'll do the same." We spoke, at almost the same instant.

Yup, they were the same. Amazing how that happens in a way that only works in nonfiction (no one would believe it if it were in a novel).

It is only an "ending" in a loose sense, but it fits the theme and pattern of Round and Square's "Endings" series quite nicely.

Themes worth pondering, at least to make the fragment here more understandable include:
                      (1) The capital is the center of everything, and "elsewhere" is "nowhere."
                      (2) Whether or not "real life" worked this way, people "speak poetry" a lot.
[d] Moist swells
(3) People "speak poetry" a lot in well-defined syllabic and rhyme schemes.
(4) Dry (parched) rice "travels" best.
(5) Crying is o.k.

I like to think of this part of "narrative nine" in The Tales of Ise (伊勢物語) as the seed for Hank Williams and his musings a millennium later (There's a Tear in my Beer). Helen Craig McCullough's fine translation will lead us through the literary wilderness.

The "last" line is the best in all of Japanese literature.

[e] Ise tales
Tales of Ise
[f] 伊勢物語
Once a certain man decided that it was useless for him to stay in the capital. Accompanied by one or two old friends, he set out toward the east in search of a province where he could settle down. Since none of the party knew the way, they simply blundered along as best they could. In time, they arrived at a place in Mikawa Province called Yatsuhashi (八つ橋). It was where the waters of a stream branched into eight channels, each with its own bridge, which was why it had come to be called Yatsuhashi [Eight Bridges]. They dismounted under a tree near this marshy area and sat down to a meal of parched rice.

One of them noticed some irises blooming in the swamp. "Compose a poem on the subject, 'A Traveler's Sentiments,' beginning each line with a syllable from the word 'iris' [kakitsubata], he said. The man recited:

                       [ka]    karagoromo                               I have a dear wife,
                       [ki]     kitsutsu narenishi                      familiar to me as skirts
                      [tsu]    tsuma shi areba                          of a well-worn robe,
                  [ha/ba]    harubaru kinuru                         and thus these distant travels
                        [ta]    tabi o shi zo omou                     darken my heart with sorrow.

They all wept onto their rice until it swelled with the moisture.[1]

[g] Tales of Iris

[1] Helen Craig McCullough, Classical Japanese Prose: An Anthology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 42.

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