Friday, May 30, 2008


The Long Winter Night: Three Poems, by Ryōkan

The long winter night! The long winter night seems endless;
When will it be day?
No flame in the lamp nor charcoal in the fireplace;
Lying in bed, listening to the sound of freezing rain.

To an old man, dreams come easy;
I let my thoughts drift.
The room is empty and both the sakè and the oil are used up –
The long winter night.

When I was a boy studying in an empty hall,
Over and over I had to fill the lamp with oil.
Even now, that task is disagreeable –
The long winter night.

Ryōkan is describing life at his hermitage, Gogō-an, and life as an old man.

I do not know if he intended the three poems to be linked this way, or if this was an artifice of the translator-editor John Stevens. Let us assume the poet intended them to be read together. If so, they constitute three versions, or interpretations, of one reality. We are not hearing about different winter nights, but the long winter night. So one place, one time, three views. Not incompatible at all, more like three currents coursing the same stream.

The first emphasizes cold – no flame in lamp, no charcoal in fire, freezing rain.

The second emphasizes age – an old, wandering mind, sakè and fuel oil spent.

The third emphasizes memory – the boy, filling the disagreeable lamp; the old man, same disagreeable task.

My mind leaps to link all three. There is a danger in this of misunderstanding, but the linkage is what the author, or at least the translator, asked me to do.

It is interesting that Ryōkan does not discuss loneliness. He does not lament being alone at the hermitage (though he does in other poems) but old age, cold, lack of energy, lingering memories.

It is also interesting that, while he is out of fuel in the first two poems, or stanzas, we get the sense that he has oil in the third, for he still finds the task of filling the lamp disagreeable.

What makes the night long? Thinking? A wandering mind?

These poems are in striking contrast to another, also about Gogō-an:

My life may appear melancholy,
But traveling through this world
I have entrusted myself to Heaven.
In my sack, three shō of rice;
By the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment
or illusion,
I cannot say – wealth and honor are nothing but dust.
As the evening rain falls I sit in my hermitage
And stretch out both feet in answer.

He was a beggar, so perhaps his fortunes ebbed and flowed – sometimes there was rice and fuel, other times not.

It also occurs to me that in a given day one’s feelings about life change. I know that my emotions have swung from contentment to anxiety in a single day. In a single minute. Especially between daylight and night, between engagement in activity or society and lying in the dark trying to sleep.

The point, I suppose, is that the same place, the same person, even the same moment can be awash with different meanings, interpretations, feeling tones.

(Painting from "The Liberator," Vol. 1, No. 2, April 1918)

1 comment:

Timothy said...

Have you read Solnit/Klett/Wolfe's Yosemite in Time ? Solnit talks about different visions of the place Yosemite-- and how our "wilderness" that became a park was really someone else's home.

Another favorite on "place" is Kim Stafford who wrote Having Everything Right You can read the first few paragraphs and see what you think.

Off for a walk. Everything is flowering that isn't green. Wet, windy and cool here in Seattle.