Hyakunin Isshu No. 14: Dyed and tangled/Trapped in secret love

By: Kawara no Sadaijin (822-895)               河原左大臣

Surrounded by this                                          みちのくの
Intricate print,                                                    しのぶもぢずり
Becoming                                                            誰故に
Dyed and tangled,                                           乱れそめにし
Trapped in secret love                                   我ならなくに


Kawara no Sadaijin was a title for Minamoto no Toru (源 融), a statesman and poet who was the grandson of Emperor Saga and a part of the Saga Genji clan.  Claimed by some to be the model for the protagonist of The Tale of Genji, the only other really notable claim for Minamoto is this tanka that he wrote, which is also included in the Kokin shu as No. 724.

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Shinobu Mojizuri ferns | 宮代NOW

In my notes, it states that the poet saw an intricately print of ferns on cloth, which reminded him of the tangled and chaotic state of his own feelings towards the woman he loved.  Furthermore, Michinoku (the first line of the tanka) was renowned in Ancient Japan for printed cloth, and Shinobu (the start of the second line of the tanka) was an area within Michinoku, which emphasises how intricate and fine the poet’s emotions would have been.

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Fukushima Prefecture | Must Love Japan

A quick Google search revealed that Michinoku is in fact, the ancient name for Fukushima-shi, in Fukushima prefecture in the Tohoku region of Japan.  Although it gained fame (or infamy?) internationally as the site of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, during the Nara and Heian years, Michinoku was actually a frontier area, and famous for its shinobu mojizuri fabric (the second line of the tanka).

The translator also notes that the pronunciation for fern is the same as for remembrance or concealment, which therefore gives the poem the meaning of either concealment through the fabric or the ferns, or remembrance through seeing the cloth or ferns.

Another translation gives this meaning clearer:

Whose fault is it
that my feelings have begun to tangle
like the tangle-patterned prints
of Shinobu from the distant north?
Since it is not mine, it must be…
(Mostow 1996)

This alternative translation also shows how Minamoto addresses this poem, as though to entangle his love with him within the fabric.  Accompanying notes to this translation additionally shows that this poem has been interpreted as a defense by Minamoto of his faithfulness to his lover, which, due to the interesting choice in imagery to symbolise how upset he is at being doubted, could also be argued as a way of showing a secret love to another.

I mean, ‘whose fault is it’ could be both Minamoto reinforcing that it was not his fault that he fell in love with and is in love with his lover and that his feelings for her are as tangled as the prints of Shinobu, or that his heart has, against his will, begun to stir for another, tangling the feelings that he held for his current lover with his emotions for his new interest.  I personally like the argument that he is trying to sort through his emotions for another, because it gives the poem more layers, which suits the imagery that he chose with the fabrics and ‘tangle-patterned prints’.

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Shinobu Mojizuri fabric | わかればいいのに I Wish I Knew

It is also amazing that so much meaning can be conveyed within thirty one syllables, and it makes me respect Japanese poetry so much more, because as much as I love poetry, sometimes the way Western poets write seems so excessive and clunky, but here?  It is so clean, and so sparse, but still containing so much meaning.

And the more I read these poems, the more I realise how lacking my copy of the Hyakunin Isshu is.  It is enough to get me started, but it doesn’t provide enough information for my liking, and its translation seems clumsy or lazy compared to alternative translations that I can find on the internet.  But maybe I just expect too much from my books.

 

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Hyakunin Isshu No. 4: White Cloth on Fuji’s Peak

By: Yamabe no Akahito (700 – 736)       山部赤人

At Tago Bay,                                                  田子の浦に
I’m hit by the sight of                                 うちいでて見れば
White cloth                                                    白妙の
On Fuji’s peak                                              富士の高嶺に
And falling snow                                         雪はふりつつ


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東海道江尻田子の浦略図 | 葛飾北斎

Surprisingly, there are no translation notes provided with this tanka.  The only information that I have is that the poet, Yamabe Akahito, was a contemporary for the poet for No. 3, and that he, like Kakinomoto,  was regarded as one of the greatest of the early poets and subsequently deified as a god of Poetry.  Looking up Tago Bay, according to the interwebs, Tago is a seaside town/village/place that is known for its amazing views of Mt. Fuji.  Tago is also one of the locations in the super famous Mt. Fuji/boat/wave art series (No. 36 in a series of 36 paintings), so it is most probably a place that Yamabe would have strolled along before being struck by inspiration to write this tanka.

In a way, it’s kind of refreshing to read a tanka that wasn’t inspired from some sort of intense emotion (I’m only on No. 4; by the time I get to No. 100 I’ll be all drained out of emotions haha).  It really shows how the Japanese people appreciated and enjoyed nature and the environment around them, I think, and how the beauty of the environment could connect so strongly to their spiritual selves or souls.  I know Western poets get inspired by the beauty of the environment too, but I’ve found that they don’t capture the simplistic depths of nature and its reflection on the human spirit quite as well as Eastern poets.  This tanka, in any case, paints such a reverential scene of falling snow, and it could mean something deeper, with the cleanliness of snow and the passage of winter, or it could just be a poet enjoying the scenery as he walks along the shores of Tago Bay.

T. Enami | Flickr

Morning Light on the Shores of Lake Yamanaka | T. Enami