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Poem of the week: from One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each

35. Ki no Tsurayuki 

As the human heart’s so fickle,

your feelings may have changed,

but at least in my old home

the plum blossoms bloom as always

with a fragrance of the past.

76. Fujiwara no Tadamichi 

Rowing out on the vast ocean, 

When I look all around 

I cannot tell apart

White billows in the offing 

From the far-off clouds

The Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of Japanese poetry compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the thirteenth century, is full of striking poems, but poems 35 by Ki no Tsurayuki and 76 by Fujiwara no Tadamichi are my favorites. Despite being approximately two centuries and forty-one poems apart, they complement one another as explorations of the ability of natural sights to ground or disorient us.  

Poem 35 juxtaposes the fickleness of the human heart with the reliability of natural renewal, specifically the arrival of plum blossoms. Despite ordinarily connoting spring and renewal, the blossoms here retain “a fragrance of the past.” Cycles are welcomed – the speaker does not seek reassurance in a static home – but they must provide a general rootedness and regularity. In contrast, there is a finality to the idea that “your feelings may have changed,” an emotional fork in the road as opposed to a circle. Reading this poem about timescales and reflecting on the ecological rhythms of our present, it is hard not to compare the latter kind of change to the escalation of damages during the Anthropocene and its threat as a one-way ticket to disaster. The lines feel more jarring when read with the knowledge that some of our own perennial markers – the abundance of a certain plant or insect, subtle changes of weather throughout the seasons – could disappear, a possibility unfathomable within the world of the poem. 

Such disorientation, albeit not of the climate crisis variety, is the subject of poem 76. Even without interpreting the lines through a particular lens, I love this poem for the way it communicates the feeling of being afloat without references. The description of a rowboat with foaming waves and clouds – no shore, no people – seems desolate, like a dream sequence. It captures the moment of fogginess when you wake up and struggle to distinguish dreamed events from reality, or when you spot a friend’s face on the street only to realise it is a stranger. The poem homes in on that moment of confusion: whereas the blossoms in Ki no Tsurayuki’s work steady the speaker, landscape in poem 76 elicits the opposite effect.  

For me, reading these two poems doubles as a reminder to take stock of what in our environment guides or disorients us, especially in a time of climate change. It is, of course, hard to process such change without the benefit of hindsight, a fact I am reminded of whenever my elderly relatives comment on how different winters were in their youth. Moreover, there are far more significant ways of quantifying climate change, from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports to personal accounts from those displaced or impacted by climate events. Nevertheless, the poems seem valuable in that their succinct form allows us to hold for a moment the feeling of being tethered or suddenly adrift, specifically in the context of our relationship with nature. 

These poems make me want to sustain that focus and examine the environmental features that I subconsciously rely on, as well as those that are becoming less familiar – things we take for granted and should try harder to protect. 

Poems transcribed from the translation by Peter MacMillan. One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each, Penguin Classics, 2018. 

Image: Yu Kato via Unsplash