Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Edith Shiffert's Solo Hyakuin

Edith Shiffert’s 100 Verse Solo Renga

As readers of this blog know, Renga is my favorite form of poetry.  For quite a few years now I have written solo Renga, which is unusual.  By far the majority of Renga written both in Japan and elsewhere consists of communal Renga; meaning Renga written by a group of poets.  Some sources online will define Renga as a form always written by a group.

Nevertheless, I have been inspired to compose solo Renga by the poet Sogi.  Two of Sogi’s solo Renga have been translated into English, so there is precedent for Renga as a solo form.  Sogi’s 100 Verse (Hyakuin) solo called ‘Sogi Alone’ is my favorite Renga and is the source for and inspiration of my approach to solo Renga.

Still, at times I have felt kind of out on a limb.  The fact that I write solo Renga is unusual by itself.  But in addition, I write syllabic Renga.  In contrast, all the Renga I have seen that are done in the west use a free verse approach to lineation. 

It came, therefore, as a delightful surprise to discover that Edith Shiffert had composed a solo 100 Verse (Hyakuin) Renga using a syllabic approach years before I began my own work on Renga.  I found this Renga in Shiffert’s ‘New and Selected Poems’, which was published in 1979.  The Renga is titled ‘For a Return to Kona’ (Kona is an Island in the Hawaiian chain).  It was selected from her previously published ‘For a Return to Kona’; but I am not sure of the date of that particular volume.  I think this Renga is a fine work.  And it is such a pleasure for me to find another poet whose approach to Renga in English turned in the same direction that I have found congenial and whose work precedes my own.  I find this validating of my own impulses regarding Renga in English.

I believe that this is the first solo Hyakuin Renga in English.  I have decided to present it here primarily for its intrinsic value but also for its historical significance.

One Hundred Stanzas
By Edith Shiffert


The tropic greenness
veiling the long mountain slope
fades only at night.

From an airplane coming in
the whole island has one shape.

Brown cattle feed on
thorny kiave bushes
by the hot shoreline.

How many feet must wander
to mark a path on lava?

A circle of clouds
around the seasonless moon
shines like a rainbow.

Up in the high pastureland
fog hides the grazing horses.

In a cool morning
the fencing of the corral
is wet to lean on.

Ferns grow so high over me
they hide the red flowered trees.


Is Kailua town
still alone on the seashore
with just two thin roads?

It is strange to remember
a place that one knows has changed.

I woke up crying
but had forgotten the dream
that had made me cry.

In places without seasons
roses never stop blooming.

That coffee farmer’s
people wrote poems like this
five hundred years back.

After rain the warm air smells
of husks from the coffee beans.

All the ground was rock
hardened from the flowing lava,
walking sounds hollow.

At the edge of the front porch
people feasted on mangos.

Fresh rainwater cleans
the stickiness of fruit juice
from my hands and lips.

Under netting he and I
slept like children in moonlight.

I still remember
the smell of mosquito punk
after all those years.

How often I was homesick
for a place that was not home.

To come back and look
where I once climbed up mountains
I crossed an ocean.

How can one know the right place
to stay peacefully and rest?


A graying head bends
and fists beat upon the floor
beside the bent knees.

Oh how silently I sit
returned where I used to be.

Steep slopes all around
with a few overgrown paths,
then a whole ocean.

Did you watch this sun go down
from your land some hours ago?

A fisherman walks away
from a landhead of lava
before the moonrise.

As it becomes night I wait
to learn what quietness is.

When a friend’s love sailed
she made him a lei of silk,
he brushed her long hair.

The school bus going uphill
carries thin children who sing.

Who will remember
lima beans climbing up
avocado trees?

The years I lived here
our windows where never closed.

One might ask himself
is the body the garland
blooming from the earth?

I wonder what I should want
now that I am back again.

Plumeria blooms
above forgotten people
in cemeteries.

Coy, I show you the sincere;
Surface is a branch and reeds.


Watching far-of ships
I often wondered if I
would leave the island.

Every wind-storm from the sea
knocks down more sweet coconuts.

When the island shakes
the houses tremble and squeak
and a few dishes fall.

While she kneels to make my tea
I become aware of tears.

The wooden farmhouse
is circled by rusty cans
of purple orchids.

She who danced for the temple
has become a calm matron.

A heavy man sleeps
stretched out on the window sill
of the town’s poolhall.

How could all those years of days
seem like some story I read?

If today I mailed
ripe guava and sweet mangos
they would arrive spoiled.

You never heard this clatter
of rain on a metal roof.

Before I left here
I used to climb trees to look
above the jungle.

Shadows move in the moonlight,
wild pigs crunching fallen fruit.

Wakened by the drum
of the temple I felt cold
under just a sheet.

In closed houses with heat on
one can shiver all night long.


Moonflowers still bloom
on the roofless mansion walls
burned two weeks ago.

When the sirens woke me up
I thought it was the mainland.

What place is behind
the fogginess of morning
where mynah birds call?

People and cars move along
the round-the-island roadway.

How many red leis
came from the porchside rosebush
some stranger planted?

The path slants down to the lane
grassy between coffee fields.

I climbed the long slope,
twice I stayed on top a week
by the crater fumes.

The moon shone on the bright clouds
over the land below me.

While only the sky
and one’s self are visible,
one’s self is nothing.

That other volcano peak
has been dormant some years.

An island is small
in so much water and sky,
and impermanent.

When wind parts the mist I look
into steam and the crater.

All night he and I
Shivered in a summit cave
not far from shelter.

I want to climb there alone
and see the ghost dog wander.


In a slow hammock
I feel the turn of the wind
push me back and forth.

Who lives in my plain board house
with slats for the lower walls?

Walking back quite late,
the fall weeds dampen my skirt
a rat startles me.

A neighbor’s banana trees
were broken off by the wind.

Bright colored birds perch
to peck at over-ripe fruit
the children gave them.

Is grass called sincere and kind
because it never makes mistakes?

The ancient poets
wrote when they felt bewildered
and I read their words.

While I rest here the new moon
grows full, disappears, returns.

If you were to come
and sit on the porch with me
you would understand.

Some are washed into the sea
and disappear forever.

From a coral tree
the sea carved and laid on sand
this pure white stone egg.

What waits at the hard center?
“Even the last grain of sand.”

Past the rain forest,
on the bare sharp lava fields,
our shoes were worn out.

That fisherman’s hands were scarred
from hooks and bites of eels.


When the moon comes up,
first the roosters, then the dogs.
The ocean lies still.

The old lady’s kimono
has cherry blossoms at the hem.

A kerosene lamp
shows fresh tangerines and rice
by the household shrine.

I sleep on the floor, happy
to pretend this is the world.

If a wild bird comes
and allows me to feed it
I will not forget.

Say why I should not enjoy
these pleasures of my ego?

A stone’s shadow leans
over the fish and seaweeds
in the clear tide pools.

And all those years yet to come
will also be like a dream?

I like best to drink
water, heated or still cool
from springs and rainfall.

Even in drought the village
is shaded with gaudy vines.

In the cool Northwest
spring lasts from February
to mid-June roses.

Here the moonlight is scented
with jasmine all of the year.

Violets will come
to the northern woods, briefly
in about two months.

You too can look at flowers
and be almost satisfied.


If I have caused grief
remember we are phantoms
and be forgiving.

One side of the huge mango
has blossoms, the other fruit.

Facing the mountains,
the ocean sound at his back,
the priest sits and talks.

The urge to do right or wrong
fades and there was no wrongness.

Barefoot old women
sucking guavas, gossiping,
spit seeds in the dust.

The ocean of blues and greens
sparkles three miles farther down.

If the volcano
flared up I would not see it
through the morning clouds.

Coffee trees bloom and people
talk of whiteness and fragrance.


Norman Darlington said...

Hi Jim. The publication date for the collection in which this poem first appeared is 1964!

Jim714 said...

Wow! 1964; that's amazing. It would be interesting to know how Shiffert came into contact with Renga; did she have a Renga teacher or was it more self-study?