Close Reads – One Tanka by Masaoka Shiki

Last week we looked at “To Zanzibar by Motorcar” and I have to admit it turned rather into an allusion fest, which was or was not all that useful to you, myself, or the poem, if that isn’t too vague. While Harvey’s resistance to straight allusory reads in that poem is a factor in the poem itself, I decided I’m going to skip the Wikipedia this week, partly for the sake of my own laziness, but also because I do have some small belief that we should be just as fruitful bringing the knowledge we already have. And let’s make it short and full of wonder, shall we?

Tanka. The sort of “completed sonnet” of the “incomplete sonnet” that is the haiku, if we mix syllables up for rhyme. But that’s just confusing. Tanka is haiku with two seven-syllable ending lines, so it’s a syllabic poem that runs 5-7-5-7-7. It’s a full house of a poem, as it were. Now I don’t know if I’ve cornered you in a room at an MFA party sometime in your life, but if I have, then you’ll know that I much prefer tanka to haiku. It has that added je ne sais quoi that only a poem of slightly greater length can have. And one of my favorites? Masaoka Shiki. But I’ll be damned if I tell you who he is—all I can do is mention his name again: Masaoka Shiki. Oh and to mention that I was reading Walter Benjamin’s essay on Proust this afternoon and find the parallels in Proust’s and Shiki’s lives a bit startling—well okay, maybe not, but it might be useful for you to know that both men lived around the same time and both completed their most well known work bedridden with chronic lung diseases. But I’ve already said too much! As most tanka go, this dude’s untitled. But do read it, among many other great tanka, here. Because I’m such a badass (okay, because Makoto Ueda is such a badass) I’m also providing the romaji.


wakaba sasu ichi no ueki no shitakage ni kingyo akinau natsu wa kinikeri


tree with lush leaves
at an outdoor fair
giving shade
to a goldfish seller
as summer begins


What I really find so lovely about short poems is how they work against a kind of linear read. In Harvey’s poem last week, one couldn’t resist watching how the poem progressed, how it posited, made variation, and changed its mind. Here however, since the poem can only accommodate the unveiling of a single scene, the reader is more apt to treat it as a static entity, perhaps, a linguistic mind-painting. And by apt I really mean that—a linear read is certainly still plausible. But this is rather the effect of short poems and not specific to this example.

What we have in this scene is an exquisite layering of realms and, linearly, a very straightforward movement of the eye downward and, in a flash, outward in a total view. If it’s your first read of the poem, you might imagine the tree from the natural viewpoint of one standing, perhaps in an adjacent clearing, looking at the leaves—a horizontal landscape. However, further reads, a knowledge of where we end up, drastically changes this viewpoint to one under the tree, looking up, presumably as the leaves sway with ginger motion in the slight breeze. The effect of this is powerful—we “wake up”in the poem on our backs. Now that could just be my read, but I think this cinematic effect is common enough (watch Lost ever?) that I’ll hazard a guess and say many others would share this read with me. Much in the way the goldfish is underwater, we are under the tree—see what I’m saying? The tree brings this underwater realm, one, if not foreign to the human reader, certainly dangerous, unnatural, to him, to his realm. And this is huge—to me—the point of the poem. The compelling quality of this, in the most concrete way, is the atmosphere it evokes. The sound of the outdoor market, of the seller as he calls out his goods, is to us warbled, muted, the larger effect of which is a distance between the reader (viewer, listener) and the scene before him. This is an exquisite tension. As the language starts and we wake into it, we realize we have waken into both sides of sleep: reality and dream. Don’t you ask yourself: is this poem a dream? Because it has dream’s qualities. And yet, the clarity and simplicity of what it describes seems real enough. This is further evidenced in the way the cognizant beings are equally layered—as much as we respond to the goldfish seller’s presence, so to, we respond to the presence of the goldfish. The mind, in the poem, is in both locations, under the tree and underwater. Or, perhaps, the goldfish mirror the others in the market, whom we don’t see directly, in their mass presence. Either way, Shiki deftly draws both the physical and mental environments of terrestrial and aquatic realms into a single description.

Now (and perhaps I’m too into Proust and Baudelaire now, via Benjamin)–what in our cognitive existence is most like dream and reality mashed together? That’s right: memory. So, going along with our previous responses, we ask, is this then a scene being remembered? And of course, don’t even attempt to answer that. The important factor in this question is the introduction of time. I mentioned before that this poem is static, but I also mentioned that I didn’t really mean that. And the tension in my equivocation is precisely because the poem follows a similar sort of tension. Time as it moves regularly is stalled, distended. But time as it moves within the mind is still at pace. What I mean by this is that we don’t really imagine the scene ticking away as we are taking our time (and luxury) in uncovering it. Think of the squeaky, warbly, herky jerky start of an old film, or if you start a record with the stylus mid-song. The song, or film, doesn’t seem to move independently from us (like an underground river we periodically have access to), but rather, it seems to cohere, in static form, and then move independently. I hope you understand what I’m trying to say. This is what the poem does: it has to cohere before it lands on the running wheel of time, and only then can its gears lock with time’s gears and begin to rotate itself, etc. In another sense, the scene only has the appearance of moving through time; it is in fact us who are moving—and this lends a sense of simultaneously moving and not moving. Okay, perhaps this is all for naught. Let’s just look at the translation: no real active verbs. There’s “giving,” but that suggests a continuous state and not action. The real action fails to take place until the last line: “begins.” Ah ha! And what begins? Summer! A mark of time! Now, the significance of it being early summer is deep, not to mention that the beginning of summer is in fact isolated to this one moment, as though someone just turns summer on, here, in the market. The largest thing I consider with this is that, for the poet, this goldfish seller is a kind of traditional mark of summer, which relegates the statement of the poem to an assertion of ceremony. I’m not really all that interested in this, though you should feel free to be. What I’m more interested in is how we are shaken out of the timeless, dream/memory realm the poem has pushed us to inhabit into a realm of time, of inexorable time, exemplified by the changing of seasons (note that I’m avoiding the dogmatic seasonal rules of tanka and haiku). In a way, the poem kicks us out of itself. And it’s jarring, truly—one might as well get interrupted by a car alarm (isn’t this a sweet thought: the alarm of time. Go ahead and title your next poem that, I won’t care). There’s no real grand statement with this—I find the act of juxtaposing these elements, the realms, and time and eternity, satisfying enough, but let me just posit one thing: they are not in antagonism. Rather, just as the goldfish can be found in the jar, which can be found in the stand, which can be found under the tree, etc., these eternal moments, these pauses of scene, can be found all throughout time itself. One just needs the right kind of seeing, the right sense of one’s presence and the presence of everything around.

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