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    The Japan Meteorological Agency has announced that the cherry blossoms are probably going to open early this year–prepare for falling-down-drunkness and inescapable karaoke in t – 6 days:

    The JMA announced the dates that cherry (Prunus serrulata) blossoms are expected to open from Kyushu through the Tohoku region on 15 March. For the first time, this year’s blossoms are predicted to open between 1 and 4 days earlier than the average in Tohoku.

    The projected date for blossoms to open in Tokyo and Yokohama is 22 March.

    There are scores of classic poems about cherry blossoms–in the seasonal-devotion sense. But of course, they’re so woven into Japanese culture in March and April that they can become aesthetic placeholders for poems with other themes.

    The following is the first poem I ever read and understood (at least lexically) in Japanese:





    Lemon Elegy

    You had waited so for the lemon.
    In your sad, white, bright deathbed,
    you took from my hand a single lemon
    and plunged your pretty teeth into it.
    Those few drops of heaven-sent lemon juice
    from which a topaz-colored fragrance rose
    snapped your consciousness back to normal.
    Your blue, unclouded eyes laughed a bit
    Your power so robust as you grasped my hand.
    There was a storm in your throat,
    and just at last possible second,
    Chieko became the old Chieko,
    and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.
    And in the next instant,
    you took a deep breath as you had long ago at the top of a mountain,
    and with that your machinery shut down.
    In the shadow of the cherry sprig standing in front of your photograph,
    I will put a cool, glistening lemon today.

    Kotaro Takamura

    Kotaro Takamura and Chieko Naganuma had one of the most famous artistic marriages in Japan in the last century. Kotaro considered himself a sculptor more than a poet; Chieko was a painter. They had twin studios and shared household duties. Chieko had always been unconventional in dress and demeanor, but decade and a half after their marriage, she began to have delusions. She tried to commit suicide in the early 1930s. Of course, artists are famous for their erratic temperaments, but Chieko’s episodes developed into full-blown schizophrenia. Despite her tendency to break out of the house and harangue the neighbors, Kotaro kept her at home and took care of her for three years until it became too flat-out dangerous. She died another three years after he had her hospitalized.

    智恵子抄 (Chieko-sho: “Winnowings [of poems about] Chieko”), the book of poetry Kotaro published three years after her death, contains the above poem and others about their life together. I wrote my undergrad senior research project about it. That was the time I was coming out, of course–and though it might not seem like the greatest idea to be studying poetry about such an unstable person right about then, it was something of a kooky comfort to think that you could be completely falling apart and still have someone who would remain so tirelessly devoted to you.

    It’s known that many of the poems are idealizations–or rather, that they couldn’t possibly represent what their life was like in day-to-day terms. “Lemon Elegy” was composed in February, weeks before a cherry bough would have had swelling buds, let along blossoms, on it. Kotaro might have put a particularly shapely bare bough in a vase on the Buddhist altar with Chieko’s photograph on it, or he may just have written the poem as a projection into a time later in the spring. (Perhaps there’s some kind of critical consensus on that, but I’ve never seen it in any annotations.)

    Added on 17 March: I remembered last night after posting this that my college language partner, who’d returned with her husband to Japan by the time I was coming here in 1996 and let me stay with them my first week here, had a video tape of a television special about Kotaro Takamura. We watched it the first night I ever spent in Japan.

    Part of it was a dramatization of certain poems as they were read in voice-over. In the segment for “Lemon Elegy,” when the actress playing Chieko Naganuma died, the lemon dropped from her hand, landed on the floor with a meaningful thud, sat there for one dramatically fleeting second, and then wobbled dolorously away.

    I. LAUGHED. SO. HARD. It could hardly have been more campily entertaining if it had been performed in drag.

    While television dramas with naturalistic acting have become more common here, it’s non-mimetic theater, of course, that’s traditional. Scenes of emotional intensity are frequently stylized or exaggerated. (When Chieko returned momentarily to sanity, the look that flashed across the actress’s face was, like, Damn! I think I locked my keys in the car!) It’s a credit to Kotaro’s limpid, direct style that despite having those images in my head, I can still take the poems in question seriously.

    9 Responses to “シミジミと”

    1. Alan says:

      That’s beautiful. I almost ran for a tissue when I got to “and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.”

      One question though, was ゐ ‘wi’ once used in place of い ’i’ in ている present progressive tenses? That threw me off. 待つてゐた being modernly 待っていた?

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      “I almost ran for a tissue when I got to ‘and the love of a lifetime tipped into a single moment.'”

      Darling, it’s okay to go the whole way and actually run for a tissue, though a pressed handkerchief is always preferable in moments of truly high drama.

      And yes, the now-obsolete わ行 syllables ゐ and ゑ were once used in inflections, though they haven’t survived. A lot of books are printed nowadays with only the modern kana, but if you look at older editions, you’ll have to be able to figure out the old ones.

    3. Alan says:

      You know, you’re right. Not ruining the dramatic tension must have been important on a subconscious level. After all, getting up, going to the bathroom, ripping off a sheet of toilet paper (who needs Kleenex?), and dabbing my eyes then surely would’ve killed the mood.

      Being a sucker for drama.. I simply could not allow that to happen.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Preserving the proper high-drama mien is indeed an arduous task. Glad you’re up to it (though you might have spared us even the possbility of dragging toilet paper into it). So many are not.

    5. Toby says:

      You are probably aware of it already, but there is a good essay on the linguistic development of Kyoto vs Edo speak and orthography in this book. From memory there is a great deal about how the old kana “spellings” reflected different pronunciations (you are probably aware of this too).

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      Yes, we had to learn them when we studied 古文. You probably really can’t learn Classical Japanese unless you do–it all seems so random otherwise.

    7. Toby says:

      I remember learning all of that, but (something I didn’t know until I read that book), there were apparently pronunciation differences that are reflected in the (now) non-standard 古文 kana orthography.

    8. andra says:

      may i ask what lemon means in this poem?
      is it real lemon or referring to something else?
      if it’s real lemon..why lemon?is there any specific reason why the author choose lemon and not other fruits?

    9. Sean says:

      Andra, the incident supposedly refers to what actually happened when Chieko was dying: she wanted a lemon, and Kotaro gave it to her. (I’m not sure there was anyone around who could have corroborated that even at the time.) I don’t know that it has any special poetic significance in and of itself, though I suppose being sharp and sour and bright yellow, it’s believable as the kind of fruit that might give you a jolt.

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