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    Summer night city

    Japan has ream upon ream of exquisite poems about spring and autumn; by contrast, there are comparatively few about summer, possibly because the prevailing feeling during that season in most of the archipelago (“how the hell am I going to keep from dying in this heat?!”) does not exactly lend itself to sublimeness of expression. However, one of the early summer tropes–and summer according to the lunar calendar begins during the first week of May–is the return of the cuckoo as certain seasonal flowers begin to bloom.

    夏草は茂りにけれど郭公などわが宿に一声もせぬ

    延喜御歌

    natsu kusa ha/shigerinikeredo/hototogisu/nado waga yado ni/hitokoe mo senu

    engi no oon’uta

    The summer grasses
    have come up in abundance,
    but why, O cuckoo,
    do you not favor my home
    with even a single cry?

    Engi no Oon’uta

    Ick. That translation came out very precious. On the bright side, I was able to go pretty much line by line without having to shuffle things around much; the Japanese for “cuckoo” is five syllables in and of itself, so in a 5-7-5-7-7 verse it takes up a lot of real estate and tends to force you to use filler if you want to try to adhere to the original as much as you can when translating.

    The return of the cuckoo when the grasses grow lush and the orange blossoms and deutzia bloom is considered very moving. The poet sees the thickened grass and purports to wonder whether the cuckoo is somehow shunning him. (If it has any sense, it’s probably just decided to summer in Alaska this year.)

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