When I want to write and have no ideas for topics, I often turn to visual art, particularly, as I mentioned a while back, Japanese woodblock artists like Hokusai. A few days ago, as I was digging through old journals that I was published in, I found a poem I had forgotten about that was based on one of Hiroshige’s pictures that I could not remember. So I went and dug up my Hiroshige books, couldn’t find it and so, of course, requested some books from the library. And I fell in love again.
Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) worked part-time for many years as a firefighter at Edo Castle, so those of us who are artists with day jobs shouldn’t feel too alone!
Greatly influenced by Hokusai, whose landscapes were wildly popular, Hiroshige produced Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, but it is the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, that he did towards the end of his life, that I like best. (Edo is the old name for Tokyo.) In this series, he used bright colors and vertical orientation, often with some larger piece of what I would normally think of as background in the foreground and large, like a tree branch or a banner, so that you have to look harder to see the people and figure out the story that is playing out. The following poem appeared in Ekphrasis and was nominated for Pushcart Prize XXIII: Best of the Small Presses in 1997.
The Mother Takes Her Teenage Daughter to Chiyo’s Pond
(Hiroshige, “Chiyo’s Pond in Meguro,” 1856)
Little One, we fold too many stories
between silk and our hot skin, we coil
too many expectations in our hair,
pinning them with pointed lacquer hopes.
Long ago, Lady Chiyo made this pond
her final resting place, doused the coals
of love for her husband, killed in battle.
These cherry trees did not grow here back then.
Had their pink branches rustled above her
slow steps, they might have taken her to task,
displayed limbs wrapped in feminine hues,
and whispered, Here we stand in the bright air,
resplendent and giving ourselves despite
the approach of wilting summer and the falling
rains. Look at their smoky reflections
on the pond’s surface, rippling cherry wisdom:
Night comes, soon enough, we disappear.
And you, with your young warrior now gone,
have lost, you think, your future blossoming.
Why not, you ask me, simply float and fade?
Look up! See the water throwing itself
down into its own wet element in steps
clear white and frothing as the very day.
Your aunt, walking behind us, would say, This
water is your starting place. Begin
to wash out expectations, not drown hope.
Your brave one is dead, but another walks
somewhere, teeth flashing, not knowing he waits.
Still water does not suit you. Remember him,
but throw yourself, my daughter, into life.
Spilecki, Susan. “The Mother Takes Her Teenage Daughter to Chiyo’s Pond,” Ekphrasis (1997) 1:1.