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Friday, Dec. 28, 2001

Gleaming flowers of peace and joy quell life's drum of death


The most persistent sound reverberating through human life is that of a death drum. Death is the reality that has no favorites. It devours even the most beautiful and eloquent.

However, there is that which defies death: the unquenchable human spirit of mind and heart.

One winter day in 1995, a friend of mine died suddenly. When I heard of her death, I immediately painted her picture in the blue winter sky with the paintbrush of my imagination. She smiled a most tender smile. From this smile flowed a voice polished and enriched by half a century of harmonious living. Her voice possessed a myriad of colors, made warm and bright by the glow of poetic sensitivity that burned within her.

As her voice faded away into the silence, I recalled a poem she had written titled "Faces in the Night" :

People are my gardens
With flowers of memory
Quietly blooming
In fragrant ecstasy.
Their aroma floats
In the evening air
Even in the falling dusk
The roses in my garden
Gleaming in starlight.

This poem reflected the soul of my friend, earnestly seeking to refine all the beauty of the world. As I ruminated over her life, I sensed a spirit of love flowing from the poem. Then her face seemed to emerge, eyes and lips forming smiles so warm that they melted my frozen grief.

Glancing up at the winter sky once more, I pondered this message, meant to soften our pain and encourage our hearts. Later that night, in the bejeweled sky, I saw a new star twinkle.

The woman I write of is Marie Philomene. She was born in Vigan, in the Philippines, in 1919. A scholar and poet as well as an educator, she devoted her life, from 1948 to her death, to cultivating the inner life of her Japanese college students.

During her free time, Philomene wrote poetry, much of which followed the time-honored patterns of English literature. She was as comfortable in the sonnet, the Spenserian stanza or other forms of English verse as she was in the waka and the haiku of Japanese song. Her use of these Japanese lyric forms aroused interest not only where she showed a capacity to capture the original spirit of Japanese songs, but also in her ability to adapt these patterns to her own purposes:

Wrinkled is the face,
But the smile is a maiden's,
And the voice, a child's.
-- Marie Philomene

Philomene's English poems appeared in publications worldwide, including "Laurel Leaves" (printed in Manila), "Poetry Nippon" (Nagoya), "The Rising Generation" (Tokyo), and "Verbeia" (England). The collection "White Birches and Fire Tree" (1978) was her first harvest of poetry, ripened through her 30 years of work in education. Her second -- and last -- volume of verse was "Parable . . . Fable Panorama" (1988).

She also published other books, including "Japanese Songs of Innocence and Experience" (1975), a translation in English of the poems of five Japanese poets.

Philomene served as vice-president of The Poetry Society of Japan (whose organ is Poetry Nippon) and as chairperson of the Poetry Reading Circle of Tokyo. Through these positions, she endeavored to promote the creative activities of Japanese bilingual poets for two decades, until the year before her death.

In "Poetry Nippon: Anthology 1967-1999," there was a poem titled "A Tribute to Sister Philomene" :

The flowers you have helped
us to plant
will remain in full bloom,
never fading,
in the magic garden
long after we are gone.
-- Naoshi Koriyama

Death cannot annihilate such a spirit as Philomene's. This kind of spirit is immortal and possesses not only the power to ease the sound of the death drum, but to nurture the garden where the flowers of peace and happiness bloom, a garden that fills life with joy.

This is Toshimi Horiuchi's final column. He has written for The Japan Times since 1992. The essays that have appeared on this page have been translated into Japanese and compiled into a book, "Atarashii Fuga no Sekai (A New Poetic World to Create a Cozy Home for the Soul)," from Liber Press, Tokyo.

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