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Tuesday, April 18, 2000

Reflective poems from well-lived lives

IN THE NINTH DECADE, by Edith Shiffert, distributed by Katsura Press, P.O. Box 275, Lake Oswego, OR 97034, USA, 1999; 78 pp., $14.95.
KOMAGANE POEMS, by David Mayer, SVD, Techny Mission Books, Divine Word Missionaries, The Mission Center, Techny, Illinois, 1999; 93 pages, unpriced.

"In the Ninth Decade" is Edith Shiffert's 11th poetry collection and the second she has published in her 80s. It is dedicated to her younger sister, who has just joined her as an octogenarian. The author was born in Canada in 1916, and came to Japan, following sojourns in Alaska and Hawaii, in 1963. She has lived in Kyoto ever since.

Shiffert is one of several American poets to have taken up residence in the ancient capital of Japan. She shares with them a deep interest in the aesthetic and philosophical traditions of the city. This volume, like two of its predecessors, is beautifully illustrated with traditional ink paintings by Kohka Saito, a renowned artist of the genre.

But it is for the poems that we read her, and here, too, the cultural influence of Japan is strongly felt. Shiffert has previously assembled collections of seasonal verses in the 5-7-5 syllabic form, very sensibly calling them "brief poems" in order to avoid disputes about what is or isn't haiku. But clearly haiku have provided the model for her poems. There are some in this book, too, and it ends with a sequence titled "Waka," the old name for the slightly longer verse form known as tanka.

Though most of the poems in the book are free-verse compositions, the epigraph from which it takes its title has the shape of haiku:

In the ninth decade how old the stones underfoot how fresh the grasses.

This sense, which the poet has retained throughout her work, of an immense past and an immediate present informs the whole volume, provoking her to both joyful celebration and philosophical reflection.

There is something marvelous about Shiffert's ability still to be delighted and surprised by everything she finds around her:

The way the fog rose up today, the way the plum blossoms come to trees! Fifty crows fly toward the mountains -- Circling, cawing! -- "The Final Word"

Her awareness of the end of life approaching gives an edge and context to her observations. And when she remembers her own father, her attitude is not only open and accepting, but curious and even eager:

I am old, I am tired, . . . And about to cease this form of my existence, I say as he did, at last to know what really is though I have always been within it! -- "A Meditation on Death"

It is the poet's attempt to link and comprehend the vast distance of space and time that surround us, and the immediate and small that we encounter closely and then lose, that produces the poetry itself. Sometimes the feeling of disjunction results in perplexity and produces questions, while at other moments there is a sense of unified transcendence. Shiffert does well when she argues the matter out in a more formal pattern:

We circulate in what we are, earth and water, fire and air. Beasts are earth and we are beasts and all of us must come to death, decay that lays us back to earth. -- "The Elements"

The natural world has much to teach her:

Turtles continue to grow as long as they live, have slow metabolism. Cold blooded. One of the oldest life forms still existing. Cockroaches, dragonflies, are also older than man, older than his memory or thinking. -- "Turtles"

She is only melancholy when she remembers (in "A Requiem For What We Had")

The mountains we have trashed, the sea, the fields . . .

One of the more notable features of this book, beyond the rereadings of certain poets and recollections of certain places that we might expect, are Shiffert's poems about encounters with animals. These see her embracing a kid goat, being trailed by a wolf and dancing with a crane. But most interesting is her encounter with a cougar:

The cougar trusted me and I him As we walked up the steep trail in total darkness . . . -- "The Cougar"

which receives two separate treatments.

Shiffert's evocations of the cougar call up a number of other poems. First, and most familiarly perhaps, "The Tyger," by William Blake, "burning bright," with the savage power of creation. One thinks, too, of the caged beasts that other poets have described -- "The Panther," by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, or "The Jaguar," by the late Ted Hughes -- dispirited or angry as the case may be, but always offering a vision of something other than ourselves.

In "Waka," the final sequence in the book, Shiffert once more reconsiders some of the poets she likes, including Blake and Rilke. In the very last verse she gratefully concedes:

I look for a way and find I am within it.

These are the kind of garlands that should crown anyone's old age.

Another slim volume that shows the influence of Japan is teacher and missionary David Mayer's "Komagane Poems." It deals entirely with living creatures, but this time they are not animals but insects. The verses are all in the syllables of haiku:

Hippety-hop: pride Greed lust doubt doubt envy -- ever, Itch unsatisfied.

Titled "Fleas," this poem is accompanied by a sketch of two of the tiny parasites, one leaping high into the air.

One might think of the 17th-century poet John Donne's poem on "The Flea," uniting in its own appetites the disunited selves of the poet and his lover, but Mayer does not essay Donne's metaphysical concerns, though in this case there is a moralizing tone.

Generally, Mayer keeps much closer to the ground, evoking his flies and dragonflies, moths and mosquitoes, in dense, alliterative lines. There are explanatory notes, and every poem has an illustration on the facing page.

The sketches, also by the author, are beautifully done in the traditional style of Japanese ink painting. One senses his purpose in one of the notes (which, although they tell us about the insects, reveal the general subject too): "Insects going through the stages of life are fascinating to watch and a comfort to the soul."

Mayer has enjoyed playing with verse forms, but the contemplative pleasure he has found in his fellow creatures is most evident in his delightful drawings.

Available from the author at Nanzan University, 18 Yamazato-cho Showa-ku, Nagoya, 466-8673

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