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Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Women of poetic substance


PATHWAYS, by Edith Shiffert, New York: White Pine Press, 2005, 115 pp., $14 (paper).

A WOMAN'S LIFE, by Harue Aoki, Tokyo: Shichigatsudo, 2004, 120 pp., 1,200 yen (paper).

Reviewed by DAVID BURLEIGH These two poetry collections -- one by an American living in Japan, the other by a Japanese who has lived abroad -- both draw on Japanese tradition. But the differences between them are as notable as their similarities.

Harue Aoki, the younger of the two, writes in the more classical form. Some of her Japanese tanka have appeared, with English translations, on the Bilingual page of this newspaper.

"A Woman's Life," her second collection, consists entirely of such poems. As so often, these delicate short lyrics, 31 syllables in Japanese, form a tenuous narrative. Early in the volume, we find this tender portrait:

a butterfly alights
on a yellow forsythia,
my small child
silent
for a while

Near the end, one of the author's sons announces, in a "calm and firm voice," his intention of getting married. One circle of life, then, has been completed. The personal record, of shifting moods and circumstances, is not quite a happy one, however. Moments of discontent are set down too:

I tidy the garden
this autumn evening,
my cold hands
red with scratches
from the roses

The use of color is sensitive here. The tanka, like the sonnet, is frequently part of a sequence, though with some differences. While a Japanese poet will usually write only tanka, a Western writer of only sonnets is virtually unknown. The 14-line sonnet affords greater space for developing a thought, while the tanka works mostly by suggestion. Aoki sometimes discovers herself in proximity to nature:

surface of the lake
leaden, monotonous:
I feel
my small ambition
fades little by little

At other times, she increases her awareness, or finds reassurance, in her own reflection in a mirror, or in the subject of a painting (by Marie Laurencin). The sounds of waterfalls and lapping waves cause her to ruminate:

waves roll noisily
on the lake;
looking it over
vacantly,
I'm not healed

Later, she shares her occasional loneliness, following a divorce. Her travels overseas are recorded, and as she grows into middle age, new experiences arrive, and receive classical expression. The book is bilingual, and the last poem is this:

a married life
a divorced life
both I accept
for a woman over fifty
life is more profound

Edith Shiffert's new volume consists of a selection from previous collections, together with new poems. Shiffert made her home in Kyoto over 40 years ago, and still lives there in retirement. "Pathways" is dedicated to the memory of her Japanese husband, who died last year. Their life together is celebrated in many of her poems, especially in books of 17-syllable haiku-like verses not included here. The book opens thus:

When I think back over all I loved
in nearly a century,
infants, women, men, animals,
plants, rocks, waters, mountains, sky,
that concern and joy stays with me.

The series of "meditations" that follows is not presented as haiku, but their 17-syllable form clearly comes from Japanese tradition. What is different is that the verses pursue a philosophical argument. This is not a poetry of self-reflection, but of reflection on the nature of existence. It is more abstract, and less personal, than the tanka above, and wider in its formal range.

Besides free-verse compositions, Shiffert includes a pair of sestinas about a priest sweeping a temple garden. The pattern of repeating rhymes throws individual words like "action," "nothing" and "pity" into relief so that we ponder deeply on them. Later there is an unrhymed sonnet called "A Buddhist Legend for a Friend Who Shot Himself." The poet handles these demanding forms well.

Buddhist thought informs much of Shiffert's writing, which has been deeply colored by her long residence in Kyoto. Many of the poems are set in temples and gardens there, retelling Buddhist parables or, in one case, the story of a Noh play. Very little of the modern world intrudes upon this vision, but there is an immense gratitude for what she has discovered.

"Wandering alone in sunshine / I give thanks," is a typical statement by the poet, and the questions that she asks are invariably the right ones: "In the indistinguishable pathways of yourself, / what frightens you?"

The answers come through experiencing the world ("Each leaf / before it falls / turns red"), and in meditation: "To liberate the Pure Existence, / free motion from myself, I meditate . . ."

"Paths are countless / but my days are one" observes the author in a poem called "Quest." Her quest, and the "paths" mentioned a dozen times or more, are key elements in this volume. There are some very appealing poems about animals and birds. But the great puzzle remains:

Who can explicate before dying
the hopeless anguished love all have borne
for the eroding earthen body of life
and its eventual disappearance?

The new poems that complete the book show calm and courage ("Now I lie down to rest / and wait for whatever comes"), and the collection ends, triumphantly, with these lines:

Here in the Great Emptiness of my 88th year
plum flowers in a snowstorm
and I find
I am not lonely or afraid.

Late last year Edith Shiffert emerged from retirement and gave a reading to celebrate her 88th birthday. This is a handsome volume, decorated with ink paintings and well produced.



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