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  • Writer's pictureRichard Meier

Japanese Manley Hopkins?

Scarlet Sunset, JMW Turner

Gerard Manley Hopkins cropped up in my previous blog.

And I was reminded of him again this week when I came across the poetry of Shono Kokichi. Here’s an excerpt from his poem On the Day of the Typhoon:

Let a song of infinite movement again touch my solitary heart.

Shine, you old sun, shine on my soul, shrunken with cold,

you buoyancy itself,

a catalyst of joy, a spurt of fire!

Just let the composition of beauty, of the sheer beauty

in everything there is, shine brightly for a moment

in the eyes of this mortal being.

Apparently Kokichi was a devotee of Rilke, but what I’m most reminded of - aside from a taste of Whitman, and perhaps something of Shakespeare’s Lear - is Hopkins. By which I mean the breathless, tumbling quality of the final three lines, the sense of desperation and semi-defeat in the self-description (compare, for example, 'I am gall, I am heartburn. God’s most deep decree / Bitter would have me taste' from one of Hopkins’s final sonnets), the echoes of the ‘Million-fueled nature’s bonfire’ from Hopkins’ That nature is a Heraclitean fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection in the ‘spurt of fire!’.

I’m not suggesting of course that Kokichi was familiar with Hopkins’ poetry. They do seem to share an interest in similar themes though. Here’s Kokichi’s poem As it goes down:

As it goes down, the evening sun grows pale.

In the sphere of dim light

ice-colored clouds break up, stiff.

Flasks, tears,

a human cheek shining with downy hair.

Only white cedars sway ceaselessly

in the wind’s slight breathing.

In the awesome, familiar hollow

we call sky,

we press on like anxiety. Everything falls way down

and perishes endlessly in silence.

The axis tilts sharply

at an angel of dark solitude. Oh!

a bird, as if being thrown, flies... where to?

Compare this to Hopkins’ crazily-long-lined sonnet (yes, it is one, believe it or not) Spelt from Sybil’s Leaves, with its forensic description of the play of light and shade as darkness descends one evening:

Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous

Evening strains to be time’s vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height

Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ' stárs principal, overbend us,

Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ' her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-

tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ' self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite

Disremembering, dísmémbering, ' áll now. Heart, you round me right

With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ' whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.

Only the beak-leaved boughs dragonish ' damask the tool-smooth bleak light; black,

Ever so black on it. Óur tale, O óur oracle! ' Lét life, wáned, ah lét life wind

Off hér once skéined stained véined varíety ' upon áll on twó spools; párt, pen, páck

Now her áll in twó flocks, twó folds – black, white; ' right, wrong; reckon but, reck but, mind

But thése two; wáre of a wórld where bút these ' twó tell, each off the óther; of a rack

Where, selfwrung, selfstrung, sheathe- and shelterless, ' thóughts agaínst thoughts ín groans grínd.

Whatever similarities there may be in these poems - and I admit that Kokichi, at least in the translation I have, doesn’t seem to be attempting anything like the richness, the sheer cloy-fest of Hopkins’ diction - there is a marked difference in how the poems end.

Hopkins leaves us with something of a moral caution. The loss of the world’s skeined, stained veined variety as darkness descends and takes over necessarily leads to a Manichean universe of polar opposites with no shade nor possibility of a meeting between those two extremes. ‘Ware of a world’, he cautions, ‘where but these two tell, each off the other’.

Kokichi, on the hand, pulls back from the darkness. He comes, after all, from the land of the rising sun. Out of the darkness, out of the solitude, comes a bird, and with it, uncertainty (where to?), that perfect expression of a shade of grey.

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