Paint. You wouldn’t think it would be so hard to put paint on canvas. Or words on paper. But it can be very hard, whatever the medium. Which is why Hiroshige has so many admirers. And John Carley, too. Hiroshige’s woodblock prints of the early nineteenth century put paint onto paper in a distinctive way that has become famous the world over for capturing the essence of Japanese landmarks depicted from the Tōkaidō road. And John Carley has distinguished himself in the arts of haiku and linked verse. Now they all come together, with Carley’s responses to Hiroshige in this exquisite and far-ranging sequence of poems. We see links between verse and image, of course, but also from verse to verse. They are worth discovering and exploring for yourself with second and third readings.
But what of Carley’s choice to “enter into the historical period of the work,” as he puts it in his introduction? Is it possible for a twenty-first century writer to travel back in time, to be truly present in a bygone era, to taste the salt of Hiroshige’s day? None of us lived then, so we can never know for certain, but I like to think that Carley pulls it off. His first verse, from the Nihonbashi departure point, refers to “my measured tread,” immediately creating a first-person perspective. We are there, or at least Carley is, in the persona he presents in these poems. His is a measured tread, too, suggesting resolve and commitment for the long trip ahead. He uses the diction of the period effortlessly in referring to the floating world: cherry blossoms, Fuji, teahouses, noodles, rice, the moon, lanterns, cranes, snow, pines, palanquins, cuckoos, sake, goddesses, dragons, seaweed, lotus blushes, reeds, rain, mountains, a monkey’s raincoat.
Yet he is not stuffy, as we can see in the Kanagawa verse for post station 3 about the unceremonious teahouse. We see Issa-like irreverence in the Yoshiwara verse for post station 14: “if this were a desert / you would be a camel / Master Horse!” And again in the verse for Fujieda, post station 22: “should my lord / return as a snail / who will bear his shell?” This pointed barb echoes with the image of workers carrying heavy loads for their master, and we who observe them cannot help but wish that the lord would carry his own damn shell. The spirit of Issa—of Carley too—returns in the poem for Chiriu, post station 39: “amid the regal humps / of equine rumps— / uncommon horsefly.” And so we see the light with the dark, the humourous with the serious, the ordinary with the transcendent.
We also find a synergy between image and poem—Carley’s verses are far from captions for preexisting images. In the poem for Totsuka, post station 5, for example, he refers to hanging hats on a milepost, yet we see no milepost in the image. The verse drives us into the image looking for that milepost. But we aren’t disappointed at not finding it, because we discover that we too can enter into the image. We too can walk around until we do find that milepost and hang up our hats for a bit of respite.
In other cases, the words do find literal depiction in the image, but we may have to hunt for it. In the poem for Mishima, post station 11, we read that “the autumn mist / swallows us in turn.” And yes, to the far side of the woodblock print, we discover the mist engulfing departing travellers.
The sense of sight is obviously dominant for a series of poems about images such as Hiroshige’s, but several poems take us into other senses. We experience this in the post station 15 verse for snowy Kanbara: “a winter’s night / held fast beneath the snow / a deeper silence.” And in the image for post station 18, Ejiri, instead of seeing just the fisherman and their boats, we hear the chatter of fishwives. This choice reveals a keen sense of empathy for the unexpected corners of detail that the image presents. By taking us to new places, the verses remind us to look at the images more closely, to let them take us to new places, too. We enter more deeply into each of Hiroshige’s works of art because the way to get there is signposted by Carley’s poems.
The poet adds something to the picture again in the verse for Fuchu, post station 19, whose image depicts a palanquin: “if I could swap / this palanquin for wings— / mountain cuckoo.” Yet we find no bird in the image. What we find, instead, is the common resonance of travel—flight for the bird, and being transported in the palanquin for those so fortunate.
In verse after verse, we find ourselves transported back in time to another place, another voice, as believably as Kenneth Rexroth did when he impersonated a contemporary Japanese woman in The Love Poems of Marichiko. What makes Carley’s time-travel succeed, it seems to me, is the timelessness of each verse—what was true then is still true today, as we see humourously in the poem for Narumi, post station 40: “the longest day— / a little shopping / then a little more.” In the woodblock print set amid a row of storefronts, we recognize ourselves, and know that certain truths do not change despite the testing of time.
Let us read again the title verse of this absorbing and multivalenced collection:
the point at which
the rivers end—
nothing but the wind
Here John Carley is not talking about a particular river, despite Hiroshige’s depiction of Yokkachi, post station 43. Rather, the poet is overt—he means all rivers, and by extension, perhaps the end of all journeys, the end of all lives. Mine, yours, and his—they are nothing but the wind. And truly, as with the days of Hiroshige and his prints of the Tōkaidō Road, entering an old era is no different, no harder, than truly entering and knowing one’s own era. Today, too, is nothing but the wind.