Reading the Japanese Poet Issa (1762–1826)

by Czesław Miłosz

A good world—

dew drops fall

by ones, by twos

A few strokes of ink and there it is.

Great stillness of white fog,

waking up in the mountains,

geese calling,

a well hoist creaking,

and the droplets forming on the eaves.

Or perhaps that other house.

The invisible ocean,

fog until noon

dripping in a heavy rain from the boughs of the redwoods,

sirens droning below on the bay.

Poetry can do that much and no more.

For we cannot really know the man who speaks,

what his bones and sinews are like,

the porosity of his skin,

how he feels inside.

And whether this is the village of Szlembark

above which we used to find salamanders,

garishly colored like the dresses of Teresa Roszkowska,

or another continent and different names.

Kotarbinski, Zawada, Erin, Melanie.

No people in this poem. As if it subsisted

by the very disappearence of places and people.

A cuckoo calls

for me, for the mountain,

for me, for the mountain

Sitting under his lean-to on a rocky ledge

listening to a waterfall hum in the gorge,

he had before him the folds of a wooded mountain

and the setting sun which touched it

and he thought: how is it that the voice of the cuckoo

always turns either here or there?

This could as well not be in the order of things.

In this world

we walk on the roof of Hell

gazing at flowers +

To know and not to speak.

In that way one forgets.

What is pronounced strengthens itself.

What is not pronounced tends to nonexistence.

The tongue is sold out to the sense of touch.

Our human kind persists by warmth and softness:

my little rabbit, my little bear, my kitten.

Anything but a shiver in the freezing dawn

and fear of oncoming day

and the overseer’s whip.

Anything but winter streets

and nobody on the whole earth

and the penalty of consciousness.

Anything but.

From The Separate Notebooks, New York: Ecco Press, 1984. I believe this translation is by Czesław Miłosz and Robert Hass. See also Chen-ou Liu’s discussion of this poem.