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,
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.
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.