Knitting Our Own Existence

Despite the fact that I’ve read considerable Chinese and Japanese poetry, I’ve read very little “modern” poetry. In fact, I think that The Triumph of the Sparrow is the first entire book of poems I’ve read by a modern Japanese poet.

One of the things I’ve always admired in Japanese poetry is the “concreteness” of it. I like poetry that conveys its ideas concretely rather than talking about ideas. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a trait of Takahashi. Like many modern, western poets he seems to rely on discussion rather than on concrete images to convey his ideas.

Although I try to present my opinion of any poet’s work as clearly as possible, I’ve always pointed out what I consider some of the best poems in the work. After all, I think every poet worth reading has something important to say to us. I’m not going to limit myself to just the strong points of any poet, but I hope I do offer a clear enough view of his writings so that the reader can judge for himself and is not unduly deterred by my own biases. “Flight of the Sparrow” is one of those poems I found thought-provoking but also wished that Takahashi could have found a better way of expressing the ideas:

Flight of the Sparrow

Sparrow dives from roof to ground,
a long journey-a rocket soars
to the moon, umpteen globes collapse.

Slow motion: twenty feet down, ten billion
years. Light-headed, sparrow does not think,
philosophize, yet all’s beneath his wings.

What’s Zen? "Thought," say masters,
"makes a fool." How free the brainless
sparrow. Chirrup-before the first "chi,"

a billion years. He winks, another. Head left,
mankind’s done. Right, man’s born again.
So easy, there’s no end to time.

One gulp; swallow the universe. Flutter
on limb or roof-war, peace, care banished.
Nothing remains-not a speck.

"Time’s laid out in the eavestrough,"
sparrow sings,
pecks now and then.

It seems somewhat ironic that, although the poem seems to be rejecting excessive thought and the expression of ideas through words, it does so through simple declarative sentences rather than through concrete imagery. Perhaps, though, it is the contrast between lines like “Thought makes a fool” and “How free the brainless/sparrow” that is required to convey these thoughts. While I find the idea interesting, I find the poem strangely unsatisfying.

Although “Life Infinite” seems equally dependent on words rather than concrete images, I found I liked it better because of the poems relative simplicity:

Life Infinite

Beyond words, this no-thingness within,
Which I’ve become. So to remain

Only one thing’s needed: Zen sitting.
I think, breathe with my whole body-

Marvellous. The joy’s pure,
It’s beyond lovemaking, anything.

I can see, live anywhere, everywhere.
I need nothing, not even life.

I particularly liked the lines “I think, breathe with my whole body” because the lines seem to capture the essence of mediation. The line “I need nothing, not even life” captures the sense of freedom one can gain from suspending life through meditation.

Strangely enough, though, my favorite poem in the middle section of this volume of poems is “Stitches,” which probably could be found in any work of poetry in any culture:


My wife is always knitting, knitting:
Not that I watch her,
Not that I know what she thinks.

(Awake till dawn
I drowned in your eyes-
I must be dead:
Perhaps it’s the mind that stirs

With that bamboo needle
She knits all space, piece by piece,
Hastily hauling time in.

Brass-cold, exhausted,
She drops into bed and,
Breathing calmly, falls asleep.

Her dream must be deepening,
Her knitting coming loose.

I must admit, the poem first reminded me of Penelope who promised to marry the suitors at her door but unraveled her knitting every night in a desperate attempt to stall until Odysseus could return. Later though, it reminded me of my mother who would sit knitting for hours, creating marvelous garments from mere space and an apparently endless ball of yarn. It was almost as if the sweater would appear magically, as if she was knitting “space” itself, only requiring “time” to make it appear.

Perhaps we all try to knit our existence from the skein of time we are given, only to have it unravel at night when confronted with our dreams of what we wanted our lives to be.