Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Billy Collins: "Japan"

[Curator's note: This poem was inspired by a classic haiku by Taniguchi Buson (1716-84): "on the one-ton temple bell / a moon-moth, folded into sleep, / sits still." Translated from the Japanese by X. J. Kennedy.]

Today, I pass the time reading
a favorite haiku,
saying the words over and over.

It feels like eating
the same small, perfect grape
again and again.

I walk through the house reciting it
and leave its letters falling
through the air of every room.

I stand by the big silence of the piano and say it.
I say it in front of the painting of the sea.
I tap out its rhythm on an empty shelf.

I listen to myself saying it,
then I say it without listening,
then I hear it without saying it.

And when the dog looks up at me,
I kneel down on the floor
and whisper it into each of his long white ears.

It's the one about the one-ton
temple bell
with the moth sleeping on its surface,

and every time I say it, I feel the excruciating
pressure of the moth
on the surface of the iron bell.

When I say it at the window,
the bell is the world
and I am the moth resting there.

When I say it into the mirror,
I am the heavy bell
and the moth is life with its papery wings.

And later, when I say it to you in the dark,
you are the bell,
and I am the tongue of the bell, ringing you,

and the moth has flown
from its line
and moves like a hinge in the air above our head.

"Japan" by Billy Collins, from Picnic, Lightning. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998.   

Photograph: Detail of a haiga by Ray Rasmussen (originally color). A haiga is a haiku presented with an image.

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