City of absences

Raked sand garden at Ginkakuji Temple, Kyoto
Raked sand garden at Ginkakuji Temple, Kyoto, by Richard Jackson (used by permission)

View the full-size image here and the whole photo set here.

Update: Links glossary added (see bottom of post). In case anyone but me is keeping the track, this is my fourth (Friday morning) draft of a response to Zweig’s poem about Venice…

The City of Absences
Kyoto 1985-86

Crossing an unexpected bridge,
I find myself once more in the city of absences,
twenty years gone. It’s August, I think.
The cicadas drown out every human motor.

I return to labyrinths of old wood,
disposable chopsticks,
the absent-minded purchase cocooned in paper.
My eyes adjust to the darkness in all-night coffee shops
& pagodas of moss.

City where I learned to live
on little but the morning bakery’s give-away bag of bread heels
& the peaches & pomegranates left at roadside altars
to buy off the peripatetic dead.
I bow my head for its low ceilings & sticky air
& an unseen female voice sobbing iki, iki, iki every day at noon.

Horribly pale, full of awkward & inadvertent gestures,
I return with my larval tooth
chewing, chewing, slicing slow half-circles from the air
with the wing of a mantis,
brandishing a Noh dancer’s open fan.

City where I first learned my vocation
as a chorus of one.
My split-toed slippers whisper over the bridge
as I chant my itinerary: through the gate
to the inner provinces, past the gnarled pine that marks
the traveler’s naive goal, & now,
seemingly by accident,
some ancient battlefield deep in autumn grasses.
It’s as if the celibate poet gets drawn into the vacuum
left by every improperly commemorated death.
His task is to question, to listen, to transmute.
The difficult entrance past, he steps to the side.

I return for the mudra of automatic encounters:
two cups & we’re friends,
three cups & we’re trading insults
& lighting each other’s cigarettes from the embers of our own.

Nothing changes.
Water drips where it has always dripped
until invisible fingers replace the worn-through stone.
Some outcaste genius rakes sand in a certain way
& eight centuries later the monks still take the same steps,
chant the same words to pace themselves,
walking backwards through the pure-white ocean
without leaving a ripple.

This time, too, I will make plans & abandon them,
I will return to the disco walled with mirrors
whose patrons dance alone with their reflections,
like the Kinkakuji
when a carp comes to the surface: that languid sway.
Kagami no ma, the mirror room
where the actor tries to become one with his part.

I will tan myself to a golden hue
& slip in among the crowd of smooth-faced buddhas
posing for snapshots at all the sights:
Pachinko Palace, constructed under the Showa emperor.
Rabu Hoteru, where married couples can shed the costumes
marked papa, mama.
Tachimamben, famous for its blue-suited businessmen
leaving offerings of saké in the gutter.
Makudonarudo, where shadows are barred at the door.

This time I will fill my pockets with one-yen coins.
They weigh next to nothing – sexless little moons of aluminum –
& I float up over the ticket sellers
with one sudden gulp of focused breath.
The sky fits me like a mask with two backs.
I am past the gate with its double roof, through the torii.

Garden paths unscroll like kimonos, glossy
from centuries of discriminating use,
turning away from everything that teems or hungers.
Two steps and the moon,
three steps & the summit of an uninhabited peak
with inch-high pines.
Impossible to find a novel place to sit.

City of imperial absences,
city of foreigners with fat Daruma asses,
go ahead, try pushing me from my seat behind the pillar.
My very gravity rights me.
My eyes are filled with so much wakefulness,
I can hardly focus on anything here in the present.

But the ear – listen! – is finally all lotus.
My forefinger & thumb unite
to press the eraser’s pink tongue to the page.

Links glossary:
Japanese roadside shrines (a very unique example) usually feature the bodhisattva Jizo and are intended to placate hungry ghosts
Disposable chopsticks (waribashi)
Noh drama (section 2):

The main character of a Noh play is called the shite (pronounced sh’tay) who sometimes appears with one or more companion characters called tsure. In many plays, the shite appears in the first half as an ordinary person, departs, then appears in the second half in his true form as the ghost of famous person of long ago. The former is called the maejite and the latter the nochijite. They are traditionally performed by the same actor.

The secondary actor, the waki, is often a travelling priest whose questioning of the main character is important in developing the story line. He also often appears with companion waki-tsure. An interlude actor called ai or ai-kyogen also often appears as a local person who gives further background to the waki, and thus to the audience, in order to understand the situation of the shite.

The waki is dark, passive yin to the shite’s yang. He never wears a mask.
Japanese outcastes (Burakumin, called kuwaramono or “river-bank dwellers” during the Kamakura period, when many of them found refuge in Zen monasteries)
Kinkakuji (temple of the Golden Pavilion)
Kagami no ma is the immediate backstage in Noh, connected with the main stage by a bridge. “Here the actor, already dressed in many layers of robe and a wig, puts on the mask and sits before a large mirror to study the figure he makes; this is where he undergoes the process of becoming the character.” (Kunio Komparu, The Noh Theater, Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1983)
Pachinko; Showa emperor
Rabu Hoteru
Tachimamben (no Google results) means “stand-and-piss spot.”
Daruma (cf. the common Zen ko’an, “Why did Daruma come from the West?”)

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