Richard Bear: from 100 poems

Hyakunin isshu (One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each) is an anthology of a hundred tanka (five line, 31-syllable poems) compiled by Fujiwara no Teika in the year 1235 C.E. It is one of the best-known works in Japan, and has been translated into English by Tom Galt, Sharman Grant, and several others. Hyakunin isshu is popular to this day in the form of a card game in which one player reads the first two lines from a card in one set of 100 cards, and the other players try to be the first to select the correct last three lines from a layout of the the other 100 cards. Young women were sometimes forbidden to play in expensive kimonos, as the excitement of the game was known to result in torn sleeves.

The following selection is from a collection of original commentaries which I have written explore my feelings in response to the series. The model for this response is the series of prints by Hokusai, "One Hundred Poets As Explained by the Old Nurse," in which the artist explores the poems not so much in relation to their original Fujiwara setting as in relation to universal experience. Some of the poems may seem rather obscure or oblique; many of the original poems certainly are, and I seem to have responded to that.

The poetic method here is not syllable counting as in the original tanka, but seeks a similar compression in a manner appropriate to English, through the use of mostly two-stressed lines, except for some endings where one stress completes the thought. The arrangement of most of the lines into tercets (three-lines stanzas) is purely arbitrary.

The vocabulary of these poems has been restricted in hopes of rendering them accessible in translation. I'm hoping to find a translator who would move the 100 poems into Japanese for publication in Japan, where they might generate some interest.

Richard Bear



Sleeves dripping
from arrival
through the long

Pacific rains,
I step into the glow
of the Art Library.

Here are tall books:
first drying hands,
I find one, lifting

heavy materiality
down with care from
a high shelf: Hokusai.

Beautiful prints,
showing with love
hard country lives:

suddenly, tears.


Remember climbing to
Honey Lakes basin,
and how, rounding

that last bend, we
were hammered down
by the glory of

summer snow on the flanks
of South Sister?
Even the gray jay,

alighting on our knees
to look for crumbs,
could not long bend

our eyes away.


Did she remember
Narihira's sad dream
that she had died,

when she began her journey
across the land,
years after he himself

was grass? And I
have done as he,
lying awake hour

after passing hour,
filled with dread
of nameless evil

because of love.


I have been lost
enough in love
not to know whether

I am coming to be
or coming to an end:
yet wherever this is

your eyes in my mind
are the fixed point,
and if I am flooded

by all this emotion,
I am like smooth
river basalt,

indestructible for you.


It is a great thing
to fall in love,
and to stand able

to acknowledge
love before the world.
Some, as they meet

beside some shore
must look both ways
before they kiss.

Even to dream
of one they love:
disaster. What name

did I speak to the night?


She, who was
so beautiful stopped
to regard me as if

I were the beauty
to be known. As her gaze
increased, my own

I averted to the river,
lest my breath itself
be radiance-stopped.

Behind her, ivy
clung to cottonwoods
while sparrows

sang on.


Once on North Fork,
all other workmen
left for days, I

keeping camp alone.
Rising, I found
snow had come,

deep, silent. In boots
I made rounds,
then, looking back,

saw no track but mine,
and of so many chimneys
in camp, mine alone

made smoke.


By moonlight, I found
a beaver serenely
floating, and spoke.

It woke; splash
of its sounding
soaked my shirt through.

Thus you may spend time
when the world has
no use for you.


My last day in the woods
I came to a house
some Idaho pioneer

called home. One door,
no windows, earth floor,
darkness from rafter

to sill. Still, he could not
be sad; to sit by-door
mending gear,

he must have looked
west to east all morning,
and east to west at will.