February 29, 2004

Only Companion: Japanese Poems of Love and Longing
Edited by Sam Hammill
Complete Poems
Ernest Hemingway

What a Difference 1,200 Years Makes -- "Only Companion" is a small book you should read. "Complete Poems," by Ernest Hemingway (yes, that Ernest Hemingway) is a book you probably haven't heard of and that's no loss. I bought "Only Companion" in New York City, which is a good place to read about love and longing. The book contains 100 poems, some written as far back as 1,200 years ago. The poems appear in both English and Japanese; the form is tanka. Virtually all pack a sweet and subtle wallop. One favorite, by Mibu no Tadamine, a poet who lived around 920 and who held various low-level government jobs, reads:

The soft autumn winds
bring echoes of a koto
played in the distance.
Why must that whispered refrain
remind me I love in vain?

Another appears anonymously:

Our meetings are brief --
kisses stolen in closets.
People love to gossip
like the Yoshino Rapids
love the crash and roar of water.

Of course, not all are sentimental. Socho, who fathered two children while belonging to a celibate Shingon sect, writes:

Now what can I do?
My writing hand in a cast
is useless --
can't manipulate chopsticks,
can't even wipe my ass!

Interestingly, I can take that sort of poetry from a Buddhist who's been dead for 450 years, but I find it harder to accept from one of my more recently dead literary heroes. The "Earnest Liberal's Lament," by Hemingway, reads:

I know monks masturbate at night,
That pet cats screw,
That some girls bite,
And yet
What can I do
To set things right?

I was surprised when I found this book on the shelf at After-words, a great Chicago bookstore around the corner from Jazz Record Mart and a few doors down from the Chicago Reader offices. I wondered why I never knew that Hemingway wrote poetry. This is why, I told myself after finishing these 88 pieces of rhyme, verse and blather. They don't get much better than "Lament." Everything you hate about Ernest Hemingway (the overbearing bravado, the bad humor) can be found in his poetry without any of what you love (the unexpected insight, the stylized mood). Apparently, Hemingway recognized this himself: the vast majority of writing here, mostly completed before 1929, was never intended to be published.


Post a Comment

<< Home