Vanishing into the Clouds

One of my favorite romantic characters in fiction is Hikaru Genji, known in The Tale of Genji as the Shining One: wearer of billowing robes, conveyer of perfumed letters, and seducer of flowering women. Toward the end of the novel, he builds a palatial residence with separate courtyards for his four most significant ladies, each lady and courtyard associated with a season: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter. At the time of the seasonal love chateau, Genji is forty, a ripe age in eleventh-century Japan. He has consorted with countless women by then, including the Japanese Empress, with whom he rendezvoused behind thin bamboo screen doors in the Imperial Court—her illegitimate son with Genji became Crown Prince and then Emperor before he secretly learned the truth of his parentage. Hence Genji’s wealth and mansion building in his twilight years.

Murasaki Shikibu, a writer and noblewoman in the Imperial Court, wrote The Tale of Genji around the year 1008—it is sometimes considered the world’s first novel. The character of Genji is said to be based on a real-life Japanese courtier. Genji was the consummate rake, but all who fell under his spell would unwittingly think they were the ones who had secretly wanted him all along, and that he had merely satisfied their wish. Despite his reputation, Murasaki wrote, women fell in love with Genji because of his acute sense of beauty, his shining moon of a face, and his exquisite penmanship. He seduced through depth of feeling, playing the seven-stringed koto outside on late summer nights with such wistfulness many a lady wished to be the one on the other end of that yearning. I imagine Genji to be like a charming friend whom I once asked, “How many times have you fallen in love?” and he paused before replying, “You mean today?” Yet love was not at all frivolous to him, despite its frequency.

When Genji’s favorite consort died, the Lady of Spring, none were surprised at his depth of ache. He was, after all, ushin, a person of heart—what the Japanese called those with aesthetic refinement, who understood the deep things of life. So good poets were called people of heart and bad ones mushin—heartless. Genji wrote this poem in mourning:

At my house
there is no one
to admire blossoms . . .
For what has spring
come looking here?

And shortly thereafter he wrote of himself:

As I think on things
the passing days and months
go unnoticed:
will the year and my life
both reach their end today?

In his translation and commentary on these poems in The Haiku Seasons: Poetry of the Natural World, poet and scholar William J. Higginson explains, “For Genji, a man of great aesthetic and human sensitivity, failure to notice the passage of days and months—of the seasons—means death.” The next chapter after these poems appear in The Tale of Genji, titled “Vanishing into the Clouds,” is simply a blank page. It is implied to be Genji’s disappearance into the other world.


Lost Vocabularies

Poetry in translation has always frustrated me, particularly classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, particularly something like haiku. I say this despite never seriously attempting to learn Japanese—perhaps I am just not enough of a person of heart. Haiku as premise promises transcendence: poem on human and nature, in which human is small and frog leaping into pond is everything. Poem on the eternal gaze of monkeys, the ephemeral qualities of mountains. But poems touted to be the best in antiquity can sound in English instead like teenagers flailing to be profound. Yet it is not just a matter of the inadequacy of language or the lostness of translation. For old poems, it is also a matter of the allusions we no longer have in our collective knowledge, the classics that Japanese courtiers or anyone else educated in Genji’s time would have learned by heart.

Genji could write to a woman of that legendary raft between sea and sky, and she would know he meant the Milky Way.

Though The Tale of Genji is a tale of seduction, very little is stated explicitly. In Murasaki’s world of Heian Japan, allurement happened through poetry and art, through allusion. To seduce a lady, Genji would send her just the right poem written with his best ink and finest-scented paper. A poem the morning after a tryst was also customary. Genji could write to a woman of that legendary raft between sea and sky, and she would know he meant the Milky Way, and know he was referring to the story of the celestial Cowherder and the Weaver Girl in the classical Chinese Book of Songs: how when they fell in love, she stopped weaving and he let his cows wander all over heaven, and so they were banished to two sides of the uncrossable River of Heaven—the Milky Way. And the woman Genji wrote to would know, under the thin veil of propriety offered by poetry, that he wanted her from the forbidden afar. She would know, too, perhaps, that he meant to meet her on the seventh day of the seventh month, the one day a year when sympathetic magpies build a sky bridge for Cowherd Boy and Weaver Girl to reunite.

Nowadays, if the English canon were to be taught in its entirety, it would be too unimaginably large and otherwise too male and white and elite. It is up to the scholars to make obscure references and cite them, the literati and the intellectuals, all of whom are not me, but there was a time when to be beloved meant knowing how to use the history of literature to create elaborate allusions. To not know or have a common canon anymore is like breaking up with a longtime love and erasing from memory your lover’s parlance, that dialect you can speak with no one else, or abandoning a castle of private jokes that took thousands of years to build.

The haiku emerged from poets shooting the breeze. It was part of a pastime in Japan called haikai no renga, in which, after a day devoted to so-called serious literature, people weary of their hearts would get together, often in a courtyard or an open corridor overlooking a garden, with plenty of wine, and compose casual linked verses, like the modern game of each person telling a sentence of a story and going round and round. Reading haiku alone, on the page, half a world and a few centuries away from its lively social origins, no wonder I feel something is lost.

As the introductory verse of the haikai no renga, the haiku announced the tone of the entire poem, which made it both important and capable of eventual independence. So the core of haiku is not images of nature or even 5-7-5 (there is such a thing as free-form haiku); the core of haiku is the beginning of a feeling larger than can be contained in one verse.

A man I once loved, a literal man who did not understand poetry or wine but knew at least one of the two was important to me, kept asking me to explain them to him. We were long-distance—he was in Brooklyn and I was in Shanghai at the time—and he would take photos of poems featured on billboards in the New York City subway and text me, “Why is this a poem?” “Or this?” But how could I show him the beauty that had taken a lifetime of listening to subtleties to accumulate, and which I still feel inadequate to be the one to explain?

When the monk Thich Nhat Hanh looks at a piece of paper, he says, he sees a cloud. Because the paper came from the tree which grew from the rain which descended from a cloud. It is as if he and paper share an inside joke, though now I am in on it.

I want to read a poem or watch a cloud and see secret languages opening to me, sentiments we no longer have the words or the wonder for. Like the poet Jack Gilbert writes, in “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” “I dream of lost / vocabularies that might express some of what / we no longer can.” To see a cloud in a blank piece of paper and foretell death in a man for whom “the passing days and months / go unnoticed.” And to not be surprised when the man vanishes into the clouds.