Saturday, October 16, 2010

Edna St. Vincent Millay Sends a Letter to Emily Dickinson from Kyoto

For Gavin

I must apologize for the delay
in writing this. The flight from
New York was Hell—
cramped, full of crying, food
inedible. Still, you get hungry and
you eat, and you receive
constipation for
your pains. I’m never flying
coach again. But here

I am, Emily—Japan!
My hotel, the Garden Palace, has
put me in a cherry blossom
room—all pink—synthetic
silk bedspread, rice paper sheets.
The usual Hokusai reprint
leans from the wall above my bed
ready to drown my dreams:
‘The Great Wave
Off Kanagawa.’ You’ve seen it.
Mount Fuji, little boat,
dark tsunami looming
over it with foamy fingers.
You might think the people of
Japan only produced
one great picture.

You asked about the temples.
Well, they’re gigantic,
old and everywhere.
They all sell amulets and prayers—
long life, fertility, good fortune—
the standard wishes.
I bought all three for you,
dear, and one more
which shall, for now,
remain a mystery.

I rang their bells, smelled
their smells, found too many
monks attractive. Their grounds
overwhelm the senses
with such tightly controlled
forms of beauty: thick bamboo
groves, curious flowers,
a million varieties of moss.
They are about as close
to Heaven you can get
without jumping off
a cliff, I think. If only
the water in the ponds didn’t
seem so still, in certain places,
so serene, so stagnant,
such big brown eyes of
unfulfilled desires.
I would only consider
living here in a
missionary capacity.

You asked about the Ryoan-ji
temple specifically,
that famous rock garden.
This puzzled me
at first—the whole idea of
planting rocks outside
cemeteries. I had a look
for you today.
This is what I saw:
14 boulders, older
than anything built by
man. They sit on grass
medallions, surrounded by
combed white gravel. The brochure
says there are 15 boulders, but
from any seated angle just
14 are visible. Enlightenment
occurs when you can see
15, rise above
terrestrial concerns—
position, time and place—
I sat there for two hours
seeing 14 and I left
mildly frustrated.

Frustrated, that is, until
I wrote the word
‘frustrated,’ for you,
Emily, up there. Then I saw
my 15th boulder, yes, just then.
The word ‘frustrated’ put
the whole thing in
a Zen perspective: it is love.
Love is the one concern
I do find difficult
to rise above…


David-Glen Smith said...

This is my favorite of your poems so far.

Shropshirelad said...

Thanks! It is working with Gavin. He is pulling good things out of me, I think.