Bunting: Chomei at Toyama

This is a long one and will probably attract the attention of the Copyright Police—even though poetry is meant to be free, man. So it lives quickly on the spinning platter. Seize it now, or buy it later.

The source is Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems. Just by the fact that, as Amazon records, Bunting’s Complete is 0.7 inches thick—we can tell we’re dealing with a heavy hitter. And Bunting’s own selection is only 150 pages or so. The rest being juvenilia, drafts, etc. Pow.

Of Chomei at Toyama, Bunting explains in the endnotes:

Kamo-no-Chomei flourished somewhat over a hundred years before Dante. He belonged to the minor nobility of Japan and held various offices in the civil service. He applied for a fat job in a Shinto temple, was turned down, and next day announced his conversion to Buddhism. He wrote critical essays, tales and poems; collected an anthology of poems composed at the moment of conversion by Buddhist proselytes (one suspects irony); and was for a while secretary to the editors of the Imperial Anthology.

He retired from public life to a kind of mixture of hermitage and country cottage at Toyama on Mount Hino and there, when he was getting old, he wrote the Ho-Jo-Ki in prose, of which my poem is in the main a condensation. The careful proportion and balance he keeps, the recurrent motif of the house and some other indications suggest to me that he intended a poem more or less elegiac but had not the time or possibly energy at his age to invent what would have been for Japan, an entirely new form, nor to condense his material sufficiently. I have taken advantage of Professor Muccioli’s Italian version, together with his learned notes, to try to complete Chomei’s work for him. I cannot take his Buddhism solemnly considering the manner of his conversion, the nature of his anthology, and his whole urbane, skeptical and ironical temperament. If this annoys anyone I cannot help it.

The earth quaked in the second year of Genryaku, 1185.

I should add that Bunting’s quirks of orthography and punctuation are his own. I’m not quite sure what he had against apostrophes. It might have something to do with the fact that Bunting was Northumbrian and very attached to his native dialect. But then it might not.

Note also the date of the poem: 1932.

Chomei at Toyama

(Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, died at Toyama on Mount Hino, 24th June 1216)

Swirl sleeping in the waterfall! On motionless pools scum appearing                         disappearing!

Eaves formal on the zenith, lofty city Kyoto, wealthy, without antiquities!

Housebreakers clamber about, builders raising floor upon floor at the corner sites, replacing gardens by bungalows.

In the town where I was known the young men stare at me. A few faces I know remain.

Whence comes man at his birth? or where does death lead him? Whom do you mourn? Whose steps wake your delight? Dewy hibiscus dries: though dew outlast the petals.

I have been noting events forty years.

On the twentyseventh May eleven hundred and seventyseven, eight p.m., fire broke out at the corner of Tomi and Higuchi streets. In a night palace, ministries, university, parliament were destroyed. As the wind veered flames spread out in the shape of an open fan. Tongues torn by gusts stretched and leapt. In the sky clouds of cinders lit red with the blaze. Some choked, some burned, some barely escaped. Sixteen great officials lost houses and very many poor. A third of the city burned; several thousands died; and of beasts, limitless numbers.

Men are fools to invest in real estate.

Three years less three days later a wind starting near the outer boulevard broke a path a quarter mile across to Sixth Avenue. Not a house stood. Some were felled whole, some in splinters; some had left great beams upright in the ground and round about lay rooves scattered where the wind flung them. Flocks of furniture in the air, everything flat fluttered like dead leaves. A dust like fog or smoke, you could hear nothing for the roar,                     bufera infernal! Lamed some, wounded some. This cyclone turned southwest.

Massacre without cause.


The same year thunderbolted change of capital, fixed here, Kyoto, for ages. Nothing compelled the change nor was it an easy matter but the grumbling was disproportionate. We moved, those with jobs or wanting jobs or hangers on of the rest, in haste haste fretting to be the first. Rooftrees overhanging empty rooms, dismounted: floating down the river. The soil returned to heath.

I visited the new site: narrow and too uneven, cliffs and marshes, deafening shores, perpetual strong winds; the palace a logcabin dumped amongst the hills (yet not altogether inelegant). There was no flat place for houses, many vacant lots, the former capital wrecked, the new a camp, and thoughts like clouds changing, frayed by a breath: peasants bewailing lost land, newcomers aghast at prices. No one in uniform: the crowds resembled demobilized conscripts.

There were murmurs. Time defined them. In the winter the decree was rescinded, we returned to Kyoto; but the houses were gone and none could afford to rebuild them.

I have heard of a time when kings beneath bark rooves watched chimneys. When smoke was scarce, taxes were remitted.

To appreciate present conditions collate them with those of antiquity.

Drought, floods, and a dearth. Two fruitless autumns. Empty markets, swarms of beggars. Jewels sold for a handful of rice. Dead stank on the curb, lay so thick on Riverside Drive a car couldnt pass. The pest bred. That winter my fuel was the walls of my own house.

Fathers fed their children and died, babies died sucking the dead. The priest Hoshi went about marking their foreheads A, Amida, their requiem; he counted them in the East End in the last two months, fortythree thousand A’s.

Crack, rush, ye mountains, bury your rills! Spread your green glass, oceans, over the meadows! Scream, avalanche, boulders amok, strangle the dale! O ships in the sea’s power, O horses on shifting roads, in the earth’s power, without hoofhold!

This is the earthquake, this was The great earthquake of Genryaku!

The chapel fell, the abbey, the minster and the small shrines fell, their dust rose and a thunder of houses falling. O to be birds and fly or dragons and ride on a cloud! The earthquake, the great earthquake of Genryaku!

A child building a mud house against a high wall: I saw him crushed suddenly, his eyes hung from their orbits like two tassels. His father howled shamelessly—an officer. I was not abashed at his crying.

Such shocks continued three weeks; then lessening, but still a score daily as big as an average earthquake; then fewer, alternate days, a tertian ague of tremors. There is no record of any greater. It caused a religious revival. Months… Years… . . . . . . . . . . . . . Nobody mentions it now.

This is the unstable world and we in it unstable and our houses.

A poor man living amongst the rich gives no rowdy parties, doesnt sing. Dare he keep his child at home, keep a dog? He dare not pity himself above a whimper.

But he visits, he flatters, he is put in his place, he remembers the patch on his trousers. His wife and sons despise him for being poor. He has no peace.

If he lives in an alley of rotting frame houses he dreads a fire. If he commutes he loses his time and leaves his house daily to be plundered by gunmen. The bureaucrats are avaricious. He who has no relatives in the Inland Revenue, poor devil!

Whoever helps him enslaves him and follows him crying out: Gratitude! If he wants success he is wretched. If he doesnt he passes for mad.

Where shall I settle, what trade choose that the mind may practise, the body rest?

My grandmother left me a house but I was always away for my health and because I was alone there. When I was thirty I couldnt stand it any longer, I built a house to suit myself: one bamboo room, you would have thought it a cartshed, poor shelter from snow or wind. It stood on the flood plain. And that quarter is also flooded with gangsters.

One generation I saddened myself with idealistic philosophies, but before I was fifty I perceived there was no time to lose, left home and conversation. Among the cloudy mountains of Ohara spring and autumn, spring and autumn, spring and autumn, emptier than ever.

The dew evaporates from my sixty years, I have built my last house, or hovel, a hunter’s bivouac, an old silkworm’s cocoon: ten feet by ten, seven high: and I, reckoning it a lodging not a dwelling, omitted the usual foundation ceremony.

I have filled the frames with clay, set hinges at the corners; easy to take it down and carry it away when I get bored with this place. Two barrowloads of junk and the cost of a man to shove the barrow, no trouble at all.

Since I have trodden Hino mountain noon has beaten through the awning over my bamboo balcony, evening shone on Amida. I have shelved my books above the window, lute and mandolin near at hand, piled bracken and a little straw for bedding, a smooth desk where the light falls, stove for bramblewood. I have gathered stones, fitted stones for a cistern, laid bamboo pipes. No woodstack, wood enough in the thicket.

Toyama, smug in the creepers! Toyama, deep in the dense gully, open westward whence the dead ride out of Eden squatting on blue clouds of wistaria. (Its scent drifts west to Amida.)

Summer? Cuckoo’s Follow, follow—to harvest Purgatory hill! Fall? The nightgrasshopper will shrill Fickle life! Snow will thicken on the doorstep, melt like a drift of sins. No friend to break silence, no one will be shocked if I neglect the rite. There’s a Lent of commandments kept when there’s no way to break them.

A ripple of white water after a boat, shining water after the boats Mansami saw at Okinoya. Between the maple leaf and the caneflower murmurs the afternoon—Po Lo-tien saying goodbye on the verge of Jinyo river. (I am playing scales on my mandolin.) Be limber, my fingers, I am going to play Autumn Wind to the pines, I am going to play Hastening Brook to the water. I am no player but there’s nobody listening, I do it for my own amusement.

Sixteen and sixty, I and the gamekeeper’s boy, one zest and equal, chewing tsubana buds, one zest and equal, persimmon, pricklypear, ears of sweetcorn pilfered from Valley Farm.

The view from the summit: sky bent over Kyoto, picnic villages, Fushimi and Toba: a very economical way of enjoying yourself. Thought runs along the crest, climbs Sumiyama, beyond Kasatori it visits the great church, goes on pilgrimage to Ishiyama (no need to foot it!) or the graves of poets, of Semimaru who said

Somehow or other we scuttle through a lifetime. Somehow or other neither palace nor straw-hat is quite satisfactory.

Not emptyhanded, with cherryblossom, with red maple as the season gives it to decorate my Buddha or offer a sprig at a time to chancecomers, home!

A fine moonlit night, I sit at the window with a handful of old verses.

Whenever a monkey howls there are tears on my cuff.

Those are fireflies that seem the fishermen’s lights off Maki island. A shower at dawn sings like the hillbreeze in the leaves.

At the pheasant’s chirr I recall my father and mother uncertainly. I rake my ashes.

          Chattering fire, soon kindled, soon burned out, fit wife for an old man!

Neither closed in one landscape nor in one season the mind moving in illimitable recollection.

I came here for a month five years ago. There’s moss on the roof.

And I hear Soanso’s dead back in Kyoto. I have as much room as I need.

I know myself and mankind. . . . . . . . . . . I don’t want to be bothered.

(You will make me editor of the Imperial Anthology? I don’t want to be bothered.)

You build for your wife, children, cousins and cousins’ cousins. You want a house to entertain in.

A man like me can have neither servants nor friends in the present state of society. If I did not build for myself for whom should I build?

Friends fancy a rich man’s riches, friends suck up to a man in high office. If you keep straight you will have no friends but catgut and blossom in season.

Servants weigh out their devotion in proportion to their perquisites. What do they care for peace and quiet? There are more pickings in town.

I sweep my own floor —less fuss. I walk; I get tired but do not have to worry about a horse.

My hands and feet will not loiter when I am not looking. I will not overwork them. Besides, it’s good for my health.

My jacket’s wistaria flax, my blanket hemp, berries and young greens my food.

(Let it be quite understood, all this is merely personal. I am not preaching the simple life to those who enjoy being rich.)

I am shifting rivermist, not to be trusted. I do not ask anything extraordinary of myself. I like a nap after dinner and to see the seasons come around in good order.

Hankering, vexation and apathy, that’s the run of the world. Hankering, vexation and apathy, Keeping a carriage wont cure it.

Keeping a man in livery wont cure it. Keeping a private fortress wont cure it. These things satisfy no craving. Hankering, vexation, and apathy…

I am out of place in the capital, people take me for a beggar, as you would be out of place in this sort of life, you are so—I regret it—so welded to your vulgarity.

The moonshadow merges with darkness on the cliffpath, a tricky turn near ahead.

Oh! There’s nothing to complain about. Buddha says: ‘None of the world is good.’ I am fond of my hut…

I have renounced the world; have a saintly appearance.

I do not enjoy being poor, I’ve a passionate nature. My tongue clacked a few prayers.

I’m not sure this is quite on a par with Bunting’s best-known work of this length, Briggflatts, which is simply a masterpiece. But Chomei at Toyama is considerably simpler and more readable than Briggflatts. And I still think it’s one of the best medium-length sequences from the 20th century. Compare, for instance, to Brodsky’s The New Jules Verne, or Hecht’s See Naples And Die—similar in both length and general tone, but quite different in form.

Some other (non-pirated) poems on the Web that I’ve enjoyed are these by Gerard van der Leun, and these at Things Move Around.