On Cicadas, Silence, and Japanese Poetry
My childhood memories of summer are also accompanied by the drone of a cicada, my Southern Maryland home shared with roughly five different broods of periodical cicada species, most of them living underground for thirteen to seventeen years before emerging, shedding their exoskeleton on some tree trunk or two-by-four before flying off. When I was a boy, I would rarely see the cicadas themselves, but would collect their molted exoskeletons and keep them in a box by my bed.
Not everyone felt the same way about cicadas as I did. For weeks, my computer science teacher in high school warned us about one of the periodic seventeen-year cicada’s impending brood, which had a particularly significant forecast according to scientists who measure that sort of thing. My teacher believed them and claimed we wouldn’t be able to step outside for a week without getting seven or eight newly hatched cicadas stuck to our clothes. He claimed school would have to be cancelled because we wouldn’t be able to drive on the roads with all the cicadas flying about. He claimed we wouldn’t be able to hear the sounds of each other’s voices over their notorious screech. My friends and I joked that we would gather as many living ones as we could, drive to his house, and stuff his mailbox with them as a prank.
But we never did because it never happened—or it did, and we just didn’t notice. Over several days, even the familiar cicada shell husks attached to trees, playgrounds, and wooden benches were no more or less frequent than in years before. Through evolution, the periodic cicadas learned to stay hidden while their biggest natural predators, wasps that have evolved solely to hunt and kill certain species of cicada, die off without their prolonged presence. Still, when these slow, fat-bodied, and docile creatures finally do emerge from their near two decades underground, the broods quickly become prey to virtually any other predatory creature that is the cicada’s size or larger, except for other cicadas themselves. In the brief time they are alive, they quickly mate, lay their eggs, and wait for something to come kill them, screaming all the while. When you encounter a mature cicada in the wild, it is often difficult to tell whether they are alive or dead, even after a few pokes or, in my cat’s case, slaps, after he drops one at my feet. It’s no wonder that, until recently, biologists assumed cicadas were unable to eat in their adult stage, when in actuality, they are often just eaten before working up an appetite.
Perhaps it is for this reason that, in Japanese poetry, the cicada serves as a symbol for the impermanence of life more than any other creature. Even though the shedding of the cicada’s husk biologically signals the beginning of a cicada’s adult stage, the husk in Japanese literature often symbolizes a tombstone, as the cicada, with its vibrant, rainbow colored wings and spectral green body flourishes into a world of death, leaving behind a ghost of itself, as if to say, “I was here once, but now I have vanished.” A poem by seventeenth century Japanese poet, Matsuo Bashō:
a cicada shell—
it sang itself
I think about that lost brood from my high school years, the one that everyone kept expecting but never showed. It’s possible that the forecast was just wrong, or maybe the fact that it was an El Nino year somehow factored into whether they decided to emerge. Or maybe they really did come, creeping out of the soil early in the twilight hours of the morning to a hungry world of death, and were quickly ghosted away with only their tombstones to remain. Cicadas sing in different frequencies depending on if they are seeking a mate or in distress, and, if we get close enough, their song can damage our eardrums. During this twilight hour, though, no matter what they were singing, to us their song would have blended with the sound of the ceiling fans, the low-volumed televisions, crickets-crickets-frogs-frogs-frogs, other non-periodical cicadas that emerge every summer, and all the other warm, familiar drones we think of when we think of home.
We snaked through the mountains south of Kyoto— Tommy, my boyfriend and Japanese translator, and I— on a single cart train we couldn’t believe was covered by the tourist rail passes we bought in advance of our trip. In between tunnels and steep mountain walls the tracks carved through, farmers in the field tossed weeds into burning piles, causing our panorama to be accompanied by towering stacks of black smoke. The scene felt beautiful and innocent, as if there was no omen or symbolism attached to the act of slash and burn or the sight of ashy pillars. Besides the rattle of the train, outside it was quiet, too late in the morning for frog sounds and too early in summer for cicadas. In fact, I don’t believe I heard a cicada once during the fifteen days I spent in Japan researching locations associated with the famed seventeenth century poet Matsuo Bashō.
We were on our way to the town of Iga-Ueno, Bashō’s birthplace in the seldom visited Iga province about an hour and a half south of Kyoto. I intended to visit Iga-Ueno castle, where Bashō was frequently invited to compose linked verse poetry with the feudal lord of his time. I was also under the impression that there was a Bashō museum in the area, but had doubts it was still active since its web presence and publicity seemed limited during my phases of pre-trip planning. From what I could gather from the website (which hadn’t been updated in a number of years), the museum was a small one, but it had a section dedicated to archives and research. I was excited at the idea of potentially speaking with some Bashō scholars, who I hoped I could impress with my western knowledge of their most famous poet. I had even memorized my favorite Bashō poem in Japanese:
Shisukasa | ya | iwa | ni | shimiiru | semi | no | koe
Stillness | : | rock | to | permeate | cicada | ‘s | voice
Which translates, roughly, to:
seeping into the rock
Bashō wrote the hokku, an earlier form of haiku which didn’t come into popular form until the nineteenth century, while meditating at Ryushaku temple, carved into the steep hills of the mountain Hoshu-Yama of the Yamadera province—400 km north of Tokyo and one of the most northern places Bashō visited during his nine-month pilgrimage through the sparsely populated regions of northern Japan. The pilgrimage would be detailed in his travel diary oku no hosomichi, or Narrow Road to the Interior, which many scholars cite as representing the height of Bashō’s writing career. In this poem, Bashō comments on how the rocky walls of the cavernous temple create a profound silence capable of dulling even the sound of a cicada, and he meditates on the idea of similarly “absorbing” the sounds of nature to attain tranquility in the same way the earth of this temple has. It is one of a few poems I enjoy even in both translation and its original language, and whenever I pick up a new translation of Narrow Road (I have seven now), I always flip through the pages to find this one and see how the translator has tackled the fifteen syllables.
My first introduction to the poem was in Hammil’s translation (1998) of oku no hosomichi: “Lonely stillness— / a single cicada’s cry / sinking into stone.” This accessible translation makes the hokku easy to love for a western audience, but it has grown out of favor with me as my collection of translations has grown, since the reversal of the last two lines feels cheap and the addition of “loneliness” manipulative. Adversely, Corman’s translations (1968) are popular among many scholars because of his attempt to keep to the original prose: “quiet / into rock absorbing / cicada sounds.” While more literally true to Bashō’s seventeen syllables, this version is much less aesthetically attractive, and I was disappointed to finally get to it while reading through Corman’s version of oku no hosomichi, which is otherwise seductive in its stark, nude verse.
The translation above is from Ueda (1992), who I think strikes a nice balance between the poles of being literal and lovely. His argument for his translation of “shizukasa” as “stillness”—though the word might literally be translated as “quiet” or “silence”— is rooted in the word “shimiiru” in the next line, which might be read as “to permeate.” According to the Japanese scholar and poet Ebara (1894-1948), “In the word shimiiruwe sense motion in stillness, and stillness in motion.” This is likely why Ueda also translated shimiiruas seeping, in order to show a literal movement of sound into rock that juxtaposes the stillness of the poet-speaker.
In contrast, the scholar Minoru (2006) claims that Bashō “uses sound to depict the landscape of quiet [Ryushaku Temple] and the mountains of Yamadera.” In his translation, he uses the word “silence” for shizukasa, but explains “it is not simply a depiction of silence per se . . . I believe that it is an expression of the state of mind in which nature and the mind become one.” What I like about this theory is that, like Ebara’s reading, it does not assume that there is a literal silence in the room, because how could there be if there is also cicada sound to be absorbed? It’s a pleasant contradiction that makes the word shizukasa complicated to translate easily; if I had to choose between “silence” or “stillness” for the first verse, I couldn’t, which is one of the reasons why the hokku has continued to be one of my favorites in oku no hosomichi.
Iga-Ueno was nothing like Kyoto or Tokyo– Kyoto with its aristocratic charm married with historical pride, and Tokyo with its claustrophobic social energy. Factories sat on hilltops in the distance, and the industrial streets sprawled with a miasma of poverty. Even the alley cats you would think twice about approaching.
What made matters worse was that the town had rallied its tourism efforts into an “official” ninja museum. The area just outside of the train stop where we get off was named “Ninja Town” (in English), and, as we worked our way up the hill towards Iga-Ueno castle, where Bashō had been invited several times to compose poetry with the feudal lord of his time, we passed signs with faux throwing stars painted onto them, creating the illusion that they are splintering the wood. Decorating the windows of storefronts and peppered along the path on our way up to the temple we saw cardboard cutouts depicting large breasted anime “babes” wearing very non-ninja colored ninja outfits of pink, red, and purple, telling us how close or far away we were from the Ninja Museum. Even inside the feudal castle, which had been converted into a museum on the history of the town, full-sized ninja mannequins truer to their historical anatomy hung barely within view, stuck in a nonexistent time while scaling the inner walls of the mansion. Nowhere else in the castle’s museum could I find any mention of ninjas having anything to do with either the building or Iga-Ueno itself.
After leaving the castle, we went in search of the Bashō museum I had read about, but after looking for some time and only finding signs advertising the ninja museum (which we skipped), we eventually decided that it either didn’t exist or didn’t exist anymore. Finally, on our way back to the station, I spotted a sign depicting a silhouette of an old man with a staff and a straw hat— a likeness attributed to Bashō in the few portraits made of him in his time. Standing back to back with the silhouette of Bashō was the silhouette of a ninja, preparing to hurl a throwing star the other direction.
We followed the sign to a path that led to a small garden with a lily pond just outside the Bashō museum. Inside, the rectangular building was split into two sections: one half was dedicated to the visitor portion, where scrolls hung behind glass cases, statues stood amidst a handful of tourists, and an 80s style interactive map of Honshu, the main Island of Japan, was decorated with small bulbs that showed anyone at the controls the various pilgrimages Bashō took during his life. The other half of the museum, which was sectioned off by a glass partition, had archives where scholars and historians moved around tables stacked with books and scrolls. One of scholars was a man perhaps in his fifties, who had a square face and tiny circular spectacles. He dressed like a western dad, with loafers, tan slacks, and a checkered button up that was too large and puffed out around his tucked in waist. After noticing our arrival, he enthusiastically removed himself from his desk, came to greet us, and collected our museum fare, which was something like $2 in yen. As he counted our change, Tommy, who is Vietnamese-American but attended college in Japan several years ago, tried to explain to him that I was researching Bashō using his mostly-good Japanese, but the man either misunderstood what he said or simply didn’t care.
“Okay!” he said in English, using the universal hand symbol for okay that rarely sees much action these days, and shuffled us into the museum.
So instead of chatting with the scholars, we browsed around the little museum a little while, looked at the original and reproduced scrolls of various hokku Bashō recorded, and even got to see some of the original pages from the journal of Bashō’s friend and travelling companion, Sora. Of course, neither of us could read it, the text being too ancient for Tommy’s modern Japanese and too Japanese for my modern English. The exhibit was roughly the size of the first floor of a small house, and besides us, the other museum goers included two or three small groups of Chinese tourists, some of whom looked like they only stopped in to have a bench to rest on as they made their way up the hill to the ninja museum. We eventually returned to the entrance to browse the merchandise table, where I found a Japanese print copy of Narrow Road— a souvenir I had intended to buy for myself while I was in Japan, but had failed to find a copy thus far. The spectacled man graciously took my cash and went to his desk to gather change, smiling as he returned with three tanzaku, or rectangular poem cards roughly the size of baseball cards, made from rice paper that has been stretched over little canvases of popsicle wood. Each of the poem cards was decorated with a different Bashō poem written using calligraphy, with a small corresponding image painted beside the vertical text: On one, a statue of Amida Buddha; another, a frog jumping into a pond; and, finally, a cicada. He fanned them out like face-up playing cards and told us we could each pick one to take as a souvenir. I pointed to the cicada, instantly recognizing the poem, and said, “Semi no koe.”
“You know Bashō,” the man said in English or Japanese, I don’t remember, but he said it in a way that could have been punctuated as a question or a statement of surprise. Either way, he seemed delighted. I nodded and tried to explain what I knew about Bashō, but our conversation didn’t escalate more than that, with poetic concepts like “Emerson’s floating eye” and “narrative voice” being too difficult for Tommy to translate. So in the end, we just sort of just stood there, smiling at each other with a mutual appreciation of Bashō between us, until we eventually said thank you for the gifts and moved to leave. He ran to his office once more and returned with some bookmarks to gift us as we left.
What I like about Bashō’s poem written at Ryushaku temple is that it presents a pretty scene—the image of a weary traveler arriving to a temple to pray, finding something profound in the silence, coming to a realization, recording it. Again, it’s a pretty scene and that’s why I like it, but its reading I don’t agree with, and try to resist—this idea that solitude breeds enlightenment, that we should absorb our surroundings into ourselves in order to elevate our spiritual selves. This is the type of reading I would expect from modern day Zen Buddhists, the kind with italicized quotation marks around the Zen, the kind that see enlightenment as this attainable, unknowable thing. But the attainable unknown is grounded in a level of dangerous certainty, like faith, whereas Bashō’s poems operate with floating ambiguity. Cicadas are able to turn off their hearing, like a switch, but there is even something deceiving about this metaphor, as it would be too easy to compare these two unlike things—Bashō, sitting in the temple, shutting out his thoughts and the world around him, and a cicada, biologically tuning out of all the ruckus she is making. Its likeness is attractive, I’ll admit, but the beauty of Bashō’s hokku are their limitless interpretations. While some might read Bashō’s hokku as his appreciation of solitude provided by the stones, absorbing the inescapable, absurd volume of the Japanese cicada with its out of sync tanka pebble clicks, for, finally, some goddamned peace and quiet, I think it is just as enjoyable (and necessary) to also read Bashō’s hokku as showing envy of the ability of these stones to take the inescapable drone, absorb it, make it theirs.
I didn’t come to Iga-Ueno to find enlightenment, and even if I had, I think I would have been disappointed. I came to find out what kind of environment bred one of Japan’s most unique minds, and even though I am sure Iga-Ueno is vastly different now than it was in 1644, I hope that there were the same kinds of absurdities as “Ninja Town” or a group of boys planning to stuff their teacher’s mailbox with insects during a plague of cicadas. What I mean to say is, sometimes the familial drones we think of when we think of home are not the serene, but the chaotic, as in thousands of insects emerging in the middle of the night every thirteen to seventeen years for a quick orgy before an insect genocide, or of getting off of a Japanese train stop to be greeted by a pair of anime breast seductively inviting you to participate in their fausse l’histoire, or the fact that a creature that sings so loud it can deafen you can remind you of the quietude of home—the kind of absurdities that surround us, but we don’t want to mute from our perception.
Bashō translations from Makoto Ueda, Cid Corman, Sam Hammil, and R.H. Blyth
Darcy Jay Gagnon is an essayist from Washington D.C.. He is a reader and contributor for The Rumpus and an MFA graduate from George Mason University. His current full length project is a lyric biography of Matsuo Basho, and you can find other essays of his regarding Basho at Essay Daily and Opossum.
If writing defies “common sense,” if it seems to go against traditional modes of thought, norms, and histories, the idea of that common sense no longer makes sense, or might make sense if we’re allowed to reinvent ourselves. That’s what I’m looking at with the literacy narrative. I want to hear yours: when you first “clicked” with a language, whatever it is; why you questioned the modes of your Englishes; how you wrote “poetry,” but looked at it again and called it “lyric essay.” I want to see your literacy narrative in its scholarly, creative, and hybrid forms. Send your literacy narratives to Sylvia Chan at email@example.com. Stay tuned for more literacy narratives from yours truly and others.