Sundai in Edo
Katsushika Hokusai, picture #5
Birds bring mystery to music.
Some men are working on the road. The way the men carry bags of dirt and stone has tilted their bodies. A large pine tree squiggles against the sky. The shogun’s retainers fill a mansion. At this elevation, we can all see the city of Edo; but I hear the music of love.
Where I stand, a corner of a grey-tiled roof tries to block my view of Mount Fuji in the distance. The highlands gradually rise from the center of my viewpoint, and at the top of the hill are more trees. This creates a dip in the center of the world; but I listen for the love that creates the music.
Men carry box-shaped luggage on their backs, ascending and descending the hill. I can imagine anything I want inside the boxes — none of the boxes belongs to me. If I open one of the boxes, I might find a blue roof tile, or a bag of soil and stones, or the scent of Edo. But what I want to find when I open every box is music and love.
At this height, I have a shadow like any samurai. My shadow moves pine tree branches. The world sags and swells, drifting temporary shadows. My shadow loves to play with the music, as if the notes were birds perching and resting on my hands.
No one reaches Fuji by traveling on this road, but my brush will. I paint with the mystery of bird music.
On a tree near sky
I open clouds of boxes.
What might be inside?
A Sketch of the Mitsui Shop in Suruga in Edo
Katsushika Hokusai, picture # 11
Sometimes, you begin with a simple plan. Miso soup has become money in the Mitsui shop in Edo. This is an unusual way to deal with business. I do not have any money to exchange.
I tried to give the shopkeeper some moonlight in exchange for food, but he laughs at my offering. Instead, I begin sketching this building while men begin working on the roof. Over time, they will finish before I do. It takes me a long time to find a good place to stand. The sun is especially hot when I cannot afford shade.
There are two kites trying to mate in mid-air. I am sad because I never tried that with my wife when we were young as clouds.
It costs more to stand still and paint than it does to dream about my wife, ruffling her kimono as I loosen the obi from her waist, releasing it to the wind, abandoned like kite strings.
I came without money, and I will leave rich with love. Even as an old man, past the midnight of his life, I can still find the wonder of my wife. No money can buy love.
Kites find breeze in sun,
workers nail moonlight to roof,
I select wife’s hand.
Nihonbashi Bridge in Edo
Katsushika Hokusai, painting # 21
The Nihonbashi district is a mercantile center with a river dividing the city into before and after. This wooden bridge holds the two sides from drifting further apart. I have made the mistake of trying to cross in a crowd. No one can move until another person moves. Inching across takes a whole day. I feel as crushed as wheat under a grindstone.
Packages crash into me and never apologize. I find more elbows than there are arms. A cart filled with round packages is held down by netting, but no one pushes or pulls it. Someone holds a tray full of fresh baked buns high in the air to get past my greedy hands. Someone else is carrying some wooden planks. A man stares over the bridge trying to decide if it is easier to walk on water instead of being trapped in the middle of the bridge with nowhere to go.
Three boats pole on the river. The boats have enough room to maneuver. There are other boats tied to walls, and the boats only begin moving when the water laps against the grey wall.
I can see both Mount Fuji and Edo Castle in the distance. They are as near as the moon and sun, and just as far. I cannot move anywhere in this crowd; nor can I get in a boat and sail anywhere. In this crowd, I cannot get closer to my home and wife; but when I am shoved back, I am even further, taking longer, and my longing is trapped with nowhere to go.
I am wearing a large white hat that is hiding my face. I am almost to the center. If I touch the post, will it be real?
My feet tell me that I have not moved in hours. Perhaps, I am the bridge, with people walking all over me, aimlessly starting, hesitating and stopping. Life flows like a backwards river.
The bridge never moves —
snails are faster than people,
days go spring to fall.
Tsukuda Island in Musashi Province
Katsushika Hokusai, painting # 29
Evening is approaching with sails from the far horizon heading to this port. All fishermen and transport boats are pushing their long poles to get to here. Some ships tied to the docks near the village sell fish fresh from baskets.
The water is meditating. Beyond the grassy shores and trees, further than the hills, Mount Fuji is watching and counting the sails flapping like kimonos billowing in winds.
The boat closest to mine is a transport. It is laden with goods I cannot afford. The man who pushes the boat using a pole has no time to talk to a lowly person like me. The quick plops of a pole in water speaks to his restlessness of getting in before dark. He refuses to admit, once again, he has forgotten a lantern.
I have reconciled with the water. I promise not to drink the water if it promises not to drown me. I have to be careful; all promises have ending dates. I cannot see the bottom of the water, and the water cannot see the bottom of my heart.
The ferryman poles toward the shoreline. It is still a great distance away. Measure for measure, we inch closer. Can the pole feel my anxiety or excitement?
Hurry, pole, hurry; this water is one of the elements, and I do not want to join it just yet. When I am floating in this familiar terror, I know that I am still alive. Is dread a part of enlightenment?
A feather sinking
still has time to save itself.
A duck swims away.
Ushibori in Hitachi Province
Katsushika Hokusai, painting # 36
This inland harbor connects to Chöshi. A boat with a kaya grass roof has anchored in the marshy water. Its bow rises diagonally to the left. A dune conceals its stern.
The boatman is washing rice for his dinner. He leans against the gunwale, tossing out the rinse water, disturbing the nearby cranes into flight.
He shows me his cargo. Sacks and reed mats are stowed in an orderly pile. On a cabin shelf are his books and ledgers. According to the numbers, he is prosperous. I conclude I do not need a ledger to keep track of my poverty.
However, my life has been rich. I have been with my wife for about fifty years. I still appreciate her, even when I am away — especially, when I have been gone away for too long. I can count the stars and the fleas as part of my riches. I can count every one of my wrinkles, and I have earned each of them. I can count the stars and the fleas as part of my riches.
I have asked myself along the way, What do I know about silence? The answer is Mount Fuji. It is now in my heart, eyes, and hands. When I paint these images, I cannot speak, for I am intense within the moment. When I remember the roads, the cliffs, the cluster of trees, the people I have met along the trail, no one can take away my speechless feelings. Mount Fuji has moved with me, yet it never moved.
The boatman showed me numbers that were meaningless to me. The workers showed me the meaninglessness of repetition. Children showed me that the best appreciation of nature and time is to enjoy each moment as it happens. Now, I will play with colors and paint.
Today, I am a toddler with a toddler’s surprised eyes. Fuji is a spinning top!
A horse, a spider,
a marble, a hat, a snail–
a child plays with rocks.
Martin Willitts Jr., Syracuse, New York, has 24 chapbooks including the winner of the Turtle Island Quarterly Editor’s Choice Award, “The Wire Fence Holding Back the World” (Flowstone Press, 2017), plus 16 full-length collections “The Uncertain Lover”, “Coming Home Celebration”. Forthcoming books include “Harvest Time” (Deerbrook Press) and the Blue Light Award winner “The Temporary World”. He is an editor for Comstock Review.
Artist Statement: Katsushika Hokusai (October 31, 1760 – May 10, 1849) was 70 years old when he began his journey for two years, creating his famous Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. This was a long journey as he stopped along the way to find the “stations” where travelers would recognize certain viewpoints. His block prints could make many copies to sell, and they were so popular he created 10 more.
I started writing these poems on my own 70th year. I am pretending to be Hokusai, sharing the same journey, using the 36 original pictures as a guide. I chose writing in the form of the haibun. Since Basho was dead before Hokusai was born, Hokusai would have been familiar with that style of writing. Haibun was created by Basho as a journal about a spiritual journey, each entry ending with a haiku.