Saturday, June 9, 2018


The Japanese term waka refers to a type of poem that has its origins in classical Japanese literature. A waka and its collateral forms consist of at least three phrases the first of which has five characters and the second two with seven characters each. The longer forms simply vary the phrase pattern and then uses repeated patterns to lengthen the poem.. The most common form of waka is known as tanka. It has five phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 characters. Commonly, the first three phrases pose a problem, and the last two phrases resolve the problem.

Novels often are plotted, roughly speaking, on an existing framework. The scheme of Joyce's Ulysses, obviously, alludes to the Greek classic of the wandering Aeneas; and Joyce's character 'wanders' through equivalent adventures. Lewis Carroll, in Through The Looking-Glass, used a chess problem to structure his plot.

The Blind Geisha uses the waka format for structure. Three parts of five sections each allude to the classic poem format. Problems presented in the first three sections of each part are resolved in the final two sections (each of these begins with '... Elizabeth wrote ...')

The novel is published sequentially beginning with the post of May 21, 2018.


Elizabeth wrote:

The short prose introduction that Ikkyu added to his poem Pai-chang's hoe poses more problems then it solves. He addresses Mori, in most translations, as my blind attendant, Mori; but the characters he uses offer many opportunities for variation. Literally, the characters from the first line translate as 'blind', 'woman', her name 'Mori', 'samurai' or 'one who serves', 'feelings', 'love' and a marker that indicates that a person is the subject of the phrase or sentence. There is one other character that we have had difficulty with. Grace suspects we have selected the wrong radical. The image of the ideograph is smeared and unclear. We have an inkling, but would like to be sure.

The first consideration is this: If Mori is professing her love for him, surely their relationship is beyond that bland naming. "Mori, my blind friend' or 'my blind companion' might be more appropriate. Ikkyu was never one to stand on ceremony.

If the dating of the poem places the composition during the calamity of the Ōnin War, then much is explained. Kyoto was the battlefield for that conflict. The city was devastated. Those who could flee, did so. Ikkyu and Mori were, for a time, in Takigi; but the war found them there and they fled to Sumiyoshi.

And what of her refusal to eat. She has attempted and failed at suicide once before (or so says Ikkyu). They are short of both money and food. The war rages on (The Ōnin War---need more on this); and all the horrors and deprivations of such a conflict do not spare this odd couple. Is this why she refuses to eat? What food they have, she wants Ikkyu to eat. Does she feel that she has become a burden? There are characters for pain and grief, for anxiety, for bitterness. Suicide, in 15th century Japan, did not bear the onus or reprobation that our culture brings to that act. More honorable than not. So Mori's attempt must be seen as noble and selfless. Ikkyu certainly must have viewed it as such. Were they on the run?

Another consideration is this: Seppuku, or ritual suicide, had already become the accepted means of discharging the debt incurred by one's misdeeds or failures. Jigai, Japanese for suicide, is made up of two characters: 自害. (Need more on this business. Another bit of research for Grace.)

Elizabeth removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes. And where was the nobility and selflessness of Michelle's death? Sordid, it seems, more desperate than otherwise. Or so I thought at the time.
"Still think so. A waste, such a waste."
Something you might should want. Such nonsense.
Elizabeth pushed herself away from the desk and stood. Another early morning, candlelight and quiet. She didn't particularly care for the scent of vanilla that the candle in her old brass lantern gave off. Exuded. That's the word. Had Grace given her that one? Somebody. She turned and walked the length of the room; peered out the window that looked onto the carport and beyond, the tiled roof of her neighbor's summer home. Rather large people. Name forgotten. No doubt I'll dredge it up later.
She turned and walked back to her desk. Twenty steps. Mincing? Was that the word? Hercule Poirot's walk. With his little gray cells. Not one to mince words. Or onions. She made a note on her post-it pad to check with Mr Skeat on 'mince.' Have some mincemeat pie for lunch.
The incessant chirping, almost yapping, like a small dog, of her Douglas squirrels brought her to the window. There they were, circling the trunk of the pine. So territorial. Must be males. They both shared the small wooded corner of her property. The adjacent lot had a few cedars, but mostly a sizable wood of stunted scrub pine, specie's name actually appropriate: pinus contorta.
Elizabeth snubbed out the taper in the dancing frog, puffed twice at her lantern. She would take a walk before lunchtime. Grace this afternoon.
"We need to finish that translation," she said. And that errant kanji. Must be somewhere. Must be.

A neap tide, gulls and whimbrels, plovers and the oddly named killdeers all feeding across the wide apron of sand. Kelp strands littered the far end of the beach, and just beyond were the tide pools where Elizabeth spent so many afternoons poking with her stick.
Poking the little gray cells, she thought, considering a rather large anemone. "Fat little fellow, you are," said the woman. The tentacles are living organisms. How did they work that out? Nematocysts. Like a barbed arrow, piercing and poisonous. Just a polyp, a sac that eats.
She was squatting on her haunches; as Grace walked down the beach towards her the young woman called out and waved the envelope that she held in her hand.
"A problem solved," Grace said.
"Oh good," said with a grunt as Elizabeth pushed herself to her feet.
"That kanji we couldn't translate?" Grace said.
"Just as we thought. 'Very' covers it, but it seems to me that something a bit more intense is needed."
"Then just use 'intense'." And Elizabeth quoted the line: "Mori, my blind friend, has such intense feelings of love ..."
Grace nodded. "That will do nicely." They entwined arms walking the hard sand at water's edge. "The radical is number 99, amai, with a meaning of 'sweet' or ''slightly sugared'. The compound we were looking for is Jin, meaning 'exceedingly' or 'severe' or 'intense'. Some others."
"Ah." Said softly. Elizabeth shuffled along, stopped, sighed.
"Are you all right, Bess?"
"Just the whirlies, dear."
She disliked this feeling of dizziness. Happens all too often these days, she thought. Vertigo. Turning in Latin. Turning ... "Just getting old. Stood up too quick," she said. And afflicted. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Ever since my bad ear.
"Shall we sit?"
"No no. It passes." She nodded down the beach. "We'll walk to the creek."
A small stream ran off the hillside, cut the low dunes, and fanned across the beach to the sea. A path followed the creeks meander through the dunes and brought the walker back to the gravel road that led to several houses built along the bluff. The loop from beach to road to home was just short of two miles and Elizabeth managed it daily.
She said, "Have you noticed, the smell of the tides, how distinct they are?"
"You have the nose, Beth. I'm immune."
"Had a fellow down visiting me. Fisherman, he was, biologist. Started in on sulfate-reducing bacteria, critters feeding on sulfur ... no, not 'fur', 'fates' ... sulfates. Said that was what caused that funky tang like rotten eggs. Decomposers at work. How he did go on."
"And not so much when the tides in. Yes?"
"That's right. Sweeter then. Amai, desu ne."
Grace laughed.
"The eyes fail, the nose compensates," Elizabeth said. "Though the vastness of the horizon is clear enough, bright enough, to stun my reason." She stopped and turned to the sea. "The sea-glim. Nothing there, nothing not there. Not an original thought, that. Some poem. Forgotten. Most people miss that empty enormity. They watch waves or gulls. The more observant might see a boat or ship, passing. The prescient few might be found by the whale's misty spout. Or earth's elegant arc. How odd that the most profound is hidden by such simplicity." She patted the young woman's hand. "I'm sorry, dear. I ramble. Saying nothing. Just a maudlin old woman today. What's our latitude and longitude here? Do you know? We need a little science for ballast."
"44º north, 124º west." Grace smiled.
"Now why in the world would you know that?"
"You forget Bernard."
A vacant look, a dawning. "The sailor," Elizabeth said. "And Tahiti?"
"17º south, 149º west."
"You miss that fellow, don't you?"
Grace shrugged. "He was good company."
They stood quietly as the swish of wave, a bit of white foam, began to run up the beach and surround them.
"If one could truly see," said Elizabeth, "there he'd be on his little boat out riding the big ocean."
"If one could truly see."
"And Ikkyu. Him, too. Wandering the streets, Mori in tow."
"With her shamisen."
"Yes, she must have had one. Was there ever a mention?"
"We'll look again. Perhaps when they were in Sumiyoshi. He was down with dysentery again. Then there was something about earning some money begging on the Taika Bridge; but perhaps it wasn't begging at all. Perhaps it was entertaining. We'll check the kanji."
"We shall. But enough. Let's be home. Crackers and cheese, I think, and some of that Beaujolais you brought down."
"No work this afternoon?"
"Oh, we'll find something to do. Still need a timeline for Iccky. Maybe do that? Or make up a life for our friend, Mori."
"Fiction truer than life."
"Often think life is a fiction."
Hand in hand now, the two women angled across the dry soft sand, trudging to the creekside path that led to the road. Head down, Elizabeth's breathing became labored.
"Ah," she said.
"Rest?" asked Grace, slowing.
"No, no. No matter."
Robin song; in the distance, a barking dog raised the shrill cry of a small child.

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