Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Leavetaking Moon

Here's an autumn hokku by Bashô.

ferns of memory persist
on the bridge beams--
leavetaking moon

hashiketa no shinobu wa tsuki no nagori kana

"Shinobu" is a popular word on the internet because one of its meanings is "secret"--to write it, you use the Chinese character that is the "nin" of "ninja." This is not a poem about ninja--though there is a theory that Bashô was a ninja--his itinerant lifestyle and innocuous persona would have put him in an ideal position for surreptitious fact-gathering.

"Shinobu" can also suggest a secret tryst. This implication is strengthened by including "tsuki no nagori"-- leavetaking moon. This is the one that is visible at dawn, just when a stealthy lover would be sneaking home, filled with sweet regrets.

However, Bashô wasn't really a lover, any more than he was a ninja. He was far more distinguished as a traveler. "Shinobu" here is used in another way, i.e., playing with its other meanings:

-- to persist or endure
-- to remember.
--a kind of fern. Here is a picture of the fern.

Ferns like plenty of humidity, so it's easy to imagine them growing on the underside of a bridge.

The verse, then, is an expression of the sadness of leaving a friend. The speaker is about to begin his journey by crossing a bridge. He's starting out before the sun has even risen. As he approaches the bridge, he can just about make out the shape of the beams underneath it. There, drawing moisture from the water below, are shinobu ferns. The name of the ferns reminds him that he can endure the sorrow of parting and of the loneliness of the road ahead on the other side of the bridge. His memories will also endure, as secure as the ferns quietly rooted to the strong beams of the bridge.

I like the way that in English, "beams" calls to mind both the bridge and the light of the moon. I imagine this bridge being curved like the leavetaking moon, and faintly silvery in the gray dimness of dawn.

For Lynn. A safe journey.