Nine Views of Mount Fuji
Fuji's perfect outline points heavenward
near the river's mouth.
The firm peak in the tan sky
paints across the lake an odd reflection,
with dirt draped in snow
rather than brown land almost up to the top.
Perhaps the elder pedagogue of Edo
is making a subtle point.
The old boatman of Kai
rowing to the tranquil village there
And the middle-aged Buddhist
who once pined for youthful times
Endorse this bitter truth:
Seen on reflection, things are often changed.
Summer at midday.
The deck of a tea house on the warm road to Kyoto
is almost full of men and women.
Two brusque men work on their master's carriage.
Two others pause for a nap.
A courtesan demands her favourite drink,
adding quite haughtily
"That you are tired does not matter to us."
Only one heeds with kind regard
the voluptuous plain,
Mount Fuji on the horizon,
the cities beyond.
A group which imitates the leaders
of certain nations today.
The gifted artist devoted this panel to a scene
that evokes the refined tea-house tableau
but is, we deduce with careful study,
almost the opposite.
The building is bigger, grander:
not a house of commerce and commotion
but a noiseless temple of silent sanctuary.
Nearly everyone is staring at the fine view of Fuji.
The small girl, her view of the vista blocked,
ponders the old riddle:
If a peak dwells in the distance
but is hidden, does it exist?
Footsteps go east.
Two sufferers, a weatherman and his wife,
hunker down to run through hueless snow
on the dead, lifeless, ice-bound turf
back to their little hut on the dew-fogged top
of Edo's storied mount.
Inside, a buttercup flower
in a kettle on a naked table:
the third thing in danger
of being dead before the cherry blossoms break.
Death before dishonor is their shared motto.
(If politicians followed that rule
only about seventeen
would remain breathing today.)
Gray-tinted clouds befogging the base
are fouled with piercing zigzags of pure white
as heavy rain runs down slopes to the basin below.
The peak tries hard to stay unspoilt,
but it may or may not;
The mountain does not speculate,
nor the awful deluge.
Hidden from view,
a wealthy samurai bows his head,
rebukes in gruff tones
the rough path his feet walk upon
then thinks a while.
The round ruddy sun sets,
painting his mountain's profile fiery red.
A large conifer claims its dominance
in the center of this oddly phallic vista.
Below, curious men attempt to measure its girth,
encircling its woody body beneath
the dense timber and rugged matter,
even as protruding pine needles and offshoots
scratch and hurt them.
Up there in the heated canopy
blue birds live with the quail
in nests made of new shoots;
Chaos, pain, weapons, or mythological dragons are not found.
While at the severe woodland's leafy bottom,
everything is weighty.
The tired fisherman perches there
on the cramped rock, holding four lines
in the turgid updraft of water
that lashes and breaks unto the shore.
A small figure (son or daughter, perhaps)
holds a basket of surf clams, tuna, damp cereals:
their nutriment for the coming days of heavy work
with plow and web and cogged wheel.
So in accord with nature are the widower and kid
they fail to notice how often their tableau
imitates that renowned formation,
Going west on Tokaido Road
seven humpbacked travelers are beset
with a sudden gust of wind
that sweeps down the highway,
scattering papers here and there
under gray leaves which fly through the air like dead fowls.
Outwitted and confused by
the drama of streams and currents taking place there
no one even notices this:
The papers that hold the weighty writings of
The Great Teacher,
once believed to be so great and essential,
are blank as the face of Fuji.
Pinnacles are rarely reached easily.
Ever since the master drew this classic water scene,
all waves are expressed
(knowingly or not)
by how they match
its rugged nucleus of foam and fluid.
Mad men in miniature schooners go by,
Heaved on fat swells high up in the air
then (ebb inevitably pursuing flow) earthward.
Shipmates cast off dire hopes.
Quiet pervades the peak.
As dusk falls like a knitted blanket
we apprehend Fuji's rueful theme:
Summits easily reached rarely are pinnacles.
Notes on the constraints:
The construction of these nine stanzas is based on a number of simultaneous constraints. Each stanza is, obviously, connected thematically to one of Hokusai's famous Views of Mt. Fuji. In addition, hidden within the 729 words of the whole poem are several artifacts relevant to their subject which can be revealed by following this recipe:
(1) Arrange the 81 words of each stanza in a 9x9 square by writing the words of the stanza, one word per location, across the first row, second row, an so forth of the 9x9 square.
(2) Associate with each square a 9x9 grid of numbers (D). Each cell in the grid gets the number "1" if the sum of the letter values (using A=1, B=2, C=3 etc.) in the corresponding word of the square is exactly divisible by 9, "0" otherwise.
(3) Make another grid, L, with a "1" in each cell if the corresponding word has exactly 9 letters, "0" otherwise.
(4) Stack the nine D grids vertically to make a 9x9x9 cube; same for L.
(5) Imagine Cube D and Cube L as a physical object made of 729 small cubes. Make each small cube labelled "1" transparent, the 0's opaque.
(6) Shine four beams of light on the two cubes as shown in the following picture, and observe the shadows.
The red, green, white, and blue shadows coalesce into four Japanese Kanji characters pertinent to our text: fire, mountain, wealth ("fu"), and samurai ("ji"). The first two combined make the compound Kanji symbol for volcano, the last two combined make the proper name Fuji.
As a final constraint, the poem was also required to be a text that can be formed by rearranging the 3,345 letters in the excerpt below from Lafcadio Hearn's 1889 essay "Fuji-no-yama." Hearn's tale informs our fourth stanza as well.
Squatting by the wood fire, I listen to the goriki and the station-keeper telling of strange happenings on the mountain. One incident discussed I remember reading something about in a Tokyo paper: I now hear it retold by the lips of a man who figured in it as a hero.
A Japanese meteorologist named Nonaka attempted last year the rash undertaking of passing the winter on the summit of Fuji for purposes of scientific study. It might not be difficult to winter upon the peak in a solid observatory furnished with a good stove, and all necessary comforts; but Nonaka could afford only a small wooden hut, in which he would be obliged to spend the cold season without fire! His young wife insisted on sharing his labors and dangers. The couple began their sojourn on the summit toward the close of September. In mid-winter news was brought to Gotemba that both were dying.
Relatives and friends tried to organize a rescue-party. But the weather was frightful; the peak was covered with snow and ice; the chances of death were innumerable; and the goriki would not risk their lives. Hundreds of dollars could not tempt them. At last a desperate appeal was made to them as representatives of Japanese courage and hardihood: they were assured that to suffer a man of science to perish, without making even one plucky effort to save him, would disgrace the country;—they were told that the national honor was in their hands. This appeal brought forward two volunteers. One was a man of great strength and daring, nicknamed by his fellow-guides Oni-guma, "the Demon-Bear," the other was the elder of my goriki. Both believed that they were going to certain destruction. They took leave of their friends and kindred, and drank with their families the farewell cup of water—midzu-no-sakazuki—in which those about to be separated by death pledge each other. Then, after having thickly wrapped themselves in cotton-wool, and made all possible preparation for ice-climbing, they started—taking with them a brave army-surgeon who had offered his services, without fee, for the rescue. After surmounting extraordinary difficulties, the party reached the hut; but the inmates refused to open! Nonaka protested that he would rather die than face the shame of failure in his undertaking; and his wife said that she had resolved to die with her husband.
Partly by forcible, and partly by gentle means, the pair were restored to a better state of mind. The surgeon administered medicines and cordials; the patients, carefully wrapped up, were strapped to the backs of the guides; and the descent was begun. My goriki, who carried the lady, believes that the gods helped him on the ice-slopes. More than once, all thought themselves lost; but they reached the foot of the mountain without one serious mishap. After weeks of careful nursing, the rash young couple were pronounced out of danger. The wife suffered less, and recovered more quickly, than the husband.
The goriki have cautioned me not to venture outside during the night without calling them. They will not tell me why; and their warning is peculiarly uncanny. From previous experiences during Japanese travel, I surmise that the danger implied is supernatural; but I feel that it would be useless to ask questions.
The door is closed and barred. I lie down between the guides, who are asleep in a moment, as I can tell by their heavy breathing. I cannot sleep immediately;—perhaps the fatigues and the surprises of the day have made me somewhat nervous. I look up at the rafters of the black roof—at packages of sandals, bundles of wood, bundles of many indistinguishable kinds there stowed away or suspended, and making queer shadows in the lamplight. . . . It is terribly cold, even under my three quilts; and the sound of the wind outside is wonderfully like the sound of great surf—a constant succession of bursting roars, each followed by a prolonged hiss. The hut, half buried under tons of rock and drift, does not move; but the sand does, and trickles down between the rafters; and small stones also move after each fierce gust, with a rattling just like the clatter of shingle in the pull of a retreating wave.
Mike Keith is a freelance software engineer. Since the 1970s he has enjoyed occasional attempts at constrained writing in the mode of Oulipo, usually preferring the use of multiple simultaneous constraints. Some more writings in this vein can be found on www.cadaeic.net.