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Archive: American Haibun & Haiga Volume 2

[Return to Author List, Vol 2 ]

Jesse Glass


Unsen’s Stone

Here is the stone he came to day after day 121 years ago.

Every day I climb the stone steps to sit here, too, on the flat table of igneous rock. Equidistant from the mountains and the sea, half way through my life.

just born,
my new son
equidistant, too:

The blue mark at the base of his spine, the epicanthic folds of his  eyes mark him as Japanese. Yet he has my hair and my father’s hands. He was born just a few miles down the road in Ai no Machi (“Love Town”) Hospital. Now he’s trying out the first few days of life in this town of Chigiwa (“Thousand Thousand Stones”), built so close to a volcano that grandmother Kazuchan must dust ash off the wash before she brings it in.

Unsen practiced his art on this stone.

Day after day he came to sit here as I sit here. Day after day.

Practicing patience. Practicing patience.

Practicing patience. Practicing patience.

Day after day.

First he would find white sea sand at Chigiwa beach and bring it in a basket.

Then he would spread the sand over the flat, pitted surface of the stone, and squat above it, a summer robe pulled over his shoulders, his brown feet naked, toes splayed. With the handle of an old writing brush the boy began to practice patience as a dancer might: tracing gestures day after day in the sand. The gnats landed, sipped sweat; flies circled, landed, circled again, landed again. He hunkered down in the heat, face luminous  with sweat, barely seeing anything except the vision of distant China he wished to draw on the stone. Practicing perfection as a dancer might, day after day. I feel the shadow of his effort here.

Even as I sit in the afternoon heat, the cicadas electric in the trees, my young wife lifts my son to her breast.

An old man in a boat, a mountain wrapped in clouds, a bird on a bent branch. He drew them in the sand, then as a diviner   might appraise the coins, he stood, stretched his legs and back, worked the rotor cuffs in each shoulder, rolled his neck, then looked for twenty breaths at what he did. Swept it smooth again with a piece of bamboo. Practicing perfection.

How many choices
to get here. How
many troubled nights
to arrive at this spot?

All day the oppressive heat. My small boy sleeps with tiny hands in fists.

Black and gray moss and lichen covered shatterings of rock line the hillside path. Ferns–yellow-green, shimmering, shivering, moving every way at once in concert with the wind. Jungle crows loud in the upper branches of the trees: a twig spinning as it falls.

From Unsen’s stone I see the rust colored, gullwing roofed Chigiwa Shrine. Inside, the ancient drum painted with red & black sunsigns, the mirror like a silver eye clouded by the coming storm.

pruned branches
propped on boards
behind the shrine

stone lanterns
frame late summer light

Against the sky
electric towers
stalk across
the gray green mountain tops

My wife’s people have lived here for centuries. Generations are buried in green mountain shade. We clean the old stones on New Year’s Day and O-Bon and burn three sticks of incense before each mossy heft of silence. Mosquitoes rise like hungry ghosts till burning hizakaki shiba leaves drive them away.

Behind me, where I sit, a granite column for the Nagasaki dead

black cat steps out
steps back in

Z-shaped, paper lightning bolts flutter from straw ropes.

Clouds roll in from the bay. The air freshens. Jungle crows fly low, land in the bamboo grove, grunt and squeak. The straw bearded shrine keeper in blue robe and white tabi socks is nowhere to be seen. Here he comes—startled to see me in this deserted place.    Last year he arranged an “omiai” with my wife’s oldest sister, but   she rejected his proposal. Now the once friendly bachelor seeks counsel from the stone lions, stares once or twice about him, and pushes the massive doors shut.

rattles, crashes,
yet one cricket sings

Grandfather Take keeps the television on the weather station. Kazuchan brings fat apple slices on a plate, a long toothpick stuck in each one. Maya comes, sleepy eyed, from the other room with the new one in her arms. He grasps my finger, works his mouth in silence, eyes barely open. Take farts with an impassive, buddha’s face; the women, intent on what they do, do not appear to notice. Then he rises from his easy chair to make a slow inspection of every rattling window.

After the typhoon
the drenched paper prayers
still cling to black branches

The horse, standing in the flooded rice field, unsettles his reflection with a cough

washed black & gray & purple,
leaves scattered across Unsen’s Stone,
dead evergreen needles

a powdering of lichens
the color of an aging beauty’s

Kushiro Unsen (1759–Nov. 16th, 1811) learned Chinese brush painting from Nagasaki merchants, where his father worked counting bundles. Difficult man who lived with his wife at the edge of poverty. None of his paintings sold. To forget his debts he played Go, drank to excess, quarreled with everyone. Yet he was a true friend to several. Buried near the Zen saint Ryokan, with whom he drank. No children but seventy scrolls remain.

Two come walking on fallen leaves, throw coins. leashed dog cocks a leg against the gray stone cistern. pull the bell rope. (scatter the cuckoos). clap hands. pray for (no)thing, pray for (every)thing. Setting sun throws long-legged shadows of man, woman, laughing dog.

pools of rain water
at sunset

I rise, dust off my pants. Through the ancient groves I see the lights of Chigiwa. Above the lion roar of distant waves the sound of muffled traffic on its way to Shimabara, or, in the opposite direction, Isahaya. What will the future bring us? My vigil continues, even as I lie down on the futon next to my wife and son, the sound of tree frogs almost deafening. In dreams Unsen’s stone becomes the world, masterworks of shadow glyph its surface, there a mountain, here an old man in a boat, none will ever be erased, it seems, but abide there in most perfect form.

far off–a young boy’s laughter

My language the smallest
bamboo ladle, now set
aside, still wet

Squid boats head out on Chigiwa bay, beacons on bow and stern.

Ghost, if you
see Buddha,
tell the butterfly.


Hazakaki shiba–evergreen leaves, sacred to the Japanese.

Take–pronounced as two syllables—“tock-ay”.

[Return to Author List, Vol 2 ]


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