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Snow Bones by Masaya Saito (Isobar Press)

Snow Bones by Masaya Saito (Isobar Press)

The opening statement in this beautifully produced book from Isobar Press defines the title for us:

‘SNOW BONES: remnants of snow after a thaw; patches of snow seen stretching along ridges, in ruts, or in furrows, etc., after a partial thaw.’

The images that haunt these delicate insights into grief and certainty are often skeletons and often air; they are memories like ‘my footprints / each one, deep’ and they are gifts for a future as the poet records his mother’s cremation:

‘Out of the furnace

the bones still
preserve her shape’

The ownership of the dead is subtly nuanced throughout the history of Japan and the American scholar William R. LaFleur suggested that this is evidenced by the continuing practice of giving bodily residue, usually in the form of ash and/or very fine bones, to immediate family members for safe-keeping in one place or another:

‘Residue of the deceased sits on a home or temple altar’.

Saigyō, one of the major influences on Bashō, undertook a journey to the northeast of Japan in 1147 and paused at the grave of Sanekata, an exiled poet. In a 1982 translation we can read Saigyō’s words:

‘While in the province of Mutsu I came across an unusual looking grave-mound. I asked whose it was and was told that it belonged to a middle-captain of the palace guard. When I persisted in inquiring exactly who this person might have been, I was informed that it was Fujiwara Sanekata, and I was deeply saddened. Even before learning the details, I had sensed the pathos in this scene of frost-shrivelled pampas grass—so fragile it was almost invisible. Later in trying to express my feelings, adequate words were almost unavailable:

One part of him
escaped decay—his name
still around here like
this field’s withered grass:
my view of the relic he left.

The last of Saito’s four narrative sequences in Snow Bones focuses upon the death and burial of his father complementing the first sequence which recorded that of his mother:

‘Footprints
across the snowfield

my dead father’s’

These poems are not lamentations of stasis but delicate records of movement and as the poet prepares to leave that landscape in which much of his past resides he says, simply

‘In the snow country
my parents gone

a pendulum swinging’

The pendulum, hanging weight of a clock, was one of the first things Saito had noted as he stepped over the threshold in the first section:

‘The old house

tick
of a pendulum’

That steady record of time’s movement is a gesture to the future and as the son takes down the ‘thatch snowshield’ of the house in which his father still lives, ‘the house breathes’. The poet also looks through the window to see his father hoeing,

‘darker and darker’

This volume of poems in which the print on the white page appears like footsteps in snow is dedicated ‘for my parents’ and the prologue suggests a type of humility as the poet stands

‘A cold sunset

on the cliff, me
without wings’

The humility bears with it a sense of deep respect which is felt not only with ‘A visit to a grave’ from the last section but also with

‘a candle flame
shielded with my hand’

The pendulum will of course stop and the candle will of course burn out but the concluding words to this powerful and personal rendering of sorrow and loss suggest that whereas a beginning may feel like being ‘without wings’ a journeying involves

‘Driving away

in the rear-view mirror
a cold sunset’

In his ‘Knapsack Notebook’ of 1687 Bashō contemplated himself in a description:

‘A hundred bones, nine orifices, and something inside. This provisional thing is called “In-the-Wind-Flapping-Priest”. With the slightest hint of wind it gets moved and makes sounds. This something in me started mouthing haikai a long time ago and that has turned out to be the preoccupation of a lifetime.’

On the back of this new publication from Paul Rossiter’s Isobar Press, Jim Kacian writes:

‘Those who know his work have been waiting patiently for more from Masaya Saito, and now, some thirty-four years after his slender and beautiful volume Ash, we are finally rewarded. Snow Bones is an altogether more ambitious work, with an intricate structure and a broader palette, but reveals the same intensity and attention to detail we would expect from this poet. The wait has been worth it’.

Ian Brinton 13th September 2016

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