Chomei at Toyama

By Basil Bunting 1900–1985 Basil Bunting

(Kamo-no-Chomei, born at Kamo 1154, died at Toyama on Mount Hino, 24th June 1216)

Swirl sleeping in the waterfall!
On motionless pools scum appearing   
                     disappearing!

Eaves formal on the zenith,   
lofty city Kyoto,
wealthy, without antiquities!

Housebreakers clamber about,   
builders raising floor upon floor   
at the corner sites, replacing   
gardens by bungalows.

In the town where I was known   
the young men stare at me.   
A few faces I know remain.

Whence comes man at his birth? or where   
does death lead him? Whom do you mourn?   
Whose steps wake your delight?
Dewy hibiscus dries: though dew
outlast the petals.

I have been noting events forty years.

On the twentyseventh May eleven hundred   
and seventyseven, eight p.m., fire broke out   
at the corner of Tomi and Higuchi streets.   
In a night
palace, ministries, university, parliament   
were destroyed. As the wind veered
flames spread out in the shape of an open fan.   
Tongues torn by gusts stretched and leapt.
In the sky clouds of cinders lit red with the blaze.
Some choked, some burned, some barely escaped.   
Sixteen great officials lost houses and
very many poor. A third of the city burned;   
several thousands died; and of beasts,
limitless numbers.

Men are fools to invest in real estate.

Three years less three days later a wind
starting near the outer boulevard
broke a path a quarter mile across
to Sixth Avenue.
Not a house stood. Some were felled whole,
some in splinters; some had left
great beams upright in the ground
and round about
lay rooves scattered where the wind flung them.
Flocks of furniture in the air,
everything flat fluttered like dead leaves.
A dust like fog or smoke,
you could hear nothing for the roar,
                      bufera infernal!
Lamed some, wounded some.   
This cyclone turned southwest.

Massacre without cause.   

Portent?

The same year thunderbolted change of capital,   
fixed here, Kyoto, for ages.
Nothing compelled the change nor was it an easy matter
but the grumbling was disproportionate.   
We moved, those with jobs
or wanting jobs or hangers on of the rest,   
in haste haste fretting to be the first.   
Rooftrees overhanging empty rooms;   
dismounted: floating down the river.   
The soil returned to heath.

I visited the new site narrow and too uneven,
cliffs and marshes, deafening shores, perpetual strong winds;
the palace a logcabin dumped amongst the hills   
(yet not altogether inelegant).
There was no flat place for houses, many vacant lots,   
the former capital wrecked, the new a camp,
and thoughts like clouds changing, frayed by a breath:   
peasants bewailing lost land, newcomers aghast at prices.   
No one in uniform: the crowds
resembled demobilized conscripts.

There were murmurs. Time defined them.   
In the winter the decree was rescinded,   
we returned to Kyoto;
but the houses were gone and none
could afford to rebuild them.

I have heard of a time when kings beneath bark rooves   
watched chimneys.
When smoke was scarce, taxes were remitted.

To appreciate present conditions   
collate them with those of antiquity.

Drought, floods, and a dearth. Two fruitless autumns.   
Empty markets, swarms of beggars. Jewels
sold for a handful of rice. Dead stank
on the curb, lay so thick on
Riverside Drive a car couldnt pass.
The pest bred.
That winter my fuel was the walls of my own house.

Fathers fed their children and died,
babies died sucking the dead.
The priest Hoshi went about marking their foreheads   
A, Amida, their requiem;
he counted them in the East End in the last two months,   
fortythree thousand A’s.

Crack, rush, ye mountains, bury your rills!
Spread your green glass, ocean, over the meadows!
Scream, avalanche, boulders amok, strangle the dale!   
O ships in the sea’s power, O horses
On shifting roads, in the earth’s power, without hoofhold!
This is the earthquake, this was   
the great earthquake of Genryaku!

The chapel fell, the abbey, the minster and the small shrines   
fell, their dust rose and a thunder of houses falling.   
O to be birds and fly or dragons and ride on a cloud!   
The earthquake, the great earthquake of Genryaku!

A child building a mud house against a high wall:   
I saw him crushed suddenly, his eyes hung   
from their orbits like two tassels.
His father howled shamelessly—an officer.   
I was not abashed at his crying.

Such shocks continued three weeks; then lessening,   
but still a score daily as big as an average earthquake;   
then fewer, alternate days, a tertian ague of tremors.   
There is no record of any greater.
It caused a religious revival.
Months ...   
Years ...   
...........
Nobody mentions it now.

This is the unstable world and   
we in it unstable and our houses.

A poor man living amongst the rich
gives no rowdy parties, doesnt sing.
Dare he keep his child at home, keep a dog?   
He dare not pity himself above a whimper.

But he visits, he flatters, he is put in his place,   
he remembers the patch on his trousers.   
His wife and sons despise him for being poor.   
He has no peace.

If he lives in an alley of rotting frame houses
he dreads a fire.
If he commutes he loses his time
and leaves his house daily to be plundered by gunmen.
The bureaucrats are avaricious.
He who has no relatives in the Inland Revenue,   
poor devil!

Whoever helps him enslaves him
and follows him crying out: Gratitude!   
If he wants success he is wretched.   
If he doesnt he passes for mad.

Where shall I settle, what trade choose   
that the mind may practise, the body rest?

My grandmother left me a house
but I was always away
for my health and because I was alone there.
When I was thirty I couldnt stand it any longer,   
I built a house to suit myself:
one bamboo room, you would have thought it a cartshed,   
poor shelter from snow or wind.
It stood on the flood plain. And that quarter
is also flooded with gangsters.

One generation
I saddened myself with idealistic philosophies,
but before I was fifty
I perceived there was no time to lose,
left home and conversation.
Among the cloudy mountains of Ohara
spring and autumn, spring and autumn, spring and autumn,   
emptier than ever.

The dew evaporates from my sixty years,   
I have built my last house, or hovel,   
a hunter’s bivouac, an old
silkworm’s cocoon:
ten feet by ten, seven high: and I,
reckoning it a lodging not a dwelling,   
omitted the usual foundation ceremony.

I have filled the frames with clay,   
set hinges at the corners;
easy to take it down and carry it away
when I get bored with this place.
Two barrowloads of junk
and the cost of a man to shove the barrow,   
no trouble at all.

Since I have trodden Hino mountain
noon has beaten through the awning
over my bamboo balcony, evening
shone on Amida.
I have shelved my books above the window,
lute and mandolin near at hand,
piled bracken and a little straw for bedding,
a smooth desk where the light falls, stove for bramblewood.   
I have gathered stones, fitted
stones for a cistern, laid bamboo
pipes. No woodstack,
wood enough in the thicket.

Toyama, snug in the creepers!
Toyama, deep in the dense gully, open   
westward whence the dead ride out of Eden   
squatting on blue clouds of wistaria.
(Its scent drifts west to Amida.)

Summer? Cuckoo’s Follow, follow—to   
harvest Purgatory hill!
Fall? The nightgrasshopper will
shrill Fickle life!
Snow will thicken on the doorstep,
melt like a drift of sins.
No friend to break silence,
no one will be shocked if I neglect the rite.   
There’s a Lent of commandments kept   
where there’s no way to break them.

A ripple of white water after a boat,   
shining water after the boats Mansami saw   
rowing at daybreak
at Okinoya.
Between the maple leaf and the caneflower   
murmurs the afternoon—Po Lo-tien   
saying goodbye on the verge of Jinyo river.   
(I am playing scales on my mandolin.)
Be limber, my fingers, I am going to play Autumn Wind
to the pines, I am going to play Hastening Brook
to the water. I am no player
but there’s nobody listening,
I do it for my own amusement.

Sixteen and sixty, I and the gamekeeper’s boy,   
one zest and equal, chewing tsubana buds,   
one zest and equal, persimmon, pricklypear,   
ears of sweetcorn pilfered from Valley Farm.

The view from the summit: sky bent over Kyoto,   
picnic villages, Fushimi and Toba:
a very economical way of enjoying yourself.   
Thought runs along the crest, climbs Sumiyama;   
beyond Kasatori it visits the great church,
goes on pilgrimage to Ishiyama (no need to foot it!)   
or the graves of poets, of Semimaru who said:
                      Somehow or other
                      we scuttle through a lifetime.   
                      Somehow or other
                      neither palace nor straw-hut   
                      is quite satisfactory.

Not emptyhanded, with cherryblossom, with red maple   
as the season gives it to decorate my Buddha   
or offer a sprig at a time to chancecomers, home!

A fine moonlit night,
I sit at the window with a headful of old verses.

Whenever a monkey howls there are tears on my cuff.

Those are fireflies that seem   
the fishermen’s lights   
off Maki island.

A shower at dawn   
sings
like the hillbreeze in the leaves.

At the pheasant’s chirr I recall
my father and mother uncertainly.

I rake my ashes.
                         Chattering fire,
soon kindled, soon burned out,   
fit wife for an old man!

Neither closed in one landscape   
nor in one season
the mind moving in illimitable   
recollection.

I came here for a month   
five years ago.
There’s moss on the roof.

And I hear Soanso’s dead   
back in Kyoto.
I have as much room as I need.

I know myself and mankind.   
........
I dont want to be bothered.

(You will make me editor   
of the Imperial Anthology?   
I dont want to be bothered.)

You build for your wife, children,   
cousins and cousins’ cousins.   
You want a house to entertain in.

A man like me can have neither servants nor friends   
in the present state of society.
If I did not build for myself
for whom should I build?

Friends fancy a rich man’s riches,   
friends suck up to a man in high office.
If you keep straight you will have no friends
but catgut and blossom in season.

Servants weigh out their devotion
in proportion to their perquisites   
What do they care for peace and quiet?   
There are more pickings in town.

I sweep my own floor
—less fuss.
I walk; I get tired
but do not have to worry about a horse.

My hands and feet will not loiter   
when I am not looking.
I will not overwork them.
Besides, it’s good for my health.

My jacket’s wistaria flax,   
my blanket hemp,
berries and young greens   
my food.

(Let it be quite understood,
all this is merely personal.
I am not preaching the simple life   
to those who enjoy being rich.)

I am shifting rivermist, not to be trusted.
I do not ask anything extraordinary of myself.   
I like a nap after dinner
and to see the seasons come round in good order.

Hankering, vexation and apathy,   
that’s the run of the world.
Hankering, vexation and apathy,   
keeping a carriage wont cure it.

Keeping a man in livery
wont cure it. Keeping a private fortress   
wont cure it. These things satisfy no craving,   
Hankering, vexation and apathy ...   

I am out of place in the capital,
people take me for a beggar,
as you would be out of place in this sort of life,
you are so          I regret it         so welded to your vulgarity.

The moonshadow merges with darkness   
on the cliffpath,
a tricky turn near ahead.

Oh! There’s nothing to complain about.   
Buddha says: ‘None of the world is good.’   
I am fond of my hut ...   

I have renounced the world;   
have a saintly   
appearance.

I do not enjoy being poor,   
I’ve a passionate nature.   
My tongue
clacked a few prayers.

Basil Bunting, “Chomei at Toyama” from Complete Poems, edited by Richard Caddel. Reprinted with the permission of Bloodaxe Books Ltd., www.bloodaxebooks.com.

Source: Poetry (September 1933).

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

This poem originally appeared in the September 1933 issue of Poetry magazine

View this poem in its original format

September 1933
 Basil  Bunting

Biography

Basil Bunting was born in Scotswood-on-Tyne, Northumberland. Despite numerous years abroad in Italy, the Canary Islands, the United States, and current-day Iran, Bunting is known as a poet of Northern England and is closely associated with Northumberland, where he lived during the last years of his life. Bunting attended a Quaker school and was a conscientious objector during World War I. Arrested for his political views, . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Arts & Sciences, Growing Old, Social Commentaries, Cities & Urban Life, History & Politics, Disappointment & Failure, Living, Architecture & Design, Money & Economics

POET’S REGION England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Modern

Poetic Terms Free Verse

Report a problem with this poem


Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.