Sunday, October 19, 2008

Hearn and Lowell

I picked up a copy of Selected Poems by Robert Lowell at one of my favorite used bookstores yesterday. I have been aware of Lowell as a poet for the past ten or twenty years and I am sure I have read some of his poems but nothing has stuck or resonated. Thinking to deepen my exposure and see if I might find something that I like, I leafed through the book and came across a poem that, in passing, references Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was a fascinating individual who was one of the early Westerners to take up residence in Japan in 1890, ultimately becoming a naturalized Japanese citizen. He wrote many books about Japan and in particular Japanese folklore and myths, many of which were pitched towards children. It was an illustrated version of one of his stories which introduced me to Japan as a very young child. Among the titles still in print are Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (Independent Reader), Lafcadio Hearn's Japan: An Anthology of His Writings on the Country and Its People (Young Adult), and The Funny Little Woman (Picture Book).

Here is the poem from Lowell that brought Hearn to mind.

Father's Bedroom

by Robert Lowell

In my Father's bedroom:

blue threads as thin

as pen-writing on the bedspread,

blue dots on the curtains,

a blue kimono,

Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.

The broad-planked floor

had a sandpapered neatness.

The clear glass bed-lamp

with a white doily shade

was still raised a few

inches by resting on volume two

of Lafcadio Hearn's

Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.

Its warped olive cover

was punished like a rhinoceros hide.

In the flyleaf:

"Robbie from Mother."

Years later in the same hand:

"This book has had hard usage

on the Yangtze River, China.

It was left under an open

porthole in a storm."

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