Volcano Pilgrim
Five months in Japan as a wandering poet

On Blueberries

You are volcano man? Satoshi asks. Yes, no. Poetry man. You are like haiku? Yes, very much. I think, Tomoko says very seriously, I think haiku have full of Japanese mind.

And so, with the help of your hosts and a pocket phrasebook, you spend the rest of the evening trying to compose a haiku in Japanese. You have had something in mind, actually, since your first night at the hostel. Basho would sometimes leave poems for his hosts, and you feel it would be a fine tradition to honor.

There is no native Japanese word for blueberry; the hostel’s name is just the English word for the fruit written phonetically, buruuberii. You are thinking of the tiny glass of blueberry juice you were served with dinner last night, how clean and piercing the sweetness, how pleasant it was to have warm dry feet. You are thinking of grapes left to freeze on the vine before pressing into Eiswein. You want to say something with blueberries, how they are all the sweeter because of the cold.

Snow makes the blueberry more sweet? Sugar, says Tomoko. You mean sugar makes blueberry sweeter? No, snow, or cold, what is cold. How to say frost? Shimo. But this is too short for the line.

Hatsushimo, Satoshi suggests, first frost. Japanese, we like first things.

 

     初霜で

            ブルーベリーが

                  甘くなる

 

      Hatsushimo de

            buruuberii ga

                  amakunaru

 

or, literally:

 

      With the first frost

            the blueberry

                  becomes sweet

 

It is the wrong kigo or season word, since blueberries ripen in August long before any frost, but you are not thinking horticulturally. You want to express how welcome you have felt here, how grateful to have a place to get out of the cold and the wind, a place of patience and kindness, a place not to be lost.

It’s a metaphor, you say, and they are baffled but too kind to say so. Maybe the blueberry – like you, a foreign import – doesn’t rate in the poetic company of plums and cherry blossoms. Or maybe what you wanted to be true about Asian poetry, its subtlety and suggestiveness and indirection, was wrong-headed, or simply beyond your power to capture.

You ask Tomoko to inscribe the poem in their guest book, since you can’t make the characters properly. It is thrilling to watch someone write in Japanese, the quick dart and dabble of the pen-point, the series of tiny paintings flowing out. They both seem pleased, and that is something.

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