Edith Shiffert has lived in Kyoto, writing poetry and teaching English, since 1963. Long-time readers of Kyoto Journal may remember an interview with her in the first issue, over twenty years ago, and occasional publication of new poems in more recent years. She has published some twenty books of poetry, including both translations (Haiku Master Buson, White Pine Press) and her own poetry.
She has now "retired to the mountains" and is living in Carehouse Yamabiko ("Mountain Echo") in Ohara, to the northeast of Kyoto, where despite failing eyesight, a right hand crippled by arthritis, and other physical limitations, she still writes and enjoys poetry, in her early nineties.
The hillsides and the changing seasons, the small animals and birds, the flowers and mists continue to inspire her, despite the knowledge that she can no longer hike into the hills, follow a stream or a path and find something unexpected.
The whole landscape goes
and then breaks through from the mists
pouring down Mt. Hiei
In all directions
small mountains hiding the view
while being the view
When she came to Kyoto, to teach literature and English language at Doshisha University, she had no idea she would still be in Kyoto forty-five years later. It might well have been a shorter sojourn, like those in the wilds of Alaska with her first husband, or later in Hawaii, when going back to the mainland was made difficult by World War II.
After coming to Kyoto, she lived in the precincts of a Zen temple, Myoshinji, although she did not necessarily follow the monastic routine: somehow she felt that being, or identifying herself as "a Buddhist" would be too confining. "I felt my poetry was religious but I had no religion." She was fascinated by the connection between individuals and nature, particularly as symbolized in the lotus: rooted in mud, yet growing upward through the water to emerge into clear air.
Those flower petals
from roots in earth, stems in light
Self too roots and lifts
Some of her poems reflect the life of the temple and the monks and priests who lived there. Later, when she moved into an apartment of her own, she wrote about her neighborhood and her neighbors in very simple, everyday terms. She has continued to write about flowers and birds in the passing seasons; indeed several of her books are organized by month and season.
Praying for the Flowers
To ease the spirit of the flowers
young children with golden ornaments on their heads,
in pink and green gauzes over red and violet,
with tulips, carnations and irises in their arms,
circle in the great hall
far under the ceiling's painted dragon,
past the high Buddhist altar
where the lacquer trays hold rice cakes and oranges.
They follow after the abbot's russet brocades
and between priests in light and dark purples
circling as they chant a sutra
for the spirit of the flowers
for the brevity of their springtime,
fallen petals like the silk
banners hung from the high log beams of the open walls
over the children so soon gone
and their glad parents watching,
and the hums of the chanters and the sound of gongs
lost just a short distance
beyond the enclosing square of the polished veranda,
to be gone like the fragrant incense smoke
between the open branches of pine trees.
She has experimented with many forms of poetry, and with using the Japanese haiku as a base for longer poems — although she is reluctant to use the term "haiku" to refer to them: she prefers the term "short verse." A recurring theme in her poetry is oneness of the individual and nature. She has always wanted to write true to reality, actual experience, a place, a feeling.
A way to pure joy
is in the morning sunlight's hiyo bird
chanting from the swaying top of a tall bamboo.
Glimpsed between the other swaying fronds and blue sky
beyond the yellowed blades of leaves,
he calls. I answer. He answers back.
Again and again until whether it is his sounds or mine is gone
and I am bird, sunlight, long swaying fronds.
What would she like most now? "To walk in the hills freely again, to have a cat greet me on my return, to converse with friends."
Edith welcomes visitors, especially those who come ready to listen to her poems or (if you dare) share a few of your own. Ohara has its own atmosphere, which has crept into her life: she sees the pine-clad steep-sided hills (the foothills of Mts. Hiei and Hira) as possibly the abode of ancient spirits. Is this the influence of her studies into Asian shamanism? Or of her experiences in Hawaii, also a rich lode of tradition and spirits? Read some of her poems to her, and listen, and enter another world, connecting to generations past and spanning oceans.
the day-end bell is struck
and the low rays of the sun
flow blindingly between the autumn's scarlet leaves
while the hiyo birds screech with joy and excitement
as the bell sounds again, again.
with November leaves, its bell
at sunset loud, loud! Clear, clear!
Article by Jane Wieman
Based on interviews and recordings from May 27 to Sept. 28, 2007 with Edith Shiffert at Carehouse Yamabiko and Ohara Kinen Byoin. Originally published in KJ#70 (Kyoto Lives), Fall 2008 http://kyotojournal.org
Haiku from "Yamabiko: Mountain Echo" haibun in The Unswept Path; Contemporary American Haiku, White Pine Press, 2006;
"Praying for the Flowers" from The Kyoto Years, 1971;
"A Way" and "Sunset" from In the Ninth Decade, 1999.