marlene mountain
haibun (prose mixed with haiku)
late 1970

shy impressions of a knee-worn traveler

Eyes have never seemed so strange as these of the Tokyo bartender we're staring into. The startled, almost defensive look we're receiving rather makes me want to get out, fly back to the unshy eyes of the 'red necks' we've just left. Yet inside this tiny snack bar is where we are, where we are beginning. How do you begin? I guess you really don't . . . though this cup of badly-pronounced sake surely must, at its tiny bottom, have a word or two of grace. Yet such an uncomfortable silence while we just sit, over-wiping our hands with the hot towels, and occasionally whispering to each other, 'Say something in Japanese.'

As we're sipping the second cup, I'm suddenly hearing myself blurt out konnichi wa. Later of course we laugh remembering the word means good afternoon instead of good evening. But it must be one of 'those' words for instantly all the staring eyes are shifting from defensiveness and shyness to interest, and even to amusement and laughter.

   talking about Basho
      with a bartender.


In our country, whom do you talk with about poets and painters? Bank clerks? Taxi drivers? Bartenders? Don't answer. Admittedly, half of our tiny vocabulary is just pure name dropping: Buson, Shiki, Sesshu, Issa, and luckily tonight--Basho. Everyone seems to know his name. So with the aid of our dictionary, these paper napkins full of my upside-down, backward attempts at kanji, the name Basho, and an unnamed, uncolored, unidentified frog--we are actually conversing in Nippon-go, even if it's only sukoshi.

Second evening
   in Japan--eating sakana:

Slowly, unsnapping the dark window curtains, I begin to remember how, as a child, I always awoke with just these feelings: sleepy excitement, mystery, anticipation. Now, peering out of the train so early this morning, I can only stare.

First dawn
   in Japan:

Over there
   somewhere . . . mountains
      in the mist.

Spending a summer here is like nothing else. Living in a large city where only a few speak our so-called 'universal' language and trying to find a house, a used refrigerator, steak knives, bobby pins, and the price of eggs is like . . . well, just like I said. Now, stalking the store, row by row, looking for such obscure and crazy things as pickles, cream cheese, maple syrup and cornmeal . . . is this bag full of sugar, or salt? Gads, I forgot my dictionary again!

On my shopping list
      but on boxes and cans . . .

Walking down the busy street, stopping occasionally to peer into glass cases at the mock-ups (pre-pop art, I think) of noodles, raw fish, octopus legs, and ice cream sodas, we're suddenly overcome with the desire for a hamburger. This place? No. Here? No. Surely here. Wiping our hands and faces with the warm towels, we admire the flowers and pretend people aren't watching us.

   at the menu:
      kanji, kana, and yen.

At two I arrive at the home of a slightly stooped lady. I'm told she's a flower master, and as I watch her slim fingers tuck strange stems into empty spaces I can almost feel the life of each plant. On bended knees I bow to the flowers and to her. My friend is saying the teacher wants me to try it. My face must be bright red as my fingers fumble the simplest movements.

She watches me, smiling warmly, then returns to the shaded corner to wait until she's needed. I'm trying, but the flowers fall as soon as I place them. I shift from one knee position to another and I'm very warm. It's raining outside as each hour goes by. I give up. I shyly call sensei, and she comes on worn knees, gently pushing, shifting and leaning the flowers into a delicate unit. Mumbling, I manage to say, arigato gozaimusu. Slowly, one by one, I remove each flower, hoping to learn something in reverse.

   flower arrangement
. . .
       the rainy season.


Sweeping the tatami
   our new maid
      practices her English.

   eyeing my weedy garden--
      the heat.

Holiday fishing--
   the boatsman nods
      in the heat.

In the heat
   my neighbor
      waters his garden rocks.

Haiku Magazine 4:4 1971 Canada

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