Thinking of home

Last Thursday night, I watched on live television as wave after wave assaulted the shores of my homeland, houses on fire rolling on a black crest of water across farmland, engulfing cars, vans, and trucks fleeing before the tsunami. I watched people die that night, helpless and powerless, transfixed by a TV screen thousands of miles away.

Since the Great Tohoku Earthquake & Tsunami struck Japan last week, little else has been on my mind, and I return time and again to memories of the 15 years I spent there from birth through adolescence. I have vague memories of taking a boat ride among strange islands of greenery overhanging wave-carved stone. My father tells me that was Sendai, nearly 30 years ago. I wonder what they look like now.

Sapporo, 1977

Here I am circa 1977 in Hokkaido, ensconced in a tokonoma, lined up with a carved Ainu bear, iron kettle, water jug, and a sock monkey made for me by my great-grandmother.

Surface archaeology on the streets of Dublin

“The farther one travels, the less one knows.” – Laozi (Lao-Tsu) in Tao Te Ching

Last time I visited Dublin, two and a half years ago, I barely looked up from the literary past as I followed the footsteps of Yeats, Joyce, and Shaw. Evidence of the country’s turbulent history is everywhere in Dublin, but the capitol of the Republic of Ireland is not some sort of ossified open-air museum content to obsess over its own past. What struck me this time, though, was just how modern Dublin is on the surface while still not diminishing its connection to history.

Royal College of Surgeons & Luas

My photo above captures this perfectly, I think. A Luas tram stands at the St. Stephen’s Green station in front of the Royal College of Surgeons, its columns riddled with bullet holes from the 1916 Easter Rising (though they’re hard to see in the picture at this size).

This theme repeats itself across the city — generally as a wonderful synthesis of old and new, but occasionally in a jarring juxtaposition. Like this McDonald’s on the first floor of a Georgian building.

McDonald's - Dublin

Nevertheless, I love Dublin for its many layers. I know I’ve only brushed a few grains from the visible surface, picking up a few stray artifacts along the way, and there are still stories from thousands of years left to discover — both in the past and in the future.

Traveling (through the Dark) from Portland to Tillamook with William Stafford

To get to Tillamook, Oregon, head west from Portland and veer left onto Oregon Route 6. The next 50 miles are a winding, sometimes steep road that takes you up and over the Coast Range, through parts of the Tillamook Burn, following the Wilson River down into a valley full of dairy farms that supply the famous creamery. My relatives have lived in Tillamook for as long as I’ve been visiting them (more than 30 years now), and I’ve traveled this route more times than I can count.

I first fell in love with William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” when I read it in college. One of the most frequently taught and anthologized of his poems, I’m sure this poem was the first encounter with Stafford that thousands of other aspiring critics and poets had since its publication in 1962.

I may analyze poetry I read to pick up techniques and hone my craft, but the poems I love are frequently those with which I feel a more personal connection. (There are also hundreds of analyses of the poem online, so I won’t do so here.) Even though I liked “Traveling through the Dark” quite a lot, it didn’t become a favorite until I made that personal connection.

Reading You Must Revise Your Life just a few years ago, I learned that an experience on the same road between Portland and Tillamook that I’d traveled so many times had inspired Stafford to write the poem.

Rationally, I object to either the poet’s intent or biography influencing the value I place on a poem. It also seems downright silly that my “Oh, oh! I’ve been there!” reaction would influence my affection for a poem.

Nevertheless, the simple fact of shared experience with the poet makes William Stafford’s “Traveling through the Dark” one of my most beloved poems.

Houses of the Holy

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-FieldsMy last day in England, I embarked upon a pilgrimage.

I took the Tube from Russell Square to Leicester Square, transferred to the Northern Line for one stop going south, and entered Trafalgar Square from Charing Cross.

Two nights earlier, I’d walked down in the dark, emerging between St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the National Gallery at dusk, tossed unfamiliar coins in the great glass box and raced through the echoing halls until the docents herded me out with the tourists plodding at the end of their day and the young artists squeezing in one last brushstroke.

Friday morning, the sun glared off the marble. I walked down Whitehall past the Houses of Parliament, where I lingered in the shade behind the Jewel Tower.

Cloister - Westminster AbbeyI’d allotted just an hour or two for Westminster Abbey. I stepped through the door and picked up my audio guide, briefly considering the Japanese version, but allowed myself to be swayed toward English by the promise of “Oscar-winning actor Jeremy Irons” narrating the tour.

From number to number, I stepped clockwise through the hulking medieval architecture, past the gaudy tombs of the forgotten rich. I marveled at the twisted lid of King Henry V’s sarcophagus, lying as though discarded in the gloom behind the Coronation Chair.

Eventually, I turned into Poets’ Corner.

I hadn’t been inside a church in years, and the rest of Westminster Abbey certainly didn’t feel very ecclesiastical, despite the pause for prayer at noon. From a line of chairs facing away from the tombs, a little girl banged on the seat beside her and shouted at her brother, 「日本人はここに座るんだよ!」 I considered ascertaining what other unique cultural contrasts she’d been learning on her Grand Tour, but thought better of it.

Jeremy Irons trailed off in my headset, so I fumbled in my bag for my iPod. I looked up and Handel’s memorial caught my eye. “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs” from Messiah followed me as I jotted in my Moleskine the names of my favorite writers buried there — Thomas Hardy, Ben Jonson (buried upright), Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer (“Galfridus Chaucer”).

Turning around at Chaucer’s tomb, I looked down to see a black slab inscribed with the name THOMAS STEARNS ELIOT and the epitaph “The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.” I stood there and listened to Eliot’s own reading of “The Waste Land.” I must have looked odd, staring for 25 minutes at that slab, but on their rush through this less-than-spectacular section of the sprawling abbey, nobody else lingered long enough to notice.

Amid the swirl of tour groups and the silent tombs of my dead gods, the 30 minutes I spent in Poets’ Corner were the most numinous of my life.

Double-checking my facts as I write this now, fifteen months later, I’m instead embarrassed to find that the slab was merely a memorial. Eliot’s ashes are actually buried in East Coker, Somerset — more than a hundred miles west.

Sometimes, even false assumptions can lead to important moments that linger and inspire.