Ancestral Voices: Masaoka Shiki’s Tanka

May 2001

WHC Celebrations: “Ancestral Voices”

Centenary of the Death of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

 Ancestral Voices: Masaoka Shiki’s Tanka
Pamela Ness Miller

Masaoka Shiki, known for his reform of both the haiku and the tanka in early twentieth century Japan, lived from 1867 – 1902. He adopted his pseudonym, Shiki, referring to a legend of a cuckoo that sings until it spits blood, when he too spat blood every night for a week in May of 1889.  Diagnosed at the age of 21 with spinal tuberculosis, he lived another 14 years in a state of continual physical deterioration and agonizing pain. In 1901, bedridden in the last stages of his illness, he began the first of three sickbed diaries which were published in installments in the daily newspaper, Nihon. In the words of his biographer, Janine Beichman, writing became a “symbolic act of self-preservation.” Out of the 2, 500 tanka he composed in his short life, the following six are from the May 4th entry of his 1901 diary entitled “A Drop of Ink.” Translations are by Beichman.

The wall iris
opens its buds
before my eyes
this year’s spring
begins to fade

Thinking how soon
all in this world passes
I loved
the yellow roses
that now have scattered

I dream
of making a trellis
for moonflowers to climb
but will this, my life
wait until autumn?

The crimson roses
have come into bud
omen of the time
when my illness
will grow worse

The green
of the young pine seedlings…
as the long day
succumbs to night
my fever rises

I do not know
the day my pain will end
yet in the little garden
I had them plant
seeds for autumn flowers

Journal entry:  Wednesday, March 25, 1998. 10:30 a.m., clear, sunny, bird call. “A new day, a routine call…the news from mother in a dispassionate tone: something on the x-ray, a nodule on the CT scan, a broncoscopy tomorrow. Must pick a surgeon, could be nothing, worse case: cancer. so calm — both she and I.”

The following tanka sequence, in progress, was written over a three-year period beginning Easter Sunday, 12 April 1998, three weeks after my mother’s phone call.

A Thousand Paper Cranes

Easter again
cherry blossoms in bloom
and you
in your garden waiting
for tomorrow’s biopsy

After the diagnosis
the taste
of bite after bite of this
buttered bread
lungs laced with tumor

you do not
(this august) flap elbows
in imitation of the gulls
Her shrunken breasts ~ the heat
that day I wanted Earth to stand still

Folding the first
of a thousand paper cranes
this new year
her cancer
has returned

Pamela Ness Miller
HSA Meeting
Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA
17 March 2001

A reading given by Pamela Ness Miller at the March 17, 2001 HSA meeting, Las Cruces, New Mexico; Shiki’s tanka and a personal diary excerpt with tanka of  Pamela Ness Miller. 


This entry was posted in Shiki, Tanka, Vol 1-1 May 2001 and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Ancestral Voices: Masaoka Shiki’s Tanka

  1. Thank you and blessings, Ellen

  2. veengupta says:

    The human spirit copes with realities which are almost impossible…
    but, have to be accepted and dealt with.
    Nature helps to strengthen us with it’s beauty.

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