Things That Give You Pleasure – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 22 – Part Two of Two – Canadian Poet Yvonne Blomer Features the 10th Century Japanese Female Author of The Pillow Book, Sei Shōnagon

The Pillow Book by 10th Century Japanese Poet Sei Shōnagon

Yesterday it was a cold, crisp and sunny day on the West coast of Canada. As the day warmed, the garden steamed in sunlight, thick frost warming to dew and mist. No rain for weeks. Birds gather seeds all day in a frenzy and a few have flown into the bright kitchen window. We took an evening walk, and the moon shone bright amongst the Gary Oaks. My breath was nearly showing, but not quite yet. Still, in our neighborhood park rhododendrons are blooming, a few Red hot pokers from the summer linger and glow in the dark night.

Yvonne Blomer, previously unpublished

[7] The first day of the year and the third day of the third month should have glorious weather. The fifth day of the fifth month is the best when the weather is overcast all day. The seventh day of the seventh month should also be cloudy, but the evening sky should be clear, with a brilliant moon and the stars clear and bright.

It’s charming when a light rain begins to fall around daybreak on the ninth day of the ninth month, and there should be plenty of dew on the chrysanthemums, so that the cotton wadding that covers them is thoroughly wet and it brings out the flower’s scent that imbues it. The rain ceases in the early morning and it should remain overcast and continue to threaten rain at any moment.

Sei Shōnagon, translated by Meredith McKinney from The Pillow Book, Penguin Classics, 2007


Above, the first prose paragraph is my way of capturing the season and shifting seasons this November, inspired by the 10th century Japanese writer Sei Shōnagon. The second is from The Pillow Book Shōnagon’s collection of short writings or zuihitsu from court life.

Not a lot is known about Sei Shōnagon. In fact, it is unlikely that is even her name, but we can talk about women’s rights and women’s literary history another time. Her dates are around 966-1017, but as Meredith McKinney writes in her introduction to The Pillow Book: Verifiable facts about Sei Shōnagon are sparse, and information about her life depends overwhelmingly on her own record in The Pillow Book.

In a review titled Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese Classic, in The London Review of Books, Rivka Glachen writes, In 993 when she was in her late twenties, she joined the court of Empress Teishi. During the Heian period (794-1186), ‘empress’ was a flexible term: Teishi was merely the first among a number of consorts with that tile, each with her own entourage, each competing to find favour with the emperor.

Teishi was already in decline when Sei joins, and in The Pillow Book she manages to write with such a fine touch, a lightness, as to allow the reader to feel downtrodden only briefly.

I’ve chosen Sei Shōnagon because I’m currently teaching a class on Japanese forms and aesthetic as part of my Zoom-based poetry classes. For that reason, I’m knee deep in her writings and zuihitsu or following the brush. But also, I have selected pieces for this post where she speaks of how things should be in the natural world and the natural order of Japan. Here are more examples of this writing:

[1] In spring, the dawn – when the slowly paling mountain rim is tinged with red, and wisps of faintly crimson-purple cloud float in the sky.

In summer, the night – moonlit nights, of course, but also as the dark of the moon, it’s beautiful when fireflies are dancing everywhere in a mazy flight. And it’s delightful too to see just one or two fly through the darkness, glowing softly. Rain falling on a summer night is also lovely.

In autumn, the evening – the blazing sun has sunk very close to the mountain rim, and now even the crows, in threes and fours or twos and threes, hurrying to their roost, are a moving sight. Still more enchanting is the sight of a string of wild geese in the distant sky, very tiny. And oh how inexpressible, when the sun has sunk, to hear in the growing darkness the wind, and the song of autumn insects.

In winter, the early morning – if snow is falling, of course, it’s unutterably delightful, but it’s perfect too if there’s a pure white frost, or even just when it’s very cold, and they hasten to build up the fires in the braziers and carry in fresh charcoal. But it’s unpleasant, as the day draws on and the air grows warmer, how the brazier fire dies down to white ash.

[2] Times of year – The first month; the third, fourth and fifth months; the seventh, eight and ninth; the eleventh and twelfth – in fact every month according to its season, the year round, is delightful.

Sei Shōnagon, ibid

The period between 794-1185 in Japan is known as the Heian period or “time of peace and tranquility”. In this time many of the aesthetic beliefs that underly much of Japanese art and culture were born. Many of these ideas are tied to the natural world and the seasons. However, I can’t help but wonder how modern Japanese artists and writers contend with the cataclysmic changes that climate change is bringing?

As I reread Sei’s work, I am pulled back to my time of living in Japan and our current climate crisis and how climate change is influencing not only the island I currently live on, but also the island I once lived on, Kyushu, Japan. Vancouver Island and Kyushu Island are close in size, but differ vastly in population with Vancouver Island having about 865,000 people and Kyushu holding over 14 million – which means a lot more cement, and fewer forests.

Hinamatsuri, which are displayed all over Japan in homes and public spaces for Dolls’ Day/ Girls’ Day.

In the brief passages above from The Pillow Book, captures the Heian Period’s ideals about nature and season. Many of the dates she mentions in passage 7 above, where the month and day match, are holidays in Japan taken from China. For example, Hinamatsuri, or Dolls’ Day or Girls’ Day is on March 3, the day Hinamatsuri are displayed all over Japan in homes and public spaces.

Perhaps what I most love about Sei Shōnagon’s book is the sense of longing, the strong opinions, humour, use of puns and the stream of thought, the thinking on the page, that she captures in her writing. Many pieces are like journal entries, many are simple lists: Mountains, River Pools, Things that make you feel cheerful, Trees that have no flowers, Birds, Unsuitable things…some of the titles of her more than two hundred zuihitsu passages.

These writings capture her time and place, her position in society and what life was like for women in court in the Heian period. They also are a record of a young woman’s daily experiences and thoughts. The most delightful thing, perhaps, is how contemporary her voice is, even to our weary modern ears.

[ 257.] Things that give you pleasure – “When a poem that you’ve composed for some event, or in an exchange of poems, is talked of by everyone and noted down when they hear it. This hasn’t yet happened to me personally, but I can imagine how it would feel.”

Sei Shōnagon, ibid

What is so reassuring to Sei in the passages above, is that the seasons are true, the calendar dates match the temperatures, the cloudy days can be anticipated as can the snowy, the cold, the hot, the days the cherry blossoms bloom and the day the rivers overflow. Now, over a thousand years later it is nearly impossible to know what the weather will do, if rain will come and in what ever-growing range of dates the cherry blossoms will bloom, on any of Japan’s or indeed western Canada’s pacific islands.

A Guardian article from November 13, 2023 titled, Japan’s haiku poets lost for words as climate crisis disrupts seasons, touches on the metaphors and puns of Japanese language and how connected to nature they are. This language can no longer work. Rather than capturing for the poet and reader a sense of nostalgia or longing for particular moments in specific seasons, it is the lost meaning of the words that carries that sense of nostalgia.

As Guardian writer Justin McCurry writes, The climate crisis is wreaking havoc on the saijiki – the “year-time almanac” of thousands of seasonal words that are widely acknowledged as acceptable for inclusion in haiku.

In the article, McCurry quotes Etsuva Hirose, a haiku poet, who says, Take koharubiyori, a kigo of late autumn to early winter used to express a day of warm, mild, sunny, almost springlike weather in the midst of harshly cold days, associated with a sense of soothing and comfort,….. Nowadays, more days are warm at that time of year, so you can’t really empathise with that kigo, that season and emotion.

As I write, I sense we have a similar way of using language and season in Western poetry but not as much of an aesthetic drawn from the natural world. Or perhaps I live in English fluently so can shift and relate, alter, and re-understand how meaning has shifted in English over the last hundred let alone one thousand years.

Sei Shōnagon is deeply connected to the elements of daily life, to wealth, beauty and seasons, to the concepts of asymmetry, simplicity, grace, and tranquility that are a part of Japanese aesthetic. To the overarching concept of miyabi which focuses on refinement, in how, for example, snow falls on a beautiful roof. The beauty of transience perhaps is what links me as a reader back to Sei Shōnagon. Perhaps my invitation is to take her writing with us into the future, where change and a grief-laden longing for the past, for things that are beautiful or things that once were, may be all we have to hold onto as we move toward a warmer and warmer planet.

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