Laments for Japan

Today is the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. The fragile blossoms are at their peak. Backlit by dawn, the flowers burst into flame. Tonight they will drop with the snow flurries. The festival is more subdued this year in keeping with the natural disasters and nuclear devastation through which Japan (and the world) are suffering.

The cover of the March 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker is adorned by a “Dark Spring” in Japan. But before the artwork went to print, artist Christoph Niemann said  he was suffering a creative dilemma. “I realized that there is no way a drawing that depicts the devastation, can come close to the heart-wrenching and bizarre photos I’ve seen everywhere,” Niemann reflected.

He blended his admiration for Japanese ink drawings, and came up with with the cover concept above. “The quiet beauty of plum blossoms mixed with the radiation symbol would make an eery and appropriate metaphor for the threat of a nuclear catastrophe.”

I decided to read a few of the elder Japanese poets in commemoration of the day. Here are a few tender lines from Matsuo Basho (1644-1694):

A village without bells–
how do they live?
spring dusk.


Early fall–
the sea and the rice fields
all one green.


The spring we don’t see–
on the back of a hand mirror
a plum tree in flower.


Not this human sadness,
but your solitary cry.


More than ever I want to see
in these blossoms at dawn
the god’s face.

(Translations by Robert Hass)

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