Paula Bohince on "Mountain and River on the Kiso Road"
Mountain and River on the Kiso Road
The weasel in its Winter fur lies down
to dream. The silent film
freezes. Snow shuddering from shoulders,
the animal looks asleep.
Now landscape is deadened,
unblemished by fantasy.
Ice in the blue insistence
has no emotion. How glorious
its absence, the blankness of snowflakes
when they hit, unheard hiss of is, is, is…
On "Mountain and River on the Kiso Road"
"Mountain and River on the Kiso Road" is based on the woodblock print of the same name by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). The poem is from Swallows and Waves, which is comprised of sixty poems, each inspired by a different Japanese Edo-period artwork.
To write the poem, I began by looking for a long time at the print, trying to observe it, to listen to it. I tried to relax, become receptive, let my self fall away. Gazing, daydreaming, concentrating intensely, feeling my concentration slipping, becoming impatient or afraid (of not getting it right, of being on the edge of a frightening discovery), and after a while feeling myself grow calm, without self-judgement and recrimination. I heard the first line.
"The weasel in its Winter fur lies down/to dream." The snowy mountains must have looked to me like the curled up body of that animal, the curve of its back and the sharpness of its shoulder blades. Doesn't the word "weasel" sounds like wind rushing over the topmost layer of snow? This windy, snowy word felt right, as the word "fur" felt right, like the softness of a snowdrift with a little vibration of mist above it.
By now the subconscious mind has completely taken over, and it's that trance-like state that makes poetry so addictive. So much of writing poetry, for me, is about surprise, and the mid-poem phrase "unblemished by fantasy" was especially unexpected. It somehow felt like a warning against proceeding in the direction of easy escapism, as I might have, feeling so overwhelmed by the artwork.
The sentence "How glorious/its absence" was originally "How beautiful/its absence," but "glorious" ultimately felt like a more barren, icy, frightening and accurate description. Another surprising moment in the poem was in the phrase "the blankness of snowflakes," as in my walking-around life I might often think of snowflakes as intricate, pretty, individual.
The last line surprised me most of all: "unheard hiss of is is is." The animal noise of a hiss made not by the weasel, but by the snowflakes. A hiss as a declaration of presence, a warning, or a noise of pleasure? Somehow, it seemed to be all of these. The word "is" itself hisses, is subsumed by silence, and it seemed to me to be the noise of those snowflakes existing as themselves for that last instant.