Marin Poetry Center Writing Retreat
The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon
Translated by Ivan Morris (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1971)
… I set about filling the notebooks with odd facts, stories from the past, and all sorts of other things, often including the most trivial material. On the whole I concentrated on things and people I found charming and splendid; my notes are also full of poems and observations. … It is written entirely for my own amusement and I put things down exactly as they came to me. … I am the kind of person who approves what others abhor and detests the things they like.
THINGS THAT CANNOT BE COMPARED
Summer and winter. Night and day. Rain and sunshine. Youth and age. A person’s laughter and his anger. Black and white. Love and hatred.
THINGS THAT HAVE LOST THEIR POWER
A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebbtide.
A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.
A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air…
A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.
Craft: These are some short passages from Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book written around the year 1002. The work has all sorts of entries including short prose stories and many kinds of lists. It’s a poetry journal and is generally read as true to life (but we’ve got plenty of examples of the ways that a poetry journals are fictionalized). This text and the poetry journal form has inspired poets recently to make their own versions. Here’s a poem from Rebecca Lindenberg’s Logan Notebooks:
The capital city. Arrowroot. Water-bur. Colts. Hail. Bamboo grass. The round-leaved violet. Club moss. Water oats. Flat river-boats. The mandarin duck.
—The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon
The sky. And the sky above that. The exchange of ice between mouths. Other people’s
My friend says we never write about anything we can get to the bottom of. For him, this
is a place arbored with locust trees. For me, it’s a language for which I haven’t quite
found the language yet.
The dewy smell of a new-cut pear. Bacon chowder flecked with thyme. Roasted duck
skin ashine with plum jam. Scorpion peppers.
Clothes on a line. A smell of rain battering the rosemary bush. The Book Cliffs. Most
forms of banditry. Weathered barns. Dr. Peebles. The Woman’s Tonic, it says on the
side, in old white paint.
The clink of someone putting away dishes in another room.
The mechanical bull at the cowboy bar in West Salt Lake. The girls ride it wearing just
bikinis and cowboy hats. I lean over to my friend and say, I would worry about
catching something. And he leans back to say, That’s really the thing you’d worry
about? We knock the bottom of our bottles together.
How they talk in old movies, like, Now listen here. Just because you can swing a bat
doesn’t mean you can play ball. Or, I‘ll be your hot cross if you’ll be my bun. Well,
anyway, you know what I mean.
Somewhere between the sayable and the unsayable, poetry runs. Antidote to the river
Like a rosary hung from a certain rearview mirror. Like the infinite rasp of gravel
under the wheel of a departing car.
Gerard Manley Hopkins’s last words were I’m so happy, I’m so happy. Oscar Wilde
took one look at the crackling wallpaper in his Paris flat, then at his friends gathered
around and said, One or the other of us has got to go. Wittgenstein said simply, Tell all
my friends, I’ve had a wonderful life.
Prompt: Read entries from the Pillow Book. (Here are some sections translated by Ivan Morris) Take a section title such as “Things that Cannot Be Compared” or “Things that Have Lost Their Power” and start making your own list. When you start to feel like you’ve exshausted the list, keep writing.
Journal: I am a huge fan of Zyzzyva, not just the poetry but also the prose. I usually read each issue cover to cover. The journal also hosts great readings and events in the Bay Area. They feature west coast writers and are based in San Francisco. Subscribe, submit, get the t-shirt.
Recipe: Since discovering that the key to kale salad is to cook the kale for 2-3 minutes, I’ve started to like it. I’ve been making Melissa Clark’s Horta Salad with Olives and Feta and her Tuscan Kale Salad.