Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010, under


‘…yesterday for the first time I couldn’t remember a Bosnian word for a birch tree,
I had to look it up: “breza”… Asija, I don't remember the birch trees.’
– Saša Stanišić, How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone

My father’s father, Branko M.,
a woodcutter, enters the poem,
struck down by a Bosnian birch.
His face hangs on the wall not far
from our family icon St George.
The family allege Branko saved
another mate during the tree-fall
as his axe lay not far from the body
(my old man doesn’t recall
being a pink-skinned baby).

Branko M., my lost relative,
drowned in the turbid Danube.
His motive? His refusal to live.
They found his clothes neatly folded
on the beach pebble stones.
If only his life was as neat
by which my family must’ve meant
he’d hurt himself rather than those
who made his life morose.

I’d better unbecome Branko.
I crawl from under the tall birch
that killed me. I begin my search
for the saved in my previous lives.
A few links later I am riding
Urashima Taro’s tortured tortoise,
its feet the beautiful hands
of princess Otohime, saved in vain.
I’ll open a gift she bid Taro not to,
the cursed cube of tamatebako.

I’d better unbecome Branko.
I search for Wang Zhi, a carpenter,
a solid birch for his axe handle.
Dead of winter. On a felled branch
two men crouch over a board.
I watch the shade-pitted pieces
appear and disappear, outwitted
by the flickering light of a candle.
When their game’s up, which is never,
and I come to, the axe handle
is my decomposed arm.

Unbecoming Branko won’t do
unless I keep a piece of my cursed name.
I am therefore Bran, son of Febal.
In my birch coracle I set sail
south-southeast from the Irish Sea
via the Channel, the Rhine upstream
into the Prussian blue Danube –
which, before I was made a Serb,
flowed ultramarine.

I’ve reached the Island of Women.
I, a self-made citizen of the Serbian
Tír na nÓg. Lying naked, unseen
from the Singidun turret,
ignored by hunger thirst fears.
I unfold my paper cube tears
before the women lament – your
homecoming, Bran, looks imminent.

Come morning, I am forty-one.
At the fate-prescribed time
the curse is bound to charge.
My name will thus be undone
and, as such, axe-inscribed
on my own struck down birch.

November, 2010

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Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010, under

The Voyage of Bran

The Voyage of Bran, a Celtic pre-Christian mythic tale of quest and displacement, would be more familiar to Western audiences. It is believed to have been written down around 700 AD, although it has an earlier oral history. It has been inspiration to several other tales, which are set in a more explicitly Christian context. You can find an abridged text here, or the full text by clicking here (both texts translated by Kuno Meyer).

Postal stamps hailing from the Faroe Islands, which seem to depict the Christian version of the Bran or somesuch myth:

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Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010, under

Urashima Taro

‘Urashima Taro’ is based on a well-known Japanese folk tale about an honest fisherman who rescues a tortoise and is thus invited to an underwater castle (Dragon Palace) where he is welcomed by the mysterious Lady Otohime. The story dates back to the 8th century, Nara Period. It has inspired various artists throughout centuries, including painters, film-makers, writers, puppeteers. Here is a selection of works influenced by the Taro legend. 

urashima taro & the princess of dragon palace by hokusai

urashima taro by kuniyoshi

urashima taro by utagawa kunisada

urashima taro by edund dulac (1916)

Then there is this short animation made in 1931!


The tale of Urashima Taro is also reflected in more contemporary works, such as Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’. The thematic link as presented by ‘szlogolept’ on his/her blog page:

The point of convergence between the two is the containment of the ageing process, in case of Urashima Taro his passing years are stored in a tamatebako and for Dorian Gray his painting carries the burden of his style and manner of living. But the resemblance ends there. The Picture of Dorian Gray lapses into the eternal struggle between the good and the evil, the devil and the divine, whilst Urashima Taro is a sweetly tragic fantasy where a man gives up immortality and a beautiful and joyous life to answer the call of his filial obligations.

The tragedy being, of course, that he has given up immortality too little too late. 

Yet another link, a very contemporary one indeed: the story of Urashima Taro, recreated with human sized puppets in the style of the Japanese Bunraku, aided by Kamishibai, a form of paper theatre, is currently being performed in the UK, by 'Rouge28 Theatre', a company of international theatre artists based in London! That’s right, CURRENTLY, as we speak (so to speak)! This particular show includes only a single performer plus various dolls and props. If you are lucky to be in England this autumn/winter of 2010, you can find more details on the company and the show, including a video of Urashima Taro, here:
Definitely the darkest version of Urashima Taro. The video is also available on You Tube:

The company is touring England in November and December, with the final show on Saturday 18th December at ‘Rich Mix’ in London. Damn, wish I were there.

Final footnote: the tale of Urashima Taro is told through pictures actually painted on a wall overlooking Lake Saromarko, an inlet southeast of Mombetsu, Hokkaido. Behind lies the Okhotsk Sea. Well, if you ever happen to set foot on the island of Hokkaido...

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Posted on Tuesday, November 30, 2010, under ,


Chinese: 烂柯 (爛柯) (làn kē) / Japanese: 爛柯 (ranka)
The story of Ranka Mountain is one of the oldest myths about go (the ancient board game):
In the Zhejiang province of China there was a mountain inhabited by faeries. The story tells of an incautious carpenter, Wang Zhi, who went up on the mountain in search of wood. At a certain point, he came over a group of people gathered round a go board. He joined the group to watch, leaning his axe against the rock. One of the company gave him a prune to eat (!). Wang Zhi lost himself completely in the game; the moves made were of unsurpassable beauty, of course. Suddenly, one of the spectators turned to him and asked if he shouldn't be thinking about getting home at some point. Startled, he reached for his axe, but it crumbled to dust at the touch of his hand. Returning to the village, he learned that a hundred years had passed.
This myth was so popular that Ranka became one of the poetical words for Go in China and Japan. Literally, it means "rotted handle". Painters and poets used the myth. The following brief text was written by Zhang Yiling, to go with his painting "Ranka Mountain": "People envy the lifespan of fairies, but the life of a fairy is really quite pitiful. Who would trade a hundred years for a game of ‘weiqi’?" There is also a poem by  Meng Chiao encapsulating this.

Sadly I’ve been unable to find either the ‘Ranka Mountain’ image nor the Chiao’s poem in question. Instead I am posting another poem by the magnificent Meng Chiao, with a similar theme of roaming/homecoming:


The thread in the hand of a kind mother
Is the coat on the wanderer's back.
Before he left she stitched it close
In secret fear that he would be slow to return.
Who will say that the inch of grass in his heart
Is gratitude enough for all the sunshine of spring?          

trans. A.C. Graham

Apparently the 'inch of grass' image was used by Roger Waters in modified form, in Pink Floyd’s 'Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun' (!). In Chinese literature, the 'Wanderer's Song' is a well-known and popular poem that expresses the obligation to return parental love, a conventional virtue in Chinese morality.

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Posted on Sunday, November 28, 2010, under

for K.

You appropriate love
like San Francisco does the bay
although the here and the thereof
seem sunlight years away
from the breakfast bay-window
we once sat by, curtain-shielded
from the sequined ocean down below –
a certain added quality
to the hotel’s sixties air of doomed
prosperity (a reviewer described his room
as quite old and clean;
we found ours quite clean and old).
That sun-struck morning
in a capital ‘D’ dining hall,
its ceiling dinosaur-tall (once you said
you liked herbivore dinos)
you reassert yourself as the slowest
omnivore known to man
slicing your egg and ham
as your lips infinitesimally part,
sipping your lukewarm café noir,
asking me where the lowest calories are.

You appropriate love
as the here and the thereof contort
like a wounded animal.
We are at the city hospital –
sooner or later they’ll take
your mum off life support
for better or for worse –
on the sixth floor terrace
where nurses bring up gossip
in the fickle November sun
as our Fresco paper cups (yours
is hot cocoa mine cappuccino)
warm up our hands and through hands
our hearts a little.
A warmer foyer smells of coffee beans
brewed in deafening machines.
Your mobile rings: a nurse says
your mum may get worse.

You see me off to the train to
stretch your leg, excuse the pain.
It’s a long night of vigil ahead
and you say you won’t even need
that pillow kindly offered
by a young nurse. You say,
‘How young, these nurses and doctors’.
It’s hard to place trust in youth I know
yet youth is the thing that walks
along these spic-and-span corridors
and you’ll have to tiptoe and listen
to what youth has to say.

Back in the lantern-lit Kyoto,
my woolly hat still nestled
against a basket-mesh
of my illegally parked bike.
I've been assigned fresh love.
I pedal home to the here
and the thereof.

November, 2010

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