The Moss at Tokeiji
Lidia Rozmus & Carmen Sterba (eds.). The Moss at Tokeiji. Santa Fe, NM: Deep North Press, 2010, 48 pp., perfectbound, 8.25 x 5.25. ISBN 978-1-929116-16-4. $15 to Lidia Rozmus, 1 Echo Court, #11, Vernon Hills, IL 60061-3003
For over 600 years the Tokeiji temple in Kamakura, Japan served as a sanctuary for women seeking refuge from circumstances ranging from physical violence to failed marriage. Among the thousands of women who passed through the gates of Tokeiji were those of common birth as well as women with royal lineage. The stories each of these women brought with her contribute to the rich history of this unique place. It is appropriate then that in paying homage to Tokeiji's complex past, the collection of haibun The Moss at Tokeiji assembles a diverse group of literary voices, as no single perspective could adequately do justice to such a multifaceted history.
This slender yet attractive volume features beautiful color photography of the temple grounds by Mamoru Luke Sterba Yanka and ink brush paintings by the award-winning artist Lidia Rozmus to complement the haibun by eleven contemporary women writers. While the artistic presentation adds to the overall appeal of the book—and to my untrained eye the haiga are truly excellent—the haibun are the main attraction.
The list of haibun contributors is an all-star line-up of acclaimed women writers in the haiku community. Five of the poets are Japanese and the rest have significant connections to Japan, including four women who each spent years living there. Most, if not all, of the authors have personally visited Tokeiji temple multiple times, absorbing the atmosphere at different times of the year and reflecting on the lives of the thousands of women who were offered refuge there. Be sure not to miss the historical note nearly hidden in the back of the book between the glossary and the list of recommended reading. Written by co-editor Carmen Sterba, the historical detail is fascinating and places the whole work in context for those of us who are new to this piece of Japanese history.
The opening haibun "Reveries of the Water Moon Kannon" is by Margaret Chula, a well-known haibun writer and performance artist. Her haibun is at the imaginative end of the spectrum and begins by adopting the perspective and voice of Suigetsu, the Water Moon Kannon, goddess of compassion. The stories of three women, each from a different historical era and each in need of refuge, are heard by the goddess and are presented along with accompanying tanka. One of these women, called here Hanabusa, from the Edo period (1736), seeks escape from a difficult marriage. From the merchant class, she has spent years in hard, thankless labor for her hus- band's textile business and is finally brought to Tokeiji by her sister. One of the tanka from this section shows the complex emotions of a woman both seeking refuge and looking back with a touch of regret on what she has left behind:
passing through Sammon Gate
I hear the measured toll
of the temple bell
the shuttle of my hand loom
silent and forsaken
Kayoko Hashimoto strikes a different tone with her haibun "Unforgettable Encounters," in which she reflects on two particular visits she made to the temple grounds when flowers were in bloom. She describes a rainy autumn afternoon when she first visited the temple and saw pale purple asters, their heads bowed in the rain. The asters bring to mind the women who have fled to the temple over the years seeking divorce: "Such hardships they must have endured, just like the rain-beaten aster blossoms that drooped without falling to the ground." On another rainy day she visited during the plum blossom season and was moved by the way each blossom seemed to be encapsulated in crystal as the light rain covered them in moisture: "Gradually the glimmer of the tear-like raindrops became that of women's lives, those who wanted to shine no matter how unfortunate they were." Hashimoto notes that her feeling about the temple transformed from a gloomy outlook about the sad circumstances that brought women there to a powerful sense of hope the temple offered these many women.
A contrasting approach is taken by Abigail Friedman in her piece "Regina of the Clouds," in which the author tells the story of a friendship from her college years. The two women shared many interests, drank heavily, and worked part-time together at an ice cream store. As it became apparent that the friend's excessive drinking was leading her on a self-destructive path, the author chose a different course and ended up losing track of her friend. After living in Japan for nearly eight years and becoming immersed in the culture there, she became curious about her long-ago friend. When she did a computer search of her name, she found her obituary. The only mention of Tokeiji temple comes in the haiku:
burning incense at Tokeiji
you seep into my pores
curls of smoke
Friedman takes a risk in her writing by expanding the subject beyond the women who actually sought sanctuary at the temple. The idea of a safe-haven for women is a powerful notion that crosses the barriers of time and place to encompass all women in troubled situations. Successful haibun, like good haiku, shift away from the expected and draw links to the less obvious. Friedman's haibun does both.
While the temple stopped operating as a sanctuary for women in 1901, it remains open to the public as a tourist attraction and place of quiet reflection. In her haibun "At Tokeiji Temple," Nanae Tamura recounts a recent visit to Tokeiji and describes seeing flowers and visiting the gravesite of one of the disciples of Natsume Soseki, who was the haiku poet Shiki's dear friend. The presence of the gravesite brings Tamura a feeling of closeness with Shiki, and Tamura is left changed by the experience of walking the temple grounds: "At Tokeiji temple, being in its wondrous nature and the depth of the temple tradition, I felt I was reborn and encouraged to enjoy my life as it is." One of Tamura's haiku:
flowering and leaning
to the sea
Among the shorter haibun in the collection is "Tokeiji Temple" by Patricia Donegan. Like Chula, Donegan imagines the story of a woman refugee to the temple. Donegan leaves the exact time period unspecified and paints a concise picture of an ordinary woman seeking rescue from her marriage and leaving her children behind. In the voice of this imagined woman, she says, "I had to go, just as a seed in the dark earth, has to finally push forth its tendrils and emerge into the light." The accompanying haiku includes a mention of the moss which comes up repeatedly in descriptions of the temple grounds and which is also in the collection's title:
the smell of moss
in the night wind—
this fleeting dream
Carmen Sterba, co-editor of the book, also invokes the voice of an imagined refugee to the temple in her piece "A Safe Place To Run To." Sterba's vision of the welcoming in of a refugee to the temple includes wonderful sensory detail, such as a simple meal of rice and vegetable gruel, hot barley tea, the sound of sweeping, the songs of birds, the voices of women and the "hush of the surrounding forest." Her concluding haiku captures the sentiment expressed in several of the other pieces, that of the transformative power of the temple sanctuary:
a shift from sorrow
In her introduction to the book, Lidia Rozmus describes the beauty she found in the physical setting on her visits to the temple grounds as well as the emotional impact of learning the history of the thousands of women who sought asylum there. She writes, "The stories of these women were present in everything I saw: in the sky-touching trees, in the delicate, time-concealing moss, and in the cemetery on the hill." She surmises that the temple is probably one of the first shelters ever created for abused women. In explaining her vision for the collection of haibun, she says, "Through our art we hope to honor all the women who passed through the gates of Tokeiji." She and the contributors to the project have more than succeeded in fulfilling that mission.