A Dialogue with Stillness

Book Review by Basudhara Roy

Title: Ukiyo-e Days… Haiku Moments

Author: Bina Sarkar Ellias

Publisher: Red River

The wonder of art acknowledges and affirms the potency of stillness, its pregnancy vouching for a revelation that is both vital and imminent. Ambitious as the thought is, is it possible to engage in a dialogue with stillness, to distil the flurry of a day into the transcendence of a moment, and to transform that moment, in turn, into a metaphoric prism for the illumination of all our hereafters? In her recent collection of poems Ukiyo-e Days… Haiku Moments, Bina Sarkar Ellias can justifiably claim to have assayed each of these tasks with remarkable felicity and quiet grace.

A form of Japanese art that flourished between the 17th and the 19th centuries, ‘ukiyo-e’ is a composite of three words – ‘uki’ (floating), ‘yo’ (world) and ‘e’ (pictures), literally meaning “pictures of the floating world”. The ‘floating world’ referred to the theatre districts and (licensed) courtesan quarters that flourished in Japan’s major cities during the Edo period and constituted an important source of attraction for the nouveau-riche of the era. Inhabited largely by courtesans and the traditional kabuki actors, this floating world, despite its low status in the social hierarchy of the times, made its impact as valuable cultural capital, its sartorial customs and mannerisms becoming quite effectively, a rage among common people.

Since paintings could be afforded only by the prosperous, the ukiyo-e artists made a distinct historical move to democratise art by being the first to experiment with woodblock prints which could be produced cheaply and in large numbers, thus making ukiyo-e widely accessible to the  populace. Actors, courtesans, legends, folklore, and landscapes were some of the common subjects that marked this art, the heroic and the erotic being significant thematic notes within it.

Ukiyo-e Days… Haiku Moments revisits this memorable Japanese artform to bring to the reader a remarkable collection of 68 ukiyo-e by 28 artists from across the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, showcasing a delectable mix of the traditional and the modern in Japanese art and its unique blend of native and foreign influences. Compounding the effect of the Ukiyo-e here, is a set of 62 haiku by Bina that excavate, explore and expand the meaning and value of the artworks by bringing them into dense ekphrastic conversation with her own mind and times. “My haiku travels with each of the ukiyo-e works as a companion through this journey, responding with a deep kinship I feel with the artworks,” she writes in her Preface.

In this collaborative project of creativity, the haiku become a companion to the historical journey of the ukiyo-e, illuminating them in a transcultural framework which even as it asserts the omnipotent significance of art, helps draw attention to its omniscience across temporal and cultural divides. “To read a haiku,” says Jane Hirshfield, “is to become its co-author, to place yourself inside its words until they reveal one of the proteus-shapes of your own life.” As Bina places her contemporary and complex historical self within the sensibility of the ukiyo-e, her unravelling of meaning through the haiku becomes yet another act of seeking connection and consolation in an alienated world.

As a poetic form, the haiku establishes a constant romance with the brevity of expression on the one hand and the expanse of space on the other. Its sharp imagism helps to illumine both the moment and the emotional ambience that will render this moment organic in every context. Scale, speed, succinctness and surrealism can all work in concert within the seemingly fragile universe of the haiku to make it an emblem of and testimony to the wide-ranging historical forces within which it is birthed. The animated and tender conversation between colour, form and script in Ukiyo-e Days… Haiku Moments works similarly holding both word and beauty in suspension, mirroring the moment as self and self as moment, and asking us to return to the quintessential celebration of both:

you want to be free
but maya mesmerises-
locks all the doors

The haiku is, often, a lesson in perception. It is characteristic of the haiku to be profoundly epiphanic and in many of her pieces, Bina ascends to that level of quiet illumination wherein an inner truth becomes simpler by the sole virtue of its lucid expression. Art, life, hope, faith, poetry, war, human vulnerability — all emerge as important themes here. One cannot help noticing, however, the collection’s loving partiality toward women. Women and their myriad-layered lives constitute a recurrent thematic motif in these poems:

into the long night
her toil of pleasure-giving
a tale of two worlds

Since in much of the ukiyo-e, the women represented were courtesans, Bina brings a profound sense of tenderness and understanding in reinterpreting their situation for modern women whose lives, in different contexts, remain emotively the same. In their intensity and in the overall poignance with which these haiku delineate women’s ever-shifting roles in terms of profession, domesticity and relationships with the world, Bina evinces a deep knowledge of women’s spiritual multiplicity. To Torii Kiiyonaga’s delicate artwork ‘Bathhouse Women’, for instance, Bina, deflecting attention from the voyeuristic potential of the scene to give the bathhouse a larger cultural and political logic, responds:

a day for washing
wash away patriarchy
energise our souls

Another beautiful narrative turn in haiku is offered in response to Kitagawa Utamaro’s print ‘Naniwa Okita Admiring Herself in a Mirror’ in which Bina imagines a different (more youthful) face emerging from the mirror. While the mirror has mostly been used as a truth-telling device in literature and a means of shattering illusion, this particular mirror becomes a gateway to the discovery of the magical self within, unmarred by the winter of time:

i see a mirage
see my youth in winter years
does the mirror lie?

With Chobunsai Eishi’s ‘The Courtesan Hanaogi of the Ogiya Brothel’, Bina communicates thus:

within the prose
of her pleasure-house living
she breathes poetry

Here is a mature and perceptive weaving of art and life — a recognition of art as art and of life as life with the potential of building strong and tenable bridges across them. It is noteworthy how each haiku stands independently even as it adds a significant hermeneutic or experiential dimension to the ukiyo-e, imparting a certain luminosity to this book. There is a distinct sensation of time-travel in this collection, of moving through the slow whirl of centuries while remaining undivorced from the crises and flavours of the present:

we were not born violent
let’s repair ourselves

Empathy becomes a powerful voice in Ukiyo-e Days as Bina’s haiku touches raw spots within our shredding cultural fabric to draw attention to greed, war, exploitation and the relentless process of needing to find our integral human selves:

all the world’s armies
trained as cannon fodder
they live to die

In these delicate and consummately-crafted pieces, one finds doors open to deep investigation of the moment and what it stands for in life’s ever-shifting landscape. There is a stillness that the collection speaks from and to, a stillness that characterises both the ukiyo-e and the haiku as art forms. Invested with extraordinary visual and tactile charm and an interesting Preface that throws light on the genesis and growth of the ukiyo-e in Japan, this book accomplishes a unique synthesis between two valuable Japanese art forms, bringing to a connoisseur-reader the unforgettable enchantment of both.

Basudhara Roy teaches English at Karim City College affiliated to Kolhan University, Chaibasa. Author of three collections of poems, her latest work has been featured in EPW, The Pine Cone Review, Live Wire, Lucy Writers Platform, Setu and The Aleph Review among others. 



Click here to access the Borderless anthology, Monalisa No Longer Smiles

Click here to access Monalisa No Longer Smiles on Kindle Amazon International

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