Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1: Full Moon

It goes without saying that it feels like the middle of the night when I leave my office these days. Tonight as I drove home in the dark, my vision further obscured by the fact that I was peering through a sheen of frost slowly melting on the inside of my windshield, the full moon appeared from behind the mountain. I can see it from my living-room window now, above the hulking shape of the mountain and my neighbors' colorful Christmas lights, that bright face looking in at me and the cat in my lap.

The ancient Japanese aristocracy, with their highly developed aesthetic sensibilities, often held moon-viewing parties that involved poetry. According to Ivan Morris's book The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan (a companion guide to The Tale of Genji, a Japanese novel written over 1,000 years ago, my favorite book of all time, and the reason why I fell in love with haiku in the first place), the full moon of the Eighth Month was considered the most beautiful. The Great Moon-Viewing was celebrated thus: "To the sound of lute and zither music, men and women spend the night in boats on the artificial lakes of the Palace and of private residences, viewing the full moon and composing poems in its honor." It also "became customary to make offerings of dumplings and potatoes to the moon." Moon-viewing was clearly a warm weather activity. I won't be heading out in a boat on this cold evening to admire the moon, though I'm sure it's reflecting beautifully right now on Penobscot Bay. But perhaps we can cook up those fingerling potatoes I bought last week and celebrate in that way. And with a poem, of course.

The moon has inspired much Japanese poetry over the centuries and is a common subject of haiku. Chiyo-ni, the 18th century woman haiku master, wrote this after she became a Buddhist nun:

full moon--
keeping it in my eyes
on a distant walk

For her, observing the full moon was a form of meditation, a focus that brought her awareness. I have often found myself caught by the full moon, staring rapt like a deer in headlights. And as a child, as many children do, would fixate on the moon through the back seat window as it seemed to follow the car's every turn.

Chiyo-ni also wrote the following poem about the transformative powers of moonlight, perhaps as a commentary on women who spent too much time figuring out what to wear to a moon-viewing party. After all, the moon is the real object of attention, not them. But things apparently never change.

in the moonlight
whatever you wear becomes beautiful

(Translated by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi)

And thus I draw my inspiration for tonight's poem--my muses both Chiyo-ni, a woman who watched this same moon 300 years ago, and the full moon itself.

Full-faced moon, not shy,
wearing the mountain as robe,
beaming on us all.

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