The Things They Bring to Mind

April 18, 1994|By DIANE SCHARPER

In 1666, Lord Sengin, the samurai warrior and poet, died. His student and friend, Matsuo Basho, overcome with grief, went to the monastery and renounced the world. Later remembering his much loved master, Basho, who would become one of Japan's most important poets, stood under the blossoms of the flowering cherry tree.

He wanted to write a poem. But he couldn't. Then one came to him, suddenly, as if in a dream. It was a haiku, the three-lined Japanese poem noted for its compression of feeling:

''Many, many things they bring to mind -- cherry blossoms.''

How true, I think, as I look at the cherry tree standing in my yard. All the half-dreamed, half-written feelings of my life seem to be there. In spring, they come to mind, distracting me, demanding my attention. Beside me, sunlight slants across the grass. I notice that its rays appear thicker than they did just a few weeks ago.

In the tree, numerous birds sing. Earlier there had been only the heavy caw-caw sound of the crow. The woodpecker came. Then I noticed robins and mourning doves. Just yesterday two female cardinals arrived. They flit among the branches of the holly.

The sky has lightened. For most of the winter, it had a gray color, like the dirty snow that piled up. But almost as soon as most of the ice melted, the air began to feel ''soft,'' and the sky turned what I think of as spring blue.

Not long ago, the first green shoots of spring appeared. From these came purple, yellow, and white crocus, looking like the mouths of tropical fish. Then came the forsythia. At first, it was bright yellow. Now it's mainly green, the flowers ragged and somewhat faded. The cherry tree, though, is fresh, newly flowered. Just before the tree bloomed, a soft red mist settled like smoke over it.

The tree, which is actually a weeping cherry, has a willow shape. Its branches are thin, smooth, light brown; they resemble wands glinting in the sunlight. When the wind blows, the tree's motion is graceful and somehow childlike.

When sunlight falls on these small pink blossoms, it brightens them, making them appear almost white. These five-petaled flowers are actually members of the rose family, although they don't look like roses. A day or so ago, they looked like red and green fists. Then flowers appeared, as if out of thin air.

The tree was awash in color, living up to its name of fruit-bearing flower. A million shades of pink and white shimmered. Each flower could have been a tiny brush stroke on a painting. Now, the blossoms are larger. Soon bees will fly in and out of their sweet smell. I decide to take some of the blossoms to a friend.

Several things -- all having to do with friendship -- come to mind. First, I think of the cherry trees in Washington D.C. and how the Japanese gave the United States, as a gesture of friendship, 3,000 cherry trees in 1912. That gesture was returned in 1952, when the United States sent cuttings back to Japan to re-stock the war-devastated nurseries. The gesture was returned yet again in 1965, when the Japanese sent another 3,800 cherry trees back to the United States. I wish that the current trade squabbles between the U.S. and Japan could end so amicably.

Second, I remember a Japanese fairy tale about an old man and his dog. One day as the old man is chopping wood, a dog emerges from one of the logs. The dog is faithful, and he's magical as well. The old man, who has worked hard, finds good fortune. After the dog dies, the old man plants a willow beside its grave. Later, the willow's branches are cut down and burned. Its ashes, blown up by the wind, become the pink and white petals of the flowering cherry.

The sentiment could have come from Basho. He died in 1694. He had been ill. His friends asked him for a death poem, a sum of all his philosophy. Basho refused, saying that every poem that he had written in the past 10 years had been composed as if it were a death poem. But then, a haiku came to him in a dream. So Basho wrote it down:

''On a journey, ill, and over fields all withered, dreams go wandering still.''

I think about those dreams, as I remember the Japanese poet who long ago stood beneath the cherry tree, inspired.

Diane Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of ''The Laughing Ladies,'' a collection of poetry.

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