Tour (from poetry 180)
Near a shrine in Japan he’d swept the path
and then placed camellia blossoms there.
Or – we had no way of knowing – he’d swept the path
between fallen camellias.
I could be wrong about this, but I did try looking up camellias for symbolism and found nothing definitive. And I don’t even want to get into the implications of “shrine in Japan.” A little bit of anime has convinced me that any serious comment about divinity in traditional Japanese religions requires a lot of knowledge I don’t have.
So let’s just say there’s a divine goal and a path to it. Our speaker is literally wondering about that path and can be described as “near” to it. “He” could be anybody, but three possibilities suggest themselves immediately: a pilgrim (perhaps like the speaker?), someone who works at the shrine (a priest/monk or a janitor), the wind (a god?). Keeping the path clean is a sacred activity, perhaps the most sacred activity. But the path is as secular a notion as it is sacred, of necessity.
If we say the wind was responsible for the sweeping, then it is not hard to conjecture the fall of the blossoms as simultaneous with the cleaning. That would seem to be the most divine power at work, as it cleans and marks the path both at once. We mere humans must make two separate actions that are not always a continuous whole. Not every path to the divine is as clear as the one literally leading to a shrine.
Our speaker, though, does not contemplate the possibility of the wind. “Then” and “there” in the first stanza suggest not only two separate actions, but also the speaker’s separateness from the path. “We had no way of knowing” comes after the “or,” after the hesitation that suggests the speaker’s second thought, but before the thought itself.
The speaker’s first thought, despite all the thinking I have done about it, is merely a hypothesis, an attempt to state a fact. The second thought is almost the same thing, but not quite. “We had no way” – the hesitation implies an emerging awareness of the problem of “path,” which we have discussed above. “No way of knowing” seems to discount the very reasoning the speaker uses in both stanzas.
He’d swept the path between fallen camellias: this sounds like a fact, but we know it to be nearly preposterous as a human action. Nearly: there are the Jainists in India. What’s being described as a factual state of affairs is really an attempt to reach the divine. The wind as a divine force could never be a serious possibility for the speaker because of “fallen:” why would god throw flowers to the ground?
We don’t know, and more importantly, “he” doesn’t know. The action of cleaning between what has happened not only suggests a superhuman gentleness, but a way marked by uncertainty more than knowledge. “He” and the speaker do not know if the camellias were made to fall on purpose or accidentally, if they were a divine celebration or the product of chance. The title of the poem – “Tour” – implies non-violence in the sense of “just looking.” But that, we now realize, implies a bond between the speaker and the sweeper.