The moon in Japanese poetry is always the moon. Hirshfield begins a brief, personal interpretation of the poem below with this cryptic, lovely sentence. We’ll return to the sentence shortly. Her interpretation has immediate relevance, as she claims that a life in which one tries to experience no pain is a life in which one cannot begin to understand or have what one actually desires. Her words: “This poem reminds that if a house is walled so tightly that it lets in no wind or rain, if a life is walled so tightly that it lets in no pain, grief, anger, or longing, it will also be closed to the entrance of what is most wanted.”
I suspect Hirshfield speaks truly, but has also challenged us to find her path through the following words so we can better find ours. What is below describes a house that must, in some way, confine and protect the speaker:
"Although the wind..." (from Poetry) Izumi Shikibu (tr. Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani) Although the wind blows terribly here, the moonlight also leaks between the roof planks of this ruined house.
The wind blows terribly here reminds me that I respond more to noise, to anticipated fears, than to actual dangers themselves. This does not mean there are no dangers, if indeed there is a storm outside. But is there actually a storm? There’s the perception of wind blowing terribly, and then this: the moonlight also leaks between the roof planks of this ruined house. No visible moon, but hints of a moon, shine through the slight openings of a faulty shelter.
“Ruined house” seems to challenge Hirshfield’s interpretation. How could a ruined house have any tightness at all? How could she plausibly speak about a ruin being the same as an elaborate construct meant to keep pain out? But if both the storm and the moon are more or less productions of the mind, then the ruined house must be the soul/self. When I want to avoid facing difficult situations and difficult thoughts, I think I am creating something solid, something amazing, when in reality I’m trapping myself in my own fear. Unable to engage the world, I’m not in a structure engaging the world at all, but somewhere else entirely. “Ruined house” stands crucial, as it is the only thing in the poem hinting that the whole situation, as presented, is amiss.
To go back to the beginning, “ruined house” is the realization that the moon is always the moon. There is a light in the dark that enables us to better live, one that penetrates through all our illusions. What exactly that light corresponds to — the good external to us, the good one searches for — is a good unto itself, something we may never comprehend, but may approach.