Ono no Komachi, “Untitled;” Seamus Heaney, “Sloe Gin”

Komachi tells of a tree burdened by its memories. “The pine tree,” she says, has “branches [which] lean towards the ground:”

Ono no Komachi (translated by Jane Hirshfield & Mariko Aratani)

The pine tree by the rock
must have its memories too:
after a thousand years,
see how its branches
lean towards the ground.

I find it difficult to imagine the thought of loss overwhelming a plant. But the more I try to think about it, the more grief in its enormity becomes present.

Komachi begins by situating the pine tree relative to us. It is “the pine tree by the rock,” one we’ve both passed. The familiarity she invokes feels casual, but then she calls it “a thousand years old.” Literally, the millenium; perhaps the tree is older than history. It certainly has a sacred aspect.

This tree, by the rock, by us, “must have its memories too.” It may be divine, but we must relate. “See how its branches lean towards the ground,” she instructs. Some speak of the dead walking among us, of their making themselves known through strange coincidence. Komachi partially inverts that notion. Here, the tree, the living, hovers over the dead, attending to them perpetually. It doesn’t intrude on their world, but leans toward, as if life itself was defined by death only.

Life is attention to loss. I think of all the people who believed in me that I lost. How needed they are as I get older. How others depend on me in ways I can’t yet fulfill, how desired the presence and advice of ancestors.

A want of presence calls to mind Seamus Heaney’s “Sloe Gin,” where a drink brings forth a wave of memories:

Sloe Gin
Seamus Heaney

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.

With gorgeous brevity, we are told “The clear weather of juniper / darkened into winter.” Juniper, the evergreen, increasingly cannot be seen on account of winter’s darkness. But Heaney makes it sound like the cause of true weather. As winter begins, “She fed gin to sloes / and sealed the glass container.”

A time capsule is created. It contains notes of preservation and nourishment. As the gin and sloes merge, they forge something altogether new. But that newness distinctly recalls an absence, someone evergreen covered up by shadows.

“When I unscrewed it / I smelled the disturbed / tart stillness of a bush / rising through the pantry.” Heaney does not simply smell the gin. The scent rises through the pantry and transforms the room. He’s now in another world, another time, with “the disturbed tart stillness of a bush.” Nature, one could say, did not take its course. It is mankind that distilled gin and put it together with sloes. It is the disturbance–a net positive, to be sure–that allows for memory. On a related note, Nietzsche has an essay which begins by telling us that on a little planet orbiting a little star, some arrogant creatures invented “knowledge.” But this just lasted a few seconds as that small world came to an end and the rest of cosmic history barely recognizes anything happened.

It is the disturbance, the notes that miss, which count most, especially if we are nothing but a blip in cosmic time.

Heaney sees the gin as having “a cutting edge.” It “flamed like Betelgeuse.” He imagines her, the maker of the gin, as no less than Hephaestus. Maybe even more: to create that which cuts across time and space might be beyond the power of the Olympian gods. This gin brings back memories that empower. It is possible to create an awesome object from which your descendants will derive inspiration. It is possible to convey love and concern over decades, if not centuries.

“I drink to you / in smoke-mirled, blue- / black sloes, bitter / and dependable.” It is also impossible to discount the pain powerful memories bring. “Blue-black sloes,” “bitter.” Often I think that if all were to be well, what I have will be useful and I will be happy. Heaney, I believe, is working to disabuse me of that notion. If something is useful and ultimately generates happiness, that probably means others have sacrificed. Loss is at hand at the very moment of triumph. The comedy is in completeness, in the idea life has a course not unlike a perfect circle. Komachi’s tree knows better. It attends to loss, what once was known, what cannot be forgotten.

1 Comment

  1. … self-congratulatory, Catholic and slight. And pretty, very, very pretty!
    Sloe Gin is the blood of Christ and sacrifice everywhere we look; sure aren’t we
    fabulous? Do not ask what is it, let us go and make our visit. What? You didn’t
    know my pantry was really a Cathedral? Never mind those bushes sprouting up
    in the chancel and the nave. We can do miracles, but, as yet, we can’t abolish
    our past. Slainte!

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