First Person Singular Review (2) On a Stone Pillow

May 5, 2021 By mk

*This article includes possible spoiler

“On a Stone Pillow” is a story about Tanka Poem; a Japanese lyrical poem written in thirty-one syllables in five rhythmic lines. In spite of the difficulty in translating poems, Philip Gabriel did an excellent translation to English.

Traditional card game: full tanka (31 letters) is on the pictured card and the last 14 letters are on the letter-only cards

The story begins with a monologue by the narrator, “I”. “I” reflects on the memory of a woman he met when he was young. She presented him with a cosmic poem in which she used a “stone pillow” as a medium of communication. The poem is written in charming words, but ends ominously in the last line.

You and I are we really so far apart? 
Should I, maybe have changed trains at Jupiter? 
When I press my ear against the stone pillow
The sound of blood flowing is absent, absent

The tanka poem featuring the celestial body reminds me of the famous tanka by Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (660-724), which includes the words “stone pillow”.

“I wonder if my beloved girl, with the slightly red beautiful face, is sleeping on a stone pillow on the banks of the Milky Way tonight”. (Manyoshu, Book 10, 8th no.2003; 8th century)

This poem is about the feelings of a cowherd boy who loved Princess Orihime in an old legend. They lived separately on the banks of the Milky Way and were only allowed to meet on the 7th of July, which is called Tanabata (Star Festival) in Japan. Even in present times, many people pray for good weather on that day, so that rain will not cause the Milky Way to rise and interfere with their dating. This story originally came from China and spread to East Asia and Vietnam.

The ‘stone pillow’ in this poem represents the medium through which the boy develops his imagination for the princess. In any case, this legendary love story is beautiful and perfectly “correct” for all ages. As a result, kindergartens and primary schools hold the Tanabata Festival as part of their cultural heritage.

Star festival decorations on the bamboo

“I don’t care,” she said, rubbing the side of her nose. (Beside her nose there were two small moles, lined up like a constellation.)

Murakami used the word “constellation” to suggest a beautiful aspect of their relationship. (In traditional Japanese constellations, the aforementioned cowherd boy is Altair and Princess Orihime is Vega) However, the story takes a turn and begins to reveal a strange side of her;

“I might yell another man’s name when I come. Are you okay with that?”

It was not a normal relationship, but “I” accepted her words without hesitation. A week later, her book of poems, On a Stone Pillow, arrived. Following the last line of the aforementioned poem, there was a series of poems with images of death.

The present moment
if it is the present moment 
can only be taken
as the inescapable present

In the mountain wind
a head cut off
without a word
June water at the roots of 
a hydrangea

In addition to the phrase “the sound of flowing blood” in the aforementioned poem, this poem evokes the old folklore of Tokyo.

In the 6th century, Asakusa (in the northeast of Tokyo) was a lonely place, with only a hostel run by a bandit woman. The bandit woman used her beautiful daughter to trick travellers into staying at the hostel and then killed them with a stone pillow, but the daughter did not like it. One day, the daughter fell in love with a beautiful traveller boy whom she had tricked. Then she decided to sacrifice herself to be killed by her mother instead of him. When the mother realised that she had killed her daughter, she regretted it and threw herself into the pond to die.

The story was popular in Tokyo in the 18th and 19th centuries and was taken up as a motif in theatre and art. It was clearly a deep darkness, but it also contained something that strongly attracted the audience, like a novel by Haruki Murakami.

The bandit woman and her daughter by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861) and Asakusa nowadays

Back to “On a Stone Pillow”. The story continues with a new ominous poem quoted as a reminiscence of the protagonist’s twenties

As I consider that
we’ll never meet again
I also consider how 
there’s no reason that we cannot

Will we meet
or will it simply end like this
drawn by the light
trampled by shadows

Suddenly, the tense has shifted to the present. The author is now “reading” the poem.

Lost in this incessant 
afternoon downpour 
a nameless ax 
decapitates the twilight

In this part of the story, “I” am no longer young, and I can only sustain the recollection of memories and think of her with the image of death that only an aged person can have. And “I” confessed:

Many years have passed since then. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely), people age in the blink of an eye. Each and every moment, our bodies are on a one-way journey to collapse and deterioration, unable to turn back the clock.

And this time, “I”, an experienced writer, have mentioned the number 28 to expand the imagination regarding stone pillows.

With the exception of number 28, that slim little self-published book, bound together with string, is now forgotten,

Song of the Lute 1585 Ding Yunpeng, China

The Chinese poet Liu Yuxi (劉禹錫: 772–842) had 28 siblings and was known as the “Liu Twenty-Eight”. Liu was a great poet himself, but his circumstances were not that favourable, but his friends and great poets, Bai Juyi (白居易: 772-846) and Yuan Chen (元稹 779-831), always respected his talent and composed several poems on him. One of them is a mention of a stone pillow.

I wonder if the number 28 implies respect from a successful old writer (“I”) to a poet who unfortunately could not make a name for herself with her works. If so, considering the many writers Murakami must have met in his life, the author’s respect for his old friend is more than fictional. When the author wrote about the disappeared poet, he must have thought that her situation could have been his own. That is why he hopes that she is still alive somewhere in the world.

Back again to “On a Stone Pillow”. The story ends with a poem that ends with the word “dust”, which can be linked to another classic.

Whether you cut it off 
or someone else cuts it off
if you put your neck on the stone pillow 
believe it—you will turn to dust

The word “dust” reminds of the “Songs to Make the Dust Dance on the Beams (梁塵秘抄: The Ryojin Hisho)”, an anthology of 12th-century Japanese popular songs compiled by Cloistered Emperor Go-Shirakawa (1127-1192). Like modern pop music, many of the lyrics in this anthology are about love, dancing, games, holidays, fashion and parties. Today, the most famous and loved lyrics from this collection are still the following

I am born to play
Born to have fun
When I hear the sound of kids play
My body moves too

(Unknown Poet, 12th century)

The 12th century expression “songs that make the dust dance on the beams” is an expression of the excitement of pop culture, and music has still been written for this poem and is used in various parts of modern pop culture. The following is sung by Hatsune Miku from the Vocaloid software.

Thanks to its inclusion in the anthology, the poem has survived to this day and is loved by many people, although the author’s name is not known.”

‘I’ do not remember ‘her name’ in ‘On a Stone Pillow’. But even if the words have vanished into the dust, the dust may dance again one day somewhere else even if it does not bear the name of the author.

If we’re blessed, though, a few words might remain by our side.