Kyoto has long been generous to its writers, stretching from Murasaki Shikibu, with “The Tale of Genji,” right through to Yukio Mishima, with “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion.” The poet Matsuo Basho also penned several memorable haiku while decamped here.
To this abridged list comes lyricist and poet Chris Mosdell who, during a six-month stay in Kyoto, penned 88 short meandering poems reflecting his flaneur-like wanders through the city.
The format of the book, and the poems within, follow a tradition started in the Heian Period (794-1185) when poetry was supposedly as prevalent as emailing or text messaging is today. Mosdell takes up this tradition of short-form poetry with two poems to each page, which act as a sort of call and response.
Mosdell’s poems are rendered in English and Japanese, and his photographs add a visual layer to the text. Longtime collaborator Kin Shiotani also provides illustrations and Japanese translations. He also penned simple hand-drawn maps to accompany the poems, providing their physical provenance in the city.
You could, if you wanted, use the poetry collection as a compliment, or alternative, to a guidebook. Granted, “The City that Silk Built” eschews much of what a guidebook provides, but Mosdell’s poetry elucidates something more timeless.
Here he is reflecting on carp: “We are rarely conscious / of how the ordinary is outfitted with extraordinary. / Consider the carp as it swims, / inscribing the pool with its calligraphic masterpieces.”
And here, in Okazaki Shrine in the company of frogs (and the memory of Basho): “As frogs converse / across the star-pocked surface / of an old pond.”