The Plovers’ Cry: Poem Number 78

Snowy Plover Morro Strand

As the weather gets colder, I’ve been saving this one for a time like this:

淡路島 Awaji shima
かよふ千鳥の Kayou chidori no
なく声に Naku koe ni
いくよねざめぬ Ikuyo nezamenu
すまの関守 Suma no sekimori

Which Professor Mostow translates as:

The crying voices
of the plovers who visit
from Awaji Island—
how many nights have they awakened him,
the barrier-keepers of Suma?

The author of the poem, Minamoto no Kanemasa (dates unknown) was a frequent participant in poetry contests of the day, but overall very little is known about him, and it doesn’t appear he had any poetry collections of his own.

The first time I read this poem, in Japanese, I misunderstood the phrase chidori (千鳥) to literally mean 1,000 birds (in other words, a lot of birds). But in fact, chidori refers specifically to plover birds. The plover is representative of winter, and as we’ve seen before other birds represent for other seasons:

The location, Awaji Island, is a well known part of Japan’s inland sea, and is culturally significant since antiquity. Though at this time in history, it seemed a bit remote from the capitol.

Professor Mostow notes that this poem uses some strange grammar though. For example nezamenu would normally mean to not wake up, but in this context means “have they awakened” instead. Also, he notes that this poem apparently alludes to the Tales of Genji, specifically the “Suma” chapter, when the prince Genji was in exile.

All told, this poem paints a sad, somber picture that fits well with wintry days.


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