The Plovers’ Cry: Poem Number 78

Western Snowy Plover, bird on Morro Strand State Beach, Morro Bay, CA, “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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

淡路島Awaji shimaThe crying voices
かよふ千鳥のKayou chidori noof the plovers who visit
なく声にNaku koe nifrom Awaji Island—
いくよねざめぬIkuyo nezamenuhow many nights have they awakened him,
すまの関守Suma no sekimorithe barrier-keepers of Suma?
Translation by Dr Joshua Mostow

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 for other seasons, other birds typically represented them:

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 felt 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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