Lafcadio Hearn, Mr. Kwaidan

hearn

Given nothing but lumps of coal
and extreme pressures all his life
Hearn forged in the depths of his soul
fine diamonds into a keen knife
with which he cut loose from the past
and traveled far, a refugee
from West to East, devout outcast—
a lotus flower floating free.
Scholar of suffering, he knew
what others felt as the Other;
short of stature, of olive hue,
and abandoned by his mother.
An orphan of so many lands,
he was a boy born from two climes
and tossed between so many hands
to become a man of the Times.
Blind in one eye, yet he could see
more clearly things that mattered most,
despising modern industry,
and mourning Japan’s ancient ghost.
Loathing the Old Testament creed,
his heart leapt at pagan creatures,
seeing in them the ideal breed
of human joy with wild features.
He was said to be of those men
aloof and adrift in his ties,
yet tried to avenge a kitten
when a man blinded its eyes.
Some claim he stole tongues from the dead
whereby to tell tales not his own,
but storytelling is well-read
in itself—nib of ancient bone.
What stories had been given them
that gave him in turn, came ago,
extending thus from sleeve to hem,
till he wrote them for us to know.
Should we judge from utopia
a wayfarer of unfair fate
when, steeped in myopia,
living well at a later date?
Is he an appropriator
of cultures belonging to those
who gave him his nomenclature
and his set of kimono clothes?
Who faults da Vinci his paintings
of the Madonna and her child?
It is, in life, of the plain things
that motifs are copied, then styled.
What privileges did he boast
(which critics have afterwards claimed)
when as an orphan, coast to coast?
Not more than “gender” can be named.
Before the fortune and the fame
he lived many years in a barn,
laying upon hay, cold and lame,
and only frayed daydreams to darn.
A Greek, he witnessed the Banshee
faceless upon a flight of stairs;
a Celt, he saw Persephone
rising from Plutonian lairs.
Born to love a well-told story,
his soul was half Irish and Greek,
he sought what was grim and gory
being small, but not at all meek.
Like Hearn himself, Japan did take
and borrow from other countries,
their tales oft of meaning and make
as in China, and its sundries.
Why should that be a jackdaw flaw
for him to know good seeds from bad?
To replant a seed breaks no law
when fertile crops are to be had.
Should we let all be so fallow
that all seeds should wither and wane
when someone who is not callow
should grow the crop with his rain?
As for his much-beloved wives,
he learned from them of tastes and tones,
living as a man of odd lives—
a soul reborn which dharma hones.
He had a freed-slave wife back when
it was a grave crime in the States,
but he was a radical then—
a rebel against such mandates.
True, his ambition would end it
and he would leave her all alone,
but destiny chomped at the bit
and there were yet fields to be sown.
Fate took him faraway, not done
with his strange life and its strange ride,
to the Land of the Rising Sun
to find his Mama Sama bride.
Soon adopted into a clan
of Samurai, to which his wife
was a noblewoman, the man
found for himself a peaceful life.
This is why today he is yet
celebrated in Chicago
for every gory vignette
of that city’s vast crimson glow,
and why his cookbook of Orleans
is used by Creoles and Cajuns,
a French tongue for all tastes and scenes
he was loved like other Bay sons,
and why, in the land of Japan,
he is still respected today,
known as the learned Western man
who heard what their ghosts had to say.
And so Hearn traveled very far, 
floating like a leaf on the wind,
living a story as bizarre
as a Kwaidan tale by the end.

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