Thanks to the good folks at The Rabbit Room, I’ve recently been introduced to the poetry of Jukichi Yagi. Yagi was a Japanese Christian poet who lived during the early 20th Century. I was so moved by the piece D.S. Martin posted (a selection from “Soliloquy in Bed”) that I’ve been stealing moments to scour the internet for his work ever since.
The book of his collected works is out of print and I’ve found none for sale thus far, so I’m just copying what I find to a Word doc right now. Of the four I’ve found so far, I was particularly taken with “Pure in Heart” (Please read the whole poem here first). It begins:
Maybe it is unreasonable for me to say this,
but won’t you stop blowing your nose
so loud every morning when I start eating breakfast?
Here is what I loved: this poem is born out of a mundane experience. But you can feel how this “mundane experience” had snowballed–this was not the first time Old Mother blew her nose at meal time.
We laugh, don’t we? We identify with Yagi because we’ve all been stuck beside the guy who whips out his hankie at the restaurant. It’s disgusting, but it’s the repetition that makes me smile. I can identify with someone who puts up with repetitive annoyances like this.
But Yagi continues:
I am no fool to ask you
to be as neat and youthful as a girl of eighteen
now that your eyes and lips are old and tired,
but I want you to be clean and simple.
I felt the humor of Yagi’s first request fading as he started painting Old Mother in greater detail. He moved past a daily annoyance to strike at his wish behind the wish. This was not just about nose blowing at breakfast. The eyes, the lips: Yagi confronted me with decay. Yagi wanted to wish Old Mother’s fading features away. He wanted beauty.
There is something uncanny about you
(Please pardon me for saying such a thing.)
This world is to blame
for your eyes now looking cheerless
and your lips so ugly.
Calling Old Mother “uncanny” strikes at a profoundly Christian concept: we weren’t meant for decay. I don’t know that Yagi had the fall of man in mind here–my intuition would be that he did not–but I can’t help but think of the Garden of Eden and the fall of man. Decay and death are intruders in God’s world. And it is this world that Yagi blames for Old Mother’s condition. Cheerlessness and ugliness.
It pains me to look at this dismal world in your eyes.
Ninety-nine persons out of a hundred
will have horrible eyes when they are old.
This image of a sorrowful, nose-blowing, faded woman lives in my mind. The both of us see her, Yagi and I, and he says, “us too.” He would have, had he not died young. And I will one day have Old Mother’s horrible eyes. I will fade. The fall is pervasive. Decay does not discriminate. But what comes after the fall?
Is there no one to be found like Jesus
who would destroy this fact completely?
Yes. Like Yagi, we see the uncanny nature of Old Mother’s decay and we wish for something better. This is where Jesus steps in. It’s not that old age is evil and youth is the perpetual ideal. That is an American error that itself ought to grow old and die. Rather, the decay that comes with age in our fallen world needs to be shattered. This world wears us down and takes our lives, but Jesus will one day put the final nail in death’s coffin. Yagi longed for that day, as we do now.
But Old Mother’s aging is not the only thing that Yagi wants to see reversed. Inevitably, the poet turns his focus inward:
Only something’s wrong with me
–scorn, self-indulgence, and weakness in me.
That is why I am so sick and tired
of hearing old mother snivel so loud
and being frightened by this unfortunate woman’s eyes
Again, we identify. He makes us identify. We laughed with Yagi, we lamented decay with him, and with him we must recognize that it is not Old Mother’s nose blowing that is the deepest problem. It is our own selfish hearts. It is the fact that we value ourselves and our convenience and pleasure over other people. Other people for whom Jesus died.
I have to be honest, I started off feeling superior to Old Mother. Not morally, but rather as though she existed only as an object of my pity. I felt like shaking my head at her and laughing. But really I’m beneath her. She suffered a great deal and I was ready to laugh at the end result.
But this is what the gospel often does. It takes our intuitions about brokenness, affirms them, and shows the way to redemption through Christ. But we also have to be confronted by the fact that it’s not just this world that is broken. It’s not just the world that makes us weary. We do it too, as individuals. I sin. I scorn. I am self indulgent and weak. And Yagi has the prescription for my (and his) illness:
Am I a person of such little love?
How I wish to meet someone like Jesus
who could break now for me this my heart!