Two Deep Breaths: The Zuihitsu
By Caitlin Dwyer
I’ve been reading a lot about the attention crisis. You know, that people these days can’t focus on anything? That we’re too used to flipping through social media at speed? That we can’t read deeply any more, that doomscrolling the pandemic has made our minds flighty and flickering?
On one hand, I too bemoan my lack of focus. For me it’s not just being in front of a screen; it’s the everyday horror of the news, the isolation caused by coronavirus, the general sense that everything we know and rely on can evaporate overnight. All these things contribute to a feeling of skimming the surface, constantly multitasking without ever going deeper.
On the other hand, I don’t think inattention is anything new. The human mind loves to flit around and get distracted. I find some comfort in poetry because poets allow their minds to lead them. What they notice shows up on the page. If those observations are weird, disconnected, or distracted, so what? Poems track the action of someone thinking, and to me, thinking is super interesting.
Kimiko Hahn, a contemporary poet, adapted an old Japanese form of essay called the zuihitsu into her poetry in her 2006 book The Narrow Road to the Interior. She was searching for a poetic form that had “a sense of disorder.” The zuihitsu was originally an essay style “consisting of brief essays on random topics” Hahn quotes in her book, but she says that zuihitsu nowadays feel closer to poetry. The zuihitsu Hahn writes are loose, random, and beautiful.
“Wellfleet, Midsummer” is such a random assortment of thoughts. I immediately notice how much space and time each section covers. In the first, she’s sitting in a chair in midsummer heat. In the second, dozing in the grass. In the third, inside a cabin looking at pine trees. They are written at different times and places, and then clustered together on the page. It’s very disorienting—on purpose.
When you put the random fragments together, they tell a story: the recently divorced speaker is on a vacation at the seaside with a new love. She’s also mourning her mother’s death. We can kind of figure out that she’s feeling sad about those big changes, but also hopeful. Still, the way this poem moves feels like a kind of delightfully attentive inattention, what the poet Ross Gay calls “fleeting intense attentions.” In other words, Hahn pays attention to one thing really intensely, but very briefly, and then moves on. She doesn’t feel compelled to make connections or tie it up in a bow. This writing is just a record of what she sees, feels, and notices while at this place (Wellfleet) and time (midsummer 2000).
Is it a series of diary entries? Is it a poem? Who knows? In a pandemic, when our minds and bodies are scattered and sore, the zuihitsu form feels like an invitation to embrace the chaos.
So here’s an invitation for you! If you like this style and are a PCC student, join me for a free creative writing workshop this week: Keeping a Pandemic Diary. Observing the world is part of what makes life interesting, especially in a time of isolation and crisis. Learn about how the Japanese zuihitsu form can be used to keep a diary of your observations, and practice writing a pandemic diary of your own. March 10, 7:00 – 8:30 pm, on Zoom.
In midsummer heat when I cannot sit in one chair for more than a few moments, like Shikishi, I feel sad for no reason.
Dozing in the grass, I wish I had paid attention to my mother: I
cannot distinguish one birdcall from another.
In the room overlooking pine, I stop thinking of Mother’s death and
think of my lover’s hands only to recall Mother brushing knots
from my hair.
Far from the former husband, this rain-soaked marsh is where I
know a downpour will last. And the lover’s breadth.
From my bedroom, branches of pine are white, blanketed with
ancient lichen. If we are as fortunate.
On the third day of rain—nature from indoors is without a scent,
even ozone. All—excepting his humidity.
At low tide this marsh pools around the road, the vein from the
illicit cottage to the unfeeling world.
It is the heart-that-is-afraid-to-be-heard, this bridge over the salt
marsh at high tide. Still—it is passable—
He picks up a box turtle in the middle of the road. He’s fifty-two
but believes it will bring childhood back in a box.
The tide pulls out and the grasses simmer alive in the twilight. If my
heart were only this marsh!
From grasses fretting with oysters and crabs, the mud stutters and I
can tell you wait for another dusk to ask me. And I am not
At low tide the water empties below the service road and the mud
twitches with seven kinds of crab. Now you can leave but won’t.
At dawn, wading in the bay’s shallows, I am pinched by something
sharp—I still feel beside myself.
Do not think of the past for the moment—except for the tree my daughter
planted from a lemon seed when her grandmother was living.
Insect cries cannot compete with his single-finger touch-typing. Or
perhaps, this midmorning, it’s my hearing.
Where have the geese gone? I wonder this in the corona of my lover’s
sleep—as Princess Shikishi wondered the same from her vestal
He cares for my so much he buys a slice of mudpie then scolds me
for eating it. It is early summer! So what!
In the tidal pool a half dozen hermit crabs scuffle over an empty
shell which the largest wins but cannot fit into. That.
Kimiko Hahn is the author of ten books of poems. She also writes for film and the visual arts. Honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, PEN/Voelcker Award, Shelley Memorial Prize, a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award as well as fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the N.Y. Foundation for the Arts. She is a distinguished professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing & Literary Translation at Queens College, The City University of New York.