Miyamoto Musashi’s Poetry

Shrike on a Withered Branch,  ink painting by Niten (Miyamoto Musashi)

Shrike on a Withered Branch, ink painting by Niten (Miyamoto Musashi)

we reconstruct the man
from shards of paper and pottery
(a shrike in ink
a small wooden bodhisattva
a practical treatise on swordplay)

he said his only teacher was Nature
which is a fine thing to say
when you're good at everything

they say he slew Ganryū
with a length of oar
he'd whittled on impulse into a sword

so much for the soul of the samurai:
not metal, flashing and hard
priceless and irreplaceable

only a discarded wooden spar
emerging from refuse
to refuse returning

and perhaps his poems were the same
nourished by earth and water
whispering an answer to wind
burbling off towards the long sea

and this is how history left him
and this is how I might find him:

an old man on a mountain
preparing future warriors for poetry
writing his way back
into the world that wrote him

when he emerges from his grotto to converse with the single scarred wholeness of the moon, I steal towards his poems and brush the pages across my hands, like reaching for a damselfly at rest, to see how his brush struck a river through the page. My guard thus lowered, I do not see him enter; and this old man, who holds life and death in either callused hand—this man asks me with a child's eagerness which ones I like best, and whether I would like to take any of them home with me; and I smile, relieved, as if a falling hawk had not struck my eyes, but instead alighted on my glove; and I say, no need, I will remember them.

and in these days you may notice me grinning at nothing, or pausing on the morning after a storm to admire a branch that has split our path; I may spend time contemplating a mushroom, or a flickering bat; perhaps I'll take a breath, secretly watching your eyes sing across space like the compass moon; yes, perhaps you'll notice

and you may stare and ask me what I am doing

and I will answer

"I am reading Miyamoto Musashi's poetry."

About Musashi, and This Poem

The son of a poor country samurai, Miyamoto Musashi (1583-1645 CE) resolved early in his youth to become the finest swordsman in all Japan. He was more than successful in this endeavor. Throughout Musashi's sixty-two years of life, he fought over sixty duels, winning all but one (in a rematch fight, Musō Gonnosuke, master of the jō staff, fought Musashi to a draw) and besting such illustrious opponents as Sasaki Kojirō "Ganryū," progenitor of the Swallow Style; Shishidō Baiken, expert in the kusari-gama chain-sickle; and all 60 to 100 members of the Yoshioka sword school at the same time. Although he is most renowned for his advances in the daishō style (fencing with a long and short samurai sword simultaneously), Musashi's favorite weapon was the wooden sword. Despite a reputation for never bathing (he didn't want to be ambushed in the bath) and wearing rough clothing, Musashi traveled in the most refined circles of Japanese society, where he shared his genius as a painter, calligrapher, sculptor, potter, gardener, and metallurgist; in these disciplines as well as in his martial pursuits, he claimed never to have had any formal teacher. Today his Niten Ichi-ryū sword style is still practiced, and his paintings of natural and Buddhist subjects delight art students as much as his Go rin no sho (Book of Five Rings) pleases martial arts enthusiasts. He is the subject of Yoshikawa Eiji's bestselling historical novel Miyamoto Musashi, which has been adapted into a film trilogy starring Mifune Toshirō; and a comic series, Inoue Takehiko's Vagabond.

It was documented that Musashi was a poet … but mysteriously, none of his poetry has survived. Here is what I think about that.