“The Moon, This Unending Night”

Melissa Frederick created “The Moon, This Unending Night” from English translations of the Japanese Hyakunin Isshu by William N. Porter (1909) and Clay MacCauley (1899). Please click here to read.

About the process of composition, Melissa Frederick writes:

This is another group of poems that I’ve based on old translations of Hyakunin Isshu, an anthology of tanka (one hundred poets, one poem each) published in the 13th century and including some work written centuries before that. The two translations I’ve been drawing on were published around the turn of the 20th century, when Japanese society had already become more westernized and open to westerners living in Japan. (One of the translators, Clay MacCauley, even spent 25 years there as a Unitarian missionary.)

It gets difficult describing all the layers of words—poems, translations, translations of translations (as in MacCauley’s work, which includes direct translations of the original Japanese). The process of crafting my own poems from this material was relatively simple. I banked words and phrases from the two translations and created my own tanka from those banks. While I stuck with the five-line structure of the traditional tanka, I did not follow the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic convention. I wanted to give myself room to play with form, to tease meaning out of unusual word combinations.

I also decided early on to center the imagery of my pieces around the moon. (The moon! I write a lot about the moon.) In my first bundle of poems (see Heron Tree volume 8), I included a mention of the moon in every tanka. Recently, I’ve expanded the symbolic presence of the moon to include terms connected with it in the translations: snow, frost, white, cold, mother.


Also by Melissa Frederick at Heron Tree: [43], [32], “Summer Isotherms,” “While I Lie with the Beehives,” and “Once More, the Moon.”