1. In Japanese, “petal” is a unit of measurement referring to (i) pages in a book (ii) clouds, or (iii) flowers. “Petal” is an aesthetic rather than literal measurement, useful not for its precision, but for an associative poetry: together these three images seem to tell us something about beauty but do so silently, magisterially, and like a tangent to some larger conversation. (But there is no larger conversation. Life, after all, is only a series of digressions — a series of exquisite contacts by which we apprehend what is left between parentheses.)
2. (Even now, and having overcome religion, I am struck by a line in the Book of Kings: “Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.”)
3. (Between parentheses god exists — and god is as fragile as a lily.)
4. The reputation of the seventh century poet Liu Xiyi rests entirely on a single couplet. It is as notable for its history as for its excellence, having granted the poet, in one turn, both celebrity and death. The stories of this death are disputed; two emerge as more likely than the others. The first is simple: a courtier in the imperial palace of Empress Wu deemed the verse satirical, and ordered the poet’s execution. The second, less believable (the result, I would wager, of a storyteller’s indecorous flourish) is, perhaps, most true. As soon as he had composed the poem, Liu presented it to his uncle, the poet Song Zhiwen. This uncle asked if anyone else had yet laid eyes on it; Liu replied that no one had; he had brought it to his uncle directly upon its completion. Song requested that Liu bequeath one of its couplets to him as a gift, for use in his own poem. Liu, overjoyed at his uncle’s approval, immediately agreed. But, later that evening, he regretted the decision, and, appearing before his uncle the next day, recanted. Song smiled, agreed, and sent him off. That evening, however, as Liu lay dreaming, Song’s servant appeared in his doorway, and, approaching the bedside, forced soil down the throat of the sleeping poet, suffocating him to death. Though he is now largely forgotten, the couplet is not. It concerns the eternal life of flowers, and the briefness of our own.
5. Many of his poems were written with a woman’s eye. Was he stricken, perhaps, by a fever of spring blossoms?
6. In eleventh century Kyoto, the aristocracy popularized an architectural style known as shinden, constructing, on one acre estates, villas surrounded by vast gardens, which, in a miniaturized nature, represented the various topographies of Japan. The villas themselves were built largely without walls; were instead an architecture of doors, which slid easily back and forth, and were thus often opened during the day, facing southward onto the garden. Beyond the doors lay a verandah, from which the noblemen and ladies-in-waiting could observe ornate theatrical productions, play games of chess, gossip, or whisper, to one another, sweet nothings. On the verandah, civilization and nature met and mingled among bright kimonos and tea vapors.
7. (The streams that flowed through the gardens of the Kyoto aristocracy were set precisely upon the incline at which petals float most amicably.)
8. Shinden, however, was a metonym for the entire complex; literally, shinden referred to its primary structure. Translated, its name means, “Hall of Sleepers.”
9. This name suggests that the shinden is in fact an architecture, not only of doors, but of dreams. The villa, lacking both walls and secure interior partitions (relying instead on painted screens), was as porous as the human mind; words lingered in the air; one conversation absorbing another; the hems of many-layered vermillion kimonos, or lapis-hued slippers, passed behind screens and columns; and poems were blown about on the floor by spring breezes. Just beyond was an imagined nature; a carefully orchestrated performance of bees and lilies and chirping sparrows; of pines and wild stags; of distant mountains borrowed from the horizon, framed by the hedges, such that the gardens resembled the painted screens which arranged and rearranged themselves daily inside the house, and life itself was made to reflect art; life itself was the dream of an aesthetic civilization.
10. The court dress of ladies-in-waiting was composed of twelve layers of luxuriously colored robes so heavy that they were left largely immobile in their homes, rarely traveling even past the edge of the verandahs; as such, they relied largely on gossip for information about the world beyond. The shinden home, in which privacy was at best an illusion created by the painted screens, was particularly suited to the enterprise. The thin screens were as much facilitators of gossip as they were partitions, or objects of art. This is evident in paintings of the period, where the exemplary physiological expression is the tilted head. This was a society of subtle listeners. Shinden is, above all, an illicit architecture.
11. In the most intimate writing, there is always this sense of a whispered conversation overheard from behind a screen — paper thin and beautifully painted. Guilty enchantment, in place of a narrative, compels us on. (It is telling that one of the two most famous works of Japanese literature is a diary.)
12. The most famous episode of the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber takes place in a garden vaster even than those of ancient Kyoto. Contained in it are rock gardens, waterfalls, pavilions on high cliffs, wild cranes, lacquered halls, peach orchards, petal-strewn paths, and young ladies-in-waiting. One of them, Lin Dai Yu, sits beside a small stream, weeping over the fallen blossoms. She fears they will be crushed by animals, so she collects them in a small silk bag and buries them in the soil. Afterwards, she composes a poem in their memory.
13. “What is the name of your novel?” asked Lord Fujiwara of Lady Murasaki. “The tale,” she replied, “of one thousand and one petals.”
14. Petals are symbolic to us; we touch them with our finger tips and think not of their beauty in themselves but their beauty as it relates to literature, to poems we recall in snatches; or to days of spring when we loved and were loved in return; or to forgotten dynasties and royal houses. We touch them and are enveloped in rosy hues, in subtle shades of pink, which make us tremble intimately, for we do not feel the touch of a single petal but of all the petals we have ever touched, or dreamed of touching.
15. That is, the symbol of the petal has usurped the petal itself; the petal we perceive is a mere reflection of its poetic counterpart. This is peculiar perhaps to petals, whose beauty have so captivated the centuries of our literature that we have entombed them in language.
16. Language is a dreamed architecture, built only of doors and hallways. I pass through it, out into gardens, ponds, and pine forests, into other doors, other hallways, going nowhere, unable to return to where I have been, dreaming, aimlessly, of fallen blossoms. The kingdom of flowers is within us.