“Production of Silk” by Miho Nonaka appears in the Mar/Apr 2017 issue of KROnline.
Like a poet, a silkworm lives under a strange curse: when it spits, what comes out is a shimmering thread, a beauty in which it entombs itself, at the mercy of a world that covets more than it values. Miho Nonaka’s lovely lyric essay “Production of Silk” makes this analogy explicit, weaving together childhood lessons in the rough magic of raising silkworms with the silken violence of writing workshops. The common thread that she spins out in a series of brief, exquisite vignettes is the encounter with all that cannot be translated—within language, within culture, within our hearts as we wind ourselves into the “unearthly room” of our own longing.
They were like “cowboys,” the two white American poets visiting our month-long workshop in Europe. Many of us, including me, admired their poetry. Wasn’t it worth traveling to the continent, if we get the chance to see such stars on their summer gig/vacation? Mr. P., a prominent poet in his own right, led the workshop, and I was his wild card. For their particular visit, he casually chose my poem that had silkworms, mulberry leaves, and the image of a mother inside a cocoon like a chrysalis.
“I don’t believe this,” Cowboy 1 says of my cocooned mother imagery.
Like a patient father, Mr. P tried to ease the tension by turning the visitor’s aversion into advice. “What changes would you suggest to make it real?”
“As I said, this isn’t a poem,” Cowboy 1 growled, “I just don’t believe any of it for a second.”
There’s something both tender and brutal about the way that silkworms are raised: tiny, fragile, insatiable in their hunger, the worms are infants in the care of the children charged with raising them in the author’s elementary school in Japan. It’s the male worms that are valued, producing a higher grade of silk that’s easier to harvest when one boils the cocoons with the worms still curled inside them. (When pressed to name female poets whose work is worth reading, the Cowboys can only come up with Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, and, “Wait, what was the name of that woman I chose for the poetry prize last year?”)
Nonaka’s essay probes this brutal art of producing both silk and poems, finding within it the image of what can’t—and so must—be written.
The motif of a silk cocoon as the inaccessible, lyrical interior goes back to the early stages of Japanese poetics. The cocoon encases the image of the beloved, the poet’s longing that keeps building, inside, and in my poem it holds the mother as a mythical seamstress stitching blue in each wrist of her unborn daughter.
What the silkworm embodies in Japanese poetry is the transformative power of desire, which can turn mulberry leaves into shimmering threads, unrequited love into communion, ironic distance into real poetry. The oldest collection of Japanese poetry—the mid-eighth century, Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves)—contains a poem that considers the short life of the silkworm enviable, as it works this harsh sacrificial magic. “I confess that I find myself wishing the same,” Nonaka writes, “for brief moments when I am in a particularly hostile writing workshop, or more generally, when the gap between language and life seems to have grown to the point where the very act of translation feels gratuitous.”
It is the fate of silkworms and poets to weave their own gleaming shrouds. And yet, the impulse to spin out these threads is as much blessing as curse: it is, Nonaka observes, an act of intimacy, a process of purification almost to translucence. Her prayer before writing is to be “spared the fate of dying with un-spun thread still inside my body.” This delicate but piercing essay, like the savage process it describes, reminds us both of the beauty that the poet spins out within the hidden chambers of the heart and its terrible cost.