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  • Optical Allusions: Screens, Paintings, and Poetry in Classical Japan (ca. 800–1200) by Joseph T. Sorensen
  • Sarah Strong (bio)
Optical Allusions: Screens, Paintings, and Poetry in Classical Japan (ca. 800–1200). By Joseph T. Sorensen. Brill, Leiden, 2012. viii, 293 pages. €115.00.

Anyone with even a glancing knowledge of Japanese culture is aware of the index of natural images, each cued to a particular period of seasonal time and associated with a cluster of related terms, that was established by Heian aristocratic culture and has had a lasting impact on many aspects of Japanese visual and literary art. Today, one need only flip over a hanafuda playing card and observe, for example, the bush warbler perched on a branch of flowering plum to be reminded of the convention’s enduring strength. While the role of waka verse, especially the first imperial poetry anthology Kokinshū (also, Kokinwakashū [Collection of ancient and modern times], ca. 905), in shaping this seasonally based aesthetic has been well studied, the influence of painting and poems about painting in defining the parameters of classical poetic expression and imagery is far less understood. In this book, Joseph Sorensen addresses this lack by examining the role of visuality in Heian poetic production, focusing in particular on screen poems (byōbu uta).

The folding screens (byōbu), on which the commissioned poems were inscribed, were made of hinged wooden panels covered in silk or thick paper. A normal configuration in Heian times was a set of four screens (one for each of the four seasons), with each screen comprised of six panels. More than other Heian screen types, the painted folding screens were used ceremonially, especially by the highest-ranking aristocrats who presented them as gifts for display on formal occasions (p. 40). At such times, lower-ranking office holders known for their poetic skill would be requested to compose poems for the screens. Ordinarily these vocational poets did not themselves have visual access to the screens and based their compositions on written descriptions provided by the sponsors. Ki no Tsurayuki (ca. 872–945), one of the four editors of Kokinshū and author of its well-known Japanese preface, is a prime example of a vocational poet frequently commissioned to compose [End Page 446] screen poems. Over half of his extant poetic output is screen poems. While Sorensen acknowledges that composition of screen poetry became especially prevalent in the tenth century after the compilation of Kokinshū, he also points to the formative influence the genre had on that volume. In particular, he sees such hallmarks of Kokinshū style as mitate, the “seeing” of a thing as something other than itself (such as blossoms as snow), and the related rhetorical strategy of elegant confusion as a consequence, at least in part, of the requirements of screen poem composition (p. 69).

The project of examining the relationship between painting and poetry in the Heian period is made particularly challenging by the fact that only one painted screen from the time survives, the eleventh-century Tōji Mountains and Waters screen. Even this screen lacks poetic inscription, although the poem squares (shikishigata) where poetry could be inscribed are clearly visible. The abundance of extant screen poems from the period, however, and the many headnotes explaining the circumstances of the poems’ composition enable a meaningful investigation of this topic. Screen poems have recently become the focus of extensive research in Japan, with the first book-length study, Tajima Tomoko’s two-volume Byōbu uta no kenkyū (Izumi Shoin, 2007). In English, Gustav Heldt has devoted a chapter to the politics of screen poetry composition in his book The Pursuit of Harmony: Poetry and Power in Early Heian Japan (East Asia Program, Cornell University, 2008).

Sorensen’s approach to this topic is broadly couched and literary in its focus. To frame his study, he invokes the Greek-derived term ekphrasis, “a verbal elaboration of a visual representation” (p. 5), and uses well-known examples of ekphrasis from both Western and East Asian canons (including John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”) to trace the range of topics the genre typically inspires, such as the contrast between stasis and movement...


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pp. 446-450
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