James C. Hopkins & Yoko Danno: From 'Scrolls,' an experimental work in progress (installment two)

[AUTHOR'S NOTE.  Scrolls is a new “experimental” collaboration in progress by James C. Hopkins in Kathmandu and Yoko Danno in Kobe.  One of us writes the first half of a sentence and the other follows up with the rest of the sentence. The latter begins the next sentence and drops it halfway, which is taken over by the former. Writing thus in turn we draw “picture scrolls” with words. There is no rule except that a scroll should consist of five paragraphs. When we start a scroll we never know how it will develop and end. We have set out for adventures in an unknown land without a map or a compass.]


I took a deep breath ten times, facing the morning sun and held it as long as I could possibly hold it. Orchids appeared in front of my eyes, then my long-dead grandmother's face and then a voice spoke to me, "Don't forget to breathe out, my dear, it's important." I looked around but only saw a thin white dog, running frantically down the path behind me. I exhaled, and decided to run after the dog. I needed to figure out why I was always haunted by specters—or should I say—haunted by the same old ghost that seemed intent on taking many different forms. Today the white dog, tomorrow a bunch of purple orchids would be watching me from the dim corner of my room.

Yesterday I saw the noodle shop waitress spying through a crack in the kitchen door. Of course the dog was faster, and I slowed down, thinking it was foolish to run after a phantom. My tooth suddenly began to ache. I wondered what I could eat for lunch—maybe momos? But maybe I wouldn't have lunch today, since we were supposed to be on the road all day, searching for a 5-year-old who had been missing these past few days. She was playing alone in the dry rice-field, while older kids were at school and no one noticed that she had disappeared. I'm sure that she's alive, but we should have known better.

She is easily wrapped up in her imaginary beings and it finally got her into trouble. I'm now quite sure she's below the earth, in a secret chamber, having followed a mole, her dear friend. I should have listened more carefully to her talk about the persuasive power of rodents and sky-drawings of crows, but I simply dismissed it as childhood fantasy—now I know better. In my own childhood I have spent hours folding colored paper into small birds and animals. They were animated while I was playing with them and from time to time one of them would fly out through the kitchen window, or run across the floor and out the door.

This has continued into the present day, where you are expected to see things only with your physical eyes. Yesterday I thought I was watching some foreign letters appearing on the wall of my room although actually there was nothing on the wall but a small black spider with red legs. The next morning, on the way to the noodle shop, a small French man in red stockings came waltzing down the street. He made an abrupt halt before me and asked if I had ever seen him before and I replied "non." Suddenly he leapt into the air, spun around, and raced off with his bushy tail dangling from his butt.

I'm feeling pretty sure the 5-year-old girl is safe by now, protected by the fox, her guardian god, and the fact that she has not yet gone to school. Dogs and foxes have the power to foresee the future, but humans barely understand their languages, which we need to start learning at least by the age of five. Likewise, they will develop a dependency on music and the whirring of locust wings for guidance through life. As for me, I've decided to return to the forest to find the exit of a mole's tunnel, just in case the 5-year old would come out from it. Now I've realized the secret chamber is their underground school and hope to apply for admission, myself. It's never too late for the violin.


This year is bad for azaleas. There was an untimely frost in early May, just before the flower buds were coming out, and now only a few blossoms have appeared in my garden. I'm sitting here, with the party just a week away, wondering how to entertain my guests without the usual full boom of azaleas. I have been planning the party since last autumn, and requested each guest to wear shoes the color of flowers, but so far their choices will be a little limited. White, of course, pink, drooping blue—it seems that nature is not participating in the festivities, but I'm still hoping the yellow and purple of gorgeous irises may stay in bloom. 

But you never can predict nature's whim, especially this time of year. Just as unpredictable this year has been topsy-turvy like having hot summer days in winter, or typhoons in early spring. The other day we had a tremendous tornado which swirled up cats, dogs and people along with houses, cars and shoes, and I saw on TV a monster spider caught up in the swirl as well. When the tornado died down, the monster spider was left in the air and began to take various eerie forms—a huge squid ejecting gloomy ink like a spell, or an enormous octopus-like figure. I felt as if it was going to choke me off with its eight long arms which moved like serpents.

The spider was seen for two days after the storm, then disappeared, and a magnificent rainbow appeared in the clear blue sky. I watched at the spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—and noticed a dark streak of shadow along the inner edge of the arch which seemed to touch the earth just behind a shining new building downtown. I decided to go to the building and have a look—you never know what you can do with this kind of phenomenon until you find out what has caused it. I went up to the roof of the building and found there a pile of ashes still smoldering and a strange-looking lump of melted metal. I took the lump—about the size of a medium-sized coin—and dropped it into my pocket and went home for lunch.

I had forgotten about the lump of metal until a few days later when I heard a strange buzzing sound coming from my clothing closet. I opened the closet door, and found the floor was covered with shining insects, about 3.5 cm long, in gold and green colors, with purple stripes. I groped for the metal lump in the pocket of my jacket but it was gone. Then suddenly I realized that it had given birth to the swarm in my closet—which was spreading in all directions. I picked up one of them, held it to the desk lamp, and it began to sparkle iridescently as though the light from a distant planet had found its way into the cells of the insect. As I held it, it turned to dust in my palm, so I decided to keep the swarm in my closet without touching them.

I wondered what I should feed them with, and left the house to wander the streets—pondering over the strange "insects," azaleas, and the way that storms always bring drastic change. A few blocks away from my house is a butcher shop, and the butcher, who was usually busy chopping meat, was acting funny without any lump of meat on the chopping board. With a knife in each hand he was beating the board like a drummer and singing at the top of his voice. The song was something like this: "Flowers in summer never last, and the azaleas are nowhere now. Come back, come back, my sweet azaleas!" and suddenly I became worried about the multicolored shiny insects in my closet, the party, and the dogs that had been blown into the air. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, turned around and headed into the nearest bar.


Where have you been hiding?" I asked the face in the mirror—not having seen it for what seemed like years. Actually it had only been a few days since I met this strange, foreign woman. She was smiling in the mirror as if she had swallowed a canary, which she may well have for all I know, but at the moment she wasn't hungry for sure. Behind her head, in the tree outside the window, was a big calico cat, peering into the room, waiting for a chance to pounce at anything alive. I opened the window to warn off the cat but accidentally fell with a crash into the bushes below. Gracefully jumping to my feet, I made a lunge for the cat, but it disappeared into the air, screaming like hell.

I tried to go back to my room but the window was tightly closed from inside and, staring out at me as though I were crazy, was my younger sister, who had disappeared more than three years ago! I opened my mouth and she vanished in front of me like a story that had never been told. It was she who had left home, I muttered to myself, and left me to tend to the flowers. Is it possible that she could have returned, after having eaten the cactus flowers I had cooked for her? She had gone wild and run away for good, it seemed, but her sudden return started me wondering. I ran around to the front door of the house, which stood open, and called out, "Anybody there?"

"Welcome home!" my sister responded from inside the house, and suddenly I realized it was 1975 and I was out of orange flavored Tang drink, but there were Oreo cookies in the cabinet, a parakeet in a cage by the red sofa, and one of my toes was bleeding onto the carpet. I shouted, "Bring me a paper towel," and sensed someone approaching, but there was no answer. I remembered I had fallen from the window, when my toe must have been injured, but after that was a blur, and now it seemed I could only imagine my adult life as a kind of dream. Completely confused, I walked into the kitchen and looked at the calendar to make sure if it was really 1975.

It was in fact September 1975—and yet my mind was somehow still my "adult" mind, observing and participating in my childhood life, just as though nothing unusual had happened. I went to the door and hesitated to open it. In my childhood I always had a "fear" mixed with expectation before opening a door and this moment was no exception. Nonetheless I opened the front door, and realized the world outside was 2013 and that I had been planning to plant some autumn flowers, but found my garden grown wild with brambles. I was shocked because I had always kept it neat, knowing that controlling nature is controlling gods.

I picked a handful of cactus flowers and, instead of cooking them, strewed the petals all over the rambling garden, praying intensely that order and balance should return to nature as well as to my mind. But nothing happened except where each flower petal had fallen there appeared a cat with a ribbon around its neck, sitting patiently and staring at me as if waiting for a command. Beneath the tree was the calico cat that I'd tried to catch earlier in the day and I blinked twice, focusing my thought on the strange woman who had smiled in the mirror, then on my sister who had re-disappeared and the calico cat under the tree. I looked again in the mirror and found, to my distress, that the strange foreign woman had returned! I yelled at her to leave me in peace, but the only sound from my mouth was a deep and menacing purrrrrrr...

[NOTE. The full series of Scrolls, still in progress, can be found on the Ikuta Press web site, from Kobe, Japan, at http://ikutapress.com/index.html, and an early selection appeared as well on Poems and Poetics.  About Yoko Danno’s equally experimental move from writing in Japanese to writing in English, Gary Snyder has written in his “Introduction” to a projected collection of her poems, Heading for A Further Center: “Yoko Danno has chosen to write poetry in English rather than Japanese. She has been doing this for more than 20 years. It is not that she has lived a long time out of Japan. Although she herself might not say so, I think that her choice of English is part of a strategy toward the solution of contemporary dichotomies and unearthing of the deepest roots. If she wrote these poems in Japanese she would run the risk of sounding precious or archaic. The bluntness of English is an excellent foil for her subtleties.”  Excerpts from her translation of the ancient Japanese Kojiki can be found elsewhere on Poems and Poetics.

James C.Hopkins is the author of 4 volumes of poetry, including two in collaboration with Yoko Danno.  He lives alternately in Washington, DC. and Kathmandu, where he studies Buddhist philosophy at a Tibetan monastery & directs a microfinance project, Quilts for Kids Nepal, in a nearby encampment of Indian beggars. His most recent book, Many Threads:  Invisible Children of Nepal (The Ikuta Press, 2012), is a book of photographs & verse based on his experiences in that community.]