Ah the persimmon, a word from an extinct language of the Powatan people of the tidewater Virginia, spoken until the mid 18th C when its Blackfoot Indian speakers switched to English. It was putchamin, pasiminan, or pessamin, then persimmon, a fruit. Like the tomato, it is a ‘true berry’.
Here in this postcard we have a painting of four kaki: the Japanese persimmon. Of these four fruit, one is nearly ripe; three are yet to ripen. They have been picked three days and shelter under crinkled leaves, still stalked. Now, the surface on which these astringent, tangy fruit rest, isn’t it wondrous in its blue and mottled green? It is veined, a ceramic surface perhaps? The blue-green mottled, veined surface catches reflected light; the shadows are delicate but intense.
You told me that it troubled you to read my stories because so often they stepped between reality and fantasy, truth and playful invention. When you said this I meant to say (but we changed the subject): I write this way to confront what I know to be true but cannot present verbatim. I have to make into a fiction my remembered observations, those intense emotions of the moment. They are too precious not to save, and like the persimmon benefit from laying out in the sun to dry: to be eaten raw; digested to rightly control my ch’i, and perhaps your ch’i too.
So today a story about four kaki, heart-shaped hachiya, and hidden therein those most private feelings, messages of love and passion, what can be seen, what is unseen, thoughts and un-thoughts, mysteries and evasions.
Professor Minoru retired last year and now visits his university for the occasional show of his former colleagues and their occasionally-talented students. He spends his days in his suburban house with its tiny non-descript garden: a dog run, a yard no less. No precious garden. It is also somewhere (to his neighbours’ disgust) to hang wet clothes. It is just grass surrounded by a high fence. He walks there briefly in the early morning before making tea and climbing the stairs to his studio.
The studio runs the whole length of his house. When his wife Kinako left him he obliterated any presence of her, left his downtown studio, and converted three rooms upstairs into one big space. This is where Mosuku, his beautiful Akita, sleeps, coming downstairs only to eat and defecate in the small garden. Minoru and Mosuku go out twice each day: to midday Mass at the university chaplaincy; to the park in the early evening to meet his few friends walking their dogs. Otherwise he is solitary except for three former students who call ‘to keep an eye on the old man’.
He works every day. He has always done this, every day. Even in the busiest times of the academic year, he rose at 5.0am to draw, a new sheet of mitsumatagami placed the night before on his worktable ready. Ready for the first mark.
Imagine. He has climbed the stairs, tea in his left hand, sits immediately in front of this ivory-coloured paper, places the steaming cup to his far left, takes a charcoal stick, and . . . the first mark, the mark from the world of dreams, memories, regrets, anxieties, whatever the night has stored in his right hand appears, progresses, forms an image, a sketch, as minutes pass his movement is always persistence, no reflection or studied consideration, his sketch is purposeful and wholly his own. He has long since learnt to empty his hand of artifice, of all memory.
When Kinako left he destroyed every trace of her, and of his past too. So powerful was his intent to forget, he found he had to ask the way to Shinjuko station, to his studio in the university. He called in a cleaning company to remove everything not in two boxes in the kitchen (of new clothes, his essential documents, 5 books, a plant, Mosuko’s feeding bowl). They were told (and paid handsomely) to clean with vigour. Then the builders and decorators moved in. He changed his phone number and let it be known (to his dog walker friends) that he had decided from now on to use an old family name, Sawato. He would be Sawato. And he was.
His wife, and she was still that legally, had found a lover. Kinako was a student of Professor Minoru, nearly thirty years younger, and a fragile beauty. She adored ‘her professor’, ‘her distinguished husband’, but one day at an opening (at Kinosho Kikaku – Gallery 156) she met an American artist, Fern Sophie Citron, and that, as they say in Japan, was that. She went back to Fern’s studio, where this rather plump middle-aged woman took photographs of Kinako relentlessly in costume after costume, and then without any costume, on the floor, in the bath, against a wall, never her whole body, and always in complete silence. Two days later she sent a friend to collect her belongings and to deliver a postcard to her husband. It was his painting of four persimmon. Persimmon (1985) 54 by 36 cm, mineral pigment on paper.
‘Hiroshi’, she wrote in red biro, ‘I am someone else now it is best you do not know. Please forgive’.
Sawato’s bedroom is on the ground floor now. There is a mat that is rolled away each morning. On the floor there are five books leaning against each other in a table-top self-standing shelf. The Rule of St Benedict (in Latin), The I-Ching (in Chinese), The Odes of Confucius, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter (10th C folk tale) and a manual of Go, the Shogi Zushiki. Placed on a low table there is a laptop computer connected to the Internet, and beside the computer his father’s Go board (of dark persimmon wood), its counters pebbles from the beach below his family’s home. Each game played on the Internet he transcribes to his physical board.
He ascribes his mental agility, his calm and perseverance in his studio practice, to his nightly games of Go in hyperspace. He is an acknowledged master. His games studied assiduously, worldwide.
For 8 months in 1989 he studied the persimmon as still-life. He had colleagues send him examples of the fruit from distant lands. The American Persimmon from Virginia, the Black Persimmon or Black Sapote from Mexico (its fruit has green skin and white flesh, which turns black when ripe), the Mabolo or Velvet-apple native to Philippines - a bright red fruit when ripe, sometimes known as the Korean Mango, and more and more. His studio looked like a vegetable store, persimmons everywhere. He studied the way the colours of their skins changed every day. He experimented with different surfaces on which to place these tannin-rich fruits. He loved to touch their skins, and at night he would touch Kinako, his fingers rich from the embrace of fifty persimmon fruits, and she . . . she had never known such gentleness, such strength, such desire. It was as though he painted her with his body, his long fingers tracing the shape of the fruit, his tongue exploring each crevice of her long, slim, fruit-rich body. She had never been loved so passionately, so completely. At her desk in the University library special collection, where she worked as a researcher for a fine art academic journal, she would dream of the night past and anticipate the night to come, when, always on her pillow a different persimmon, she would fall to ****** and beyond.
Minoru drew and painted, printed and photographed more persimmons than he could keep track of. After six months he picked seven paintings, and a collection of 12 drawings. The rest he burnt. When he exhibited these treasures, Persimmon (1989) Mineral pigment on paper 54, by 36 cm was immediately acquired by Tokyo National Museum. It became a favourite reproduction, a national treasure. He kept seeing it on the walls of houses in magazines, cheap reproductions in department stores, even on a TV commercial. Eventually he dismissed it, totally, from his ever-observant, ever-scanning eyes. So when Kinako sent him the postcard he looked at it with wonder and later wrote this poem in his flowing hand using the waka style:
*Ah, the persimmon
Lotus fruit of the Gods
Heartwood of a weaver’s shuttle,
The archer’s bow, the timpanist sticks,
I take a knife to your ripe skin.
Reveal or not the severity of my winter years.