Wash My Letter in the River

Nonfiction / Naomi Washer

:: Wash My Letter in the River ::

Dear Angelo,

There is a term in Japanese literature called shasei. In English, it translates to ‘descriptive realism.’ At least that is the first definition I found when I read it in a book. When I researched it myself, I found that the concept had undergone an evolution over time, by different poets, but centered primarily on the following phrases and descriptions:


paint from nature / sketch from nature / depicting life / depicting life by empathizing with real objects / not a technique, process, or means, but a totality

The word shasei resides mainly in the world of haiku. Haiku are meant to be descriptions of scenes, rather than abstract thoughts or reflections. The goal is to be true to the scene. Haiku are to be written from actual experiences rather than imagined ones. Haiku should be written while observing the chosen scene, not later from memory. One cannot write a summer haiku in the winter, as summer could not have been experienced at the moment of writing.

Takahama Kyoshi (1874 – 1959) insisted on the pure-objective shasei. The objective shasei must contain no human emotion, even while it must depend on the subjective, personal, emotional response of the reader. The haiku itself must not include any “emotional” words; however, readers must take away an emotional resonance from their encounter with the haiku, regarding the perspective of the haikuist. This speaks to the theory of transactional haiku poetics, a theory which emphasizes the social nature of haiku—the sort of “call and response” the form conjures between writer and reader. This theory views the haiku as a moment of cohesion, of union, of two figures who share the felt significance of a poem.

The internal shasei follows many of the same principles as the objective. The internal shasei is a written phrase that corresponds to an inner feeling of the moment. It is inspired by an external scene around you (“poems hung on a clothesline from the porch to the forest/river: how do the poems dry?”). Shasei is a copy of a subject. But it is also an emphasis on the most essential elements (“the red door, the cast iron pan, the limestone walk, the rusted mailbox”).

The haiku is the genre, the shasei the concept.

The poet Shiki (1867-1902), who originally coined the term shasei, evolved its definition over time to include the term makoto—a continuation of the meaning of shasei.


sincerity / truth / significance / faithfulness / genuineness / poetic truthfulness

In haiku, the embodiment of makoto is shasei directed toward inner reality. In this case, the subject rendered is the self of the poet. The self is experienced objectively, like that of any thing experienced in nature.

One more I want to call your attention to:


scenery / landscape / expressing the concrete image of a thing just as it is / expression in which landscape is depicted, charged with emotional resonance / not merely a copy—environmental expressions that take on their own significance

In our letters, I gave you words, brief descriptions of a place you’ve never been. A place I used to live. I showed you the house in a photograph. That was all. In the fields, you found a poem. The poem was my house. You called it The Red Door.


There once was a fiction writer. He mailed me a box of autumn leaves from Vermont because I lived in Chicago and I missed Vermont, and he gathered the leaves on his hands and knees in the dark so that he could not even see their color (he could not even see if they had color), and all this sounds selfless I know, until I think how poetic he must have felt out there in the leaves.

I sat on a bench all afternoon in the public square in my neighborhood. I sat there till the golden hour, till the lamppost turned on. I’d been watching some children play together in a large pile of leaves. They kept running to the leaves, grabbing as many as they could hold, running back to their parents (who were ignoring them) and throwing the leaves above their heads. Every time, the wind whipped the leaves into a circle around the children’s bodies as they fell to the ground, and every time, the children squealed with delight. Golden light was all around the square when they began calling out each other’s names. “Felix! Felix! Come on, Felix!” And suddenly it hit me that a few months before, I saw these same children playing underneath a willow tree in the nearby park—my favorite willow tree. They’d been constructing a home, protecting each other. Suddenly I’m simultaneously on that bench in the square and sitting in the grass in the park two months before, watching these kids, scribbling down on yellow legal paper everything they say.


I worked at a soup and sandwich shop in the city. It was a booth in a larger indoor market with many other stands: coffee, crepes, donuts. I’d never worked with food before; it took a long time to adjust. At the start, I found it oddly satisfying. I liked being semi-anonymous—a first name, no curiosity to know anything more. And I liked the repetition. I liked the routine. I liked tapping my card to the reader, being admitted through the doors labeled Employee Access. I liked the shunk and whirr of the sanitizer. I liked wrapping sandwiches up tight and handing them off to customers. But what I liked even more than this was being able to write you of all of it.

Cooking soup one morning at the shop, someone nearby spoke words that reminded me of you, of a conversation we had had about windows, about my window tattoo, what it was made of (“bones or skin?”), and how it helped me see. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and turned it on to write you, but when I turned it on I found that you had already written me, had already sent me a poem, a poem for me, which is different than a poem about me, though it seemed to be.


I went to North Carolina like I always do in summer for a week. Before I left, you knew I was feeling low. But I hadn’t even said. You told me maybe I needed a break from poetry. From talking about it. Listen: poetry wearies me. You exhaust me with all the effort I must give to correspondence. So I went to North Carolina. I sat on a porch and drank coffee and walked along the river at the town’s edge. I saw many beautiful things. I saw things as you might see them: rocks piled on the riverbank / a black rocking chair on a porch / signs missing letters / my grandmother’s quilt. You found my poem(s). I wrote to you on yellow legal paper at midnight on the bank of the river. It began to rain lightly, and an old drunk man stumbled past singing I was born by the river. . . he sat by me as I finished writing your letter, and we spoke of writing and love and war. He told me of the girl he’d known in Jamaica who made everyone else dissolve away. And we wrote a poem together, there on the yellow legal paper:

Rain fell like some hint of things to come / and the river kept on with or without us / ebb and flow / tomorrow where will we be / what we are or what we should be.

Back home in Chicago, I wander into the kitchen to find the fridge magnet poetry a friend composed the other night during my party:

perhaps we hand our poetry a sky

A text message I won’t send you: I like your picture too much to “like” it on Facebook.

You said: I want a girl who is a heliotrope—in the day, she’ll turn to her interests and passions; in the night, she’ll turn to me. I can only deal with those who are heliotropes too, who understand that I am heliotrope.

A video message you sent: in bed shouting the poem is the body the poem is the body the poem is in the body the poem is in the body 

You said: nothing is final until physical correspondence.

Sketching from life; a genuine totality; an expression of a thing just as it is

A letter I wrote and never sent you:


I have been afraid to tell you this.

I have done this before. This correspondence between poets. It is troubling to me because the first time, it failed supremely. In college I fell into an affair with a poet. We wrote to each other, of each other, about each other. We confused love/romance and poems. We confused poets and poems. It destroyed me, but also made me into who I am now. Made me obsessed. Made me walk the line between poems and context, reality and fantasy, idealism and disillusionment.

I have been wary of our co / respon / dance from the beginning because of this, because I don’t want what happened to me to happen again, even while I crave  and need what we have cultivated because I do feel I am my whole self when writing to you because you understand this struggle, this need to not give ourselves up to another person.

But whether or not we meant to, we have given ourselves to each other.
we are connected
to each other’s words
     there should be a word
for what we are
          for what we’ve done 

                              active, a moving forward,
                                we move

Listen: this yellow piece of paper full of rain.




From the writer

:: Account ::

In Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, in the section titled “Envois”—messages from “a destroyed correspondence” between Derrida and his wife, Marguerite Aucouturier—Derrida writes, while theorizing about the meaning and significance of letters: “Mixture is the letter, the epistle, which is not a genre but all genres, literature itself.” This is the idea behind so much of my writing, the way I teach writing, the aesthetic of the journal I run, Ghost Proposal. In the case of this essay, “Wash My Letter in the River,” this letter and the letters it refers to throughout are all intertwined in a larger correspondence that did, in fact, happen and exist with a poet friend of mine, along with a larger project of my own on the nature of letter-writing and correspondence between writers. I go to letter-writing whenever I cannot deal with Literature—when Literature and I aren’t making anything happen together on the page. As soon as I go to letter-writing, everything happens all at once. And it makes more sense to me than any other genre. I began writing letters in earnest in college, and I did not always do very well in college. Sometimes I almost failed classes, which was a mystery to everyone involved, but when I was not doing my homework, I was writing letters, and this was my self-education. I was not writing, or not writing well, the summer of the correspondence referenced in this essay. But I exhausted myself with the commitment I brought to this correspondence. And finally, near the end of the correspondence, alone on the river in Wilmington, North Carolina, where I had gone to work on essays for my master’s thesis, writing letters helped the writing come. I wrote essays for my thesis on Fernando Pessoa, Bruno Schulz, and Unica Zurn, and when I was done and went walking by the river, I felt myself pulled back into the letter, to the movement inherent in correspondence, to the ways in which a letter goes on existing beyond the moment of writing, in the act of sending, envoyer, off to the recipient, sending oneself to the recipient, s’envoyer, and back again. The correspondence referenced here was one that focused chiefly on poetics for a designated period of time (the summer between our semesters) and evolved into questions we are still discussing today regarding epistolary poetics. What is a letter? What does a letter mean, what does a letter do, what does a letter say, what does it accomplish? What does it keep one from doing or saying? How does it keep one from living, but ensure that one goes on writing? In our correspondence, the questions took on a life of their own, the topics sped up and I sped up to keep up with them, but I had other questions I needed to slow down to identify. I read books about letters to try to understand what I was doing, and it was in one of those books (Japanese Poetic Diaries, Earl Miner) that I found the topics discussed at the beginning of this essay, drew parallels between those concepts and my writing life, then circled back around to correspondence. When my yellow legal pad began to catch the rain that night in Wilmington, I sent a message to my friend to say I was writing him a Real Physical Letter, that it had begun to rain over the paper. “Wash my letter in the river,” he said.


Naomi Washer’s work has appeared and is forthcoming in Homonym, Essay Daily, Crab Fat Magazine, The Boiler, Split Lip Magazine, Blue Mesa Review, and other journals. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago, where she earned her MFA in nonfiction. She is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Ghost Proposal.