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.