The Slow-Cooked Sentence

A small boy’s missing mother defines the Japanese concept of sad beauty in human suffering

Rachael Conlin Levy
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Together, but far away. Illustration by Ed Young for the picture book, “Yugen,” by Mark Reibstein.

There is deep longing within “Yugen,” a small boy whose mother has left and whose return is uncertain. The story of his love and loss is at the heart of a subtle and profound book written by Mark Reibstein and illustrated by Caldecott medalist Ed Young.

With his mother’s whereabouts a mystery, Reibstein’s young narrator is adrift in the “sad beauty of human suffering.” Told in haiku-inspired American Sentences, the 2019 book is a pensive, lyrical, and dreamy attempt to define what is beyond definition, the Japanese concept of yugen or the profound and mysterious beauty within the universe and in the human experience.

Come,
sit by me
in the snow
here,
under this
black sky,
the moon
so gold.

Young’s simple cover image is of Yugen cradled in his mother’s arms. I paused. The book’s short text and pictures awakened curiosity and poignancy within me. I brought it home with the rest of my library books.

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The boy’s named Eugene, and he’s waiting for his mother, who calls him “Yugen.” As he peers wistfully into the dark, Yugen recalls the safe warmth of her embrace as the cold wind blew, the soft cherry petals that fell like snow on their blanket, and their deep, hot share baths.

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He remembers that when she’d left once before they’d made a plan to look up at the same star and think of each other.

Sitting in the blue night,
seeing it together,
we’d be close,
though far.

Reibstein’s 17-syllable American Sentences are layered atop Young’s smudged images of nature, child, mother, and cat. Together, sentence and brushstroke hint of emotion that’s spent but remains unspoken, achieving what I believe Kamo no Chomei (1154- 1216) called the “unseen world that hovers in the atmosphere of the poem.” Chomei, quoted by Andrew A. Tsubaki in a 1971 article in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, wrote:

“When the depths of feeling are exhausted yet not expressed … when the mean and common are used to express the elegant, when a poetic conception of rare beauty is developed to the fullest extent in a style of surface simplicity—only then … will the poem … have the power of moving Heaven and Earth … and be capable of softening the hearts of gods and demons.”

In a time when our nation’s leaders use traumatized children as political pawns, and when news cycles bring harrowing images of families being separated at the border, books like “Yugen” remind us that love, unlike certainty, is not an illusion.

Once more, Yugen’s mother is missing, and now one of his two cats also has run away. Once more, he and his remaining cat, are waiting and watching the stars, because it is here, in this space between reality and a wish, that Yugen finds hope.

We Say,
“Please shine
a path
for lovers
and mothers,
to guide them
back home.”

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