The bridge that magpies cross

This tanka is written by one of Japan’s great poets, Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785). A magpie is a black-and-white bird. The bridge that magpies cross could refer to arc of the skies or heavens (since birds fly across the sky). As they are black-and-white and it is set at night, you can imagine the black-and-white of the Milky Way’s arc. Reference to white frost adds to that picture, if you imagine the “milk” of the Milky Way as white frost.
Another level of interpretation is to view “magpies” as a symbol for the people that secretly cross the bridge leading to the palace to meet their lovers, the bridge covered with white frost as the night wore on and time for their trysts ran out. Most likely the poet wrote it with both meanings in mind as this mode of communication between lovers was very common in aristocratic Japan.
My Translation
By Otomo no Yakamochi
On the bridge
That magpies cross
I can see laying across
The white frost—
As night is growing late
Original Japanese
中納言家持
かささぎの
渡せる橋に
置く霜の
白きを見れば
夜ぞふけにける
Pronunciation
Otomo no Yakamochi
Kasasagi no
Wataseru hashi ni
Oku shimo no
Shiroki o mireba
Yo zo fuke ni keru
Literal
Magpie’s
Crossing bridge on [Could also mean “laying across bridge on”]
Put frost’s
White can see
Night is growing late

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