Dropped my wife off at the airport this morning before dawn. The moon was full, and I was reminded why I like Issa most of all the old Japanese haiku masters.
Issa was so human and compassionate, despite the many losses and disappointments he experienced.
He certainly endured his share of suffering. He mother died when he was a young boy. His stepmother was manipulative and cruel. After his father died, his stepmother refused to recognize the will, which would have given Issa part of the estate. He saw all of his children die before him. And he outlived his beloved wife Kiku, who died giving birth.
At the risk of being misunderstood, I’ll quote one of his most touching poems, written after his wife’s death. By Issa:
The moon tonight —
I even miss
There’s something so honest and sweet and human about that. He loved her and he loved even her imperfections. The sight of the moon brought it all back and stirred up his intense memories. He missed her and he missed all of her.
One other poem by Issa on this theme of loss:
Outliving them all —
Ah, the cold!
I cannot claim to comprehend Issa’s pain. My wife is still very much alive–just out of town for a few days. I’ve never lost a child. But having lost both parents and all my brothers, I have caught a glimpse of what Issa is saying about “outliving them all.” Just a faint glimpse.
I think of Issa’s poem. I think of that old Tom Waits song, “The last leaf on the tree.” I think of the oak trees from my Missouri youth. And all of this made me think of — and write — a new poem:
Late Winter Haiku
One grey leaf still clings
to the branch, curled up and dry.
Could fall any day.
Near the south end of Hawaii’s Big Island, which is the southern-most spot in the United States, is Green Sand Beach.
It’s a magical spot — and secluded. Unless you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, you need to walk 2.5 miles from the closest decent road. When first come to the end of the path and get to the edge of the cliff, you almost can’t believe it. You survey a beautiful horseshoe-shaped bay, ringed by rocky cliffs, with the bluest water washing ashore on a perfect sandy beach.
Then, you have to clamber down the rocky cliff to get to the water. But it is so worth it.
The sand is literally green. Some miracle of volcanic rock formation has created just the right conditions for this little beach to have the most beautiful olive green sand. The day we were there was perfect. Hot and sunny. With a nice strong waves coming in, perfect for body surfing.
I tried to go with the flow of the waves and was body slammed into the surf more than once. It was so much fun, I didn’t care that the waves were having their way with me. I had green sand coming out of my ears for a month.
We learned that clothing was optional at Green Sand Beach. It’s so remote, who’s going to care? Or enforce rules?
And, of course, it led to haiku.
What kind of island
is this never-winter place?
Even the sand is green!
Young hippie couple
living how I’d tried to live
thirty years ago
“Would you mind if I
went topless?” she asked. Why no,
not on Green Sand Beach!
I never really understood Issa’s haiku about the roof of hell until I visited Hawaii’s Big Island. We hiked for miles around the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
It was like walking on the moon. Except with full gravity. Over jagged rock formations. Boulder fields. Through pebble fields. Past sulfur-stinking steam vents. Up and down. A death march. There were times when you could look around and swear you were on another planet.
It inspired a few syllables of my own:
“We walk the roof of
Hell,” said Issa. He must have
Issa’s original poem went like this:
In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers
Much more profound than mine. But I appreciate his inspiration.
Issa was a poet and Buddhist priest who lived from 1763 to 1828. Which means he was coming of age just as American was becoming a nation.
He’s considered one of the four great haiku masters along with Basho, Buson, and Shiki.
His full name was Kobayashi Issa, but he went simply by the name Issa, which literally means “cup of,” or “one cup of tea.” What a great name for a haiku master!
I like his stuff and I’ll likely be coming back to it from time to time.
On a trip to Hawaii several years ago, I wrote a lot of haiku. Something about being closer to Japan in a land influenced by Japan, I guess. On the big island, there are bands of feral cats. I tried to make friends. Of course, I had no control over the situation at all.
Today I bring cheese
my little wild black cat, but
you will not be bought
The haiku masters often mentioned cats. Issa wrote some of my favorites.
Remembering our recently departed and beloved cat … and Mark Twain’s quote is hitting home: “A home without a cat — and a well-fed, well-petted and properly revered cat — may be a perfect home, perhaps, but how can it prove title.”
It seems that poets have kept cats and written about them throughout history. On a trip to Oregon a few years ago, I picked up a book called The Poetical Cat edited by Felicity Bast. It includes cat poems from all over the world … from the tombs of ancient Egypt … to the works of the Haiku masters … to Swinburne, Baudelaire, Yeats, and William Carlos Williams.
It is offering some comfort. Perhaps most apropos is Thomas Hardy’s Last Words to a Dumb Friend, which is an elegy for his beloved, departed pet. It goes on in his quaint, Victorian way that may sound stilted to our modern ears. But its final verse is beautiful and heartbreaking.
From Last Words to a Dumb Friend by Thomas Hardy
Housemate, I can think you still
Bounding to the window-sill,
Over which I vaguely see
Your small mound beneath the tree,
Showing in the autumn shade
That you moulder where you played.
Pretty sad, that verse.
If I tried to write an elegy I would probably blubber on and on longer than Hardy. So I won’t.
Instead, in honor of our dear and departed Quincy, I’ll offer a couple of cat haiku I’ve written over the years:
The old cat forgets
to groom his matted fur. But
there — on snow — feathers!
Little cat using
me for shade doesn’t care I’ve
nothing left to give
Waking with a stretch
the cat falls off the bed’s edge —
Things have not gone smoothly for the Ukrainians since they gained independence from the Soviet Union.
The recent troubles involving Russian separatists is just one chapter.
Over a decade ago, I remember being riveted by the news report of the strange illness that hit charismatic Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during a campaign for reelection. One of the leading theories at the time implicated the Russians. The more things change …
It was one of the few times I’ve been tempted to play tennis with the net down.
THE UKRAINIAN CANDIDATE’S FACE
“Ukrainian Presidential Candidate Poisoned.” – September 10, 2004
The day the Ukrainian candidate’s face
Erupted with boils and turned ash-grey,
Nowhere to hide with the whole world watching,
His cosmopolitan good looks marred
Beyond the power of greasepaint and powder,
Did his young wife then love him any less,
As the life mate who made her heart beat fast
Transmogrified before her very eyes,
Some curse spoiling his original face?
She knew (wives know) that something was amiss
The night before, when giving him a kiss,
She tasted something strange upon his lips.
Did she curse his drinking and say harsh words?
Perhaps suspect him of unfaithfulness?
(There are diseases you can catch, you know,
From Russian whores, that will pock your skin, and
Ruin your health like Chernobyl ruined the land.)
Who’d blame her for a thought or two like that?
His already fallen foe cleverly
With toxins the potato soup did lace,
Beguiled the unsuspecting innocent
To taste the apple-of-the-earth puree.
What would we think if we could only see
Before-and-after pictures of ourselves?
What wormwood dioxin pox concoction
Would we say has over-swept our race
More like a glacier than the mushroom patch
That blossomed in Yushchenko’s garden face?