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.
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 —
My friend and colleague Seth La Tour is a brave soul. He has started a blog “one poem every day,” which is pretty much what it sounds like.
He writes a new poem every day and posts it. Mostly he writes haiku.
I’m not sure I get haiku. By which I mean I really don’t get haiku. It comes from a cultural tradition so different from my own that I hesitate to claim any knowledge.
But, every now and then reading haiku, I get a glimpse of something … a whiff … a hint.
Seth wrote one a few days ago that gave me that twinge:
old, red butter dish/
doing your one job so well/
on the countertop
Something about its directness, its simplicity and its sheer concreteness gave me that feeling I get when I think I have apprehended the best of the haiku from Japan. For me, it’s a little like catching a glimpse of something in peripheral vision. When you look at it directly, it’s gone.
There was a significance in this simple moment. There was “something” the poet perceived and recorded.
I sensed the same sort of thing when experiencing a Japanese Tea Ceremony. It was so simple, yet precise. There was something there. But I couldn’t quite apprehend it. (Then my knees started to ache and I had to stand up.)
We know that haiku master Basho also followed the Way of Tea, so there is clearly a deep connection.
I have tried haiku, but am not satisfied I have the clarity and tranquility required. Here’s one I didn’t burn: