My recent infatuation with haiku master Issa, has led me to his poems about his family. Sad story. His mother died very early. His father remarried, but the new wife was not a warm, nurturing stepmom.
So, Issa leaves home early to wander and find his fortune.
Later, as his father was dying of typhus, Issa returns home to care for his father in his dying days. His verse about his father’s last days is a heartbreaker.
Last time, I think
I’ll brush the flies
from my father’s face.
I was reminded of my last contact with my father. This is a different time and a different age. Instead of being in the same room brushing away flies, I was 2,000 miles away. I attempted to reach my father by telephone.
Last call to my dad. Nurses wheeled him to the phone. Couldn’t hear a thing.
It is with great humility that I attempt haiku. I suspect I’m only scratching the surface. Just barely.
When I consider the old masters, there seems to be so much more to it than just 5/7/5. For one thing, the lettering and drawings were part of the art of haiku. That pretty much eliminates me. My fine motor skills being what they are eliminated brain surgeon and artist from my career choices long ago.
Then there is the way the old masters looked at the world. They came from such a different culture, steeped in Zen. Like I said in an earlier post, I’m not sure I actually “get” haiku.
But then, from time to time, I catch that glimpse of beauty and truth, and I’m back in. Just when I think I’m committing fraud trying to compose haiku, I read something by Issa and I am reminded of this: He was just a human being. I’m just a human being. We’ve got a lot more in common than is apparent on the surface.
So, with that disclaimer, here are a few meager offerings:
Great day to walk, dog.
You poop, I’ll write some verse.
We’ll both be happy.
Old dog so blind and deaf
We’ll never finish our walk …
Sniffs every tree!
Plum trees bloomed early
For us old dog. I don’t mind
If we walk all day.
Pink trees everywhere,
So perfect, what could go wrong?
Uh oh … wait … a-choo!
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.
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 —