Digging Issa, haiku master

Haiku master Issa self portrait
Issa self portrait. The poem reads: Even considered/in the most favorable light/he looks cold

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
her grumbling.

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
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.

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