Grinding My Ink

This short book of haiku written by Margaret Chula strikes me as one of the finest books of American haiku I have ever read. What’s more, the book is masterfully laid out, sometimes with only one poem per page, reinforcing the simplicity and starkness of the poems themselves.

I bought this small book of haiku to accompany me on my many visits to the doctor’s office in recent weeks. The deceptively simple poems provided a calming influence in a very tense situation.

Perhaps I felt reassured by the many ties to my own community. The author lived in Portland in 1993, right across the river from where I live, and the book was printed and bound locally. So, although the poems were written while the author was living in Japan, they also seem very near.

Most of all, though, the poems illustrate that a westerner, with enough training and enough exposure to Japanese culture, can master this great Japanese art. Although many of them do not quite capture the essence of my favorite Japanese haiku, at their best I like them as much as any traditional Japanese haiku translations I have read.

Here are a few of my favorites from the book. You may well find that others resonate more to your life.

As an avid gardener, I found

making it harder
to trim the tree
a perfect web

particularly interesting as it suggests two equally valid realities. Practically speaking, there’s nothing worse than having to wade through cobwebs to do a job. More important, though, is the suggestion that the tree is already “perfect,” at least for the moment, so why would you even consider trimming it? Natural perfection neither needs nor endures man’s intervention.

Although I’m not particularly fond of cats or kittens, I found the imagery in this haiku delightful:

spring cleaning
a white kitten
rolls in the dust

The rambunctious kitten provides a perfect metaphor for the rebirth of spring, and the white ball covered in dust provides an equally perfect metaphor for spring cleaning.

As an ex-teacher who well knows how difficult it is to teach on a hot day with a classroom full of sleepy students, even a crow’s answer would be welcome:

teacher’s question
hangs in the drowsy classroom
a crow answers

I liked this haiku describing sweeping because it reminds me of one of my favorite poems by William Carlos Williams which uses the same metaphor as the controlling image in the poem:

sweeping, sweeping, sweep
the old woman’s broom
no match for the wind

The startling contrast, and yet careful blending, between the new and the old simply snaps you into a new awareness of how modern consumption has invaded all aspects of our lives:

brown-robed monk
raking leaves into neat piles
his new Adidas

It’s hard to imagine how anyone who loves haiku wouldn’t find this book a delightful addition to their collection.