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.

Saigyo: Poems of a Mountain Home

translated by Burton Watson is one of my favorite recent acquisitions.

Somehow I find it strangely comforting that I share so many thoughts in common with a “Buddhist poet-priest” born in 1118. In this sense, at least, the soul does, indeed, seem eternal, and mankind, no matter what its heritage, shares common feelings and emotions.

I seldom snowshoe or cross-country ski alone, but I often experience feelings of being strangely alone when I’m in the mountains. Perhaps it is the fact that we often travel trails that have not been broken by anyone else or perhaps it is merely the aesthetics of snow stretching out seemingly forever, but, for whatever the reason, I have been attracted to this feeling of being “alone” in the snow-covered mountains for many years now.

How timely
the delight
of this snowfall,
obliterating the mountain trail
just when I wanted to be alone!

Though the snow-covered mountains covered in a comforting blanket of beauty seem strangely suited to meditation, the biting wind can quickly bring you back to experience the reality of a harsh, and at times unforgiving, reality.

In a mountain village
when I’m lost in the dark
of the mind’s dreaming,
the sound of the wind
blows me to brightness.

Considering how easy it is to get lost in the wanderings of the mind, all its fears and doubts, it does, indeed, seem strangely comforting to be directly caught by the moment, to see things directly and in new ways.

And, then, there is always the sense of relief at leaving the world behind. Since even cell phones don’t reach the mountains where we ski, there is little danger of the real world intruding on our reveries.

Not stopping to mark the trail,
let me push even deeper
into the mountain!
Perhaps there’s a place
where bad news can never reach me!

Cold Mountain

One of the first glimpses we get of Japhy in Dharma Bums is in this early scene:

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting crosslegged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, "Ray, come in," and bent his eyes again to the script.

"What you doing?"

"Translating Han Shan’s great poem called ‘Cold Mountain‘ written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings."

Naturally, being the inquisitive type, I wanted to see if there was such a poet and, if there was such a poet, had Snyder actually written translations of his poems.

Sure enough, the poems were right there at the beginning of New Nature: New and Selected Poems
“Cold Mountain Poems”

Here’s an excerpt from Snyder’s introduction to the poems. I found the last line quoted particularly relevant for the translation I have chosen to cite.

Kanzan, or Han-shan, "Cold Mountain " takes his name from where he lived. He is a mountain madman in an old Chinese line of ragged hermits. When he talks about Cold Mountain he means himself, his home, his state of mind … They became Immortals and you sometimes run onto them today in the skidrows, orchards, hobojungles, and logging camps of America.

There are several poems in the section, but here is a representative one that seems to fit with Kerouac’s portrayal of Japhy in the novel.

In a tangle of cliffs I chose a place—
Bird-paths, but no trails for men.
What’s beyond the yard?
White clouds clinging to vague rocks.
Now I’ve lived here—how many years—
Again and again, spring and winter pass.
Go tell families with silverware and cars
"What’s the use of all that noise and money?"

Gary Snyder in No Nature

My curiosity piqued, I went another step further to look up Han Shan in one of my Chinese poetry collections. Sure enough, there he was at the beginning of the collection. I found the difference in tone of this translation and Snyder’s interesting.

Man lives his life in a dust bowl,
Just like vermin in the middle of a pot:
All day going round and round,
Never getting out from the inside.
Blessedness is not our lot:
Only nettlesomeness without end.
Time is like a flowing river
One day, we wake up old men.

from Sunflower Splendor edited by Wu-chi Liu and Irving Yucheng Lo

I like both poems, but I’m not surprised that the latter interpretation tends to be more “objective.”

Interestingly, though, each of the eight-line poems ends with a two-line “moral,” something you seldom find in Japanese haikus, and, I must admit, a quality I have come to find particularly appealing. After a long teaching career, I find it more interesting to discover my own morals, if there are ones, rather than being told them by the author.

The Winds of Autumn

The first big fall storm swept through our area today, canceling our usual Monday hike, and probably putting on hold any hikes for the rest of the week.

Perhaps if we hadn’t had such a long, beautiful hiking season we would have risked it today, but we would have been drenched.

Deprived of an actual hike in the mountains, I did the next best thing and read Burton Watson’s translation of Saigyo, Poems of a Mountain Home.

How similar all human emotions must be when an 11th Century Japanese poet can so perfectly state my feelings at this particular moment in time.

Even in a person

most times indifferent

to things around him

they waken feelings

the first winds of autumn

No need to state the feelings, to do so would be redundant.

Saigyo even seems to understand why I have been hiking with a particular passion the last three weeks.

Not stopping to mark the trail,

let me push even deeper

into the mountain!

Perhaps there’s a place

where bad news can never reach me!