Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind

Tom’s recent comment that ” When I buy a book of poems, it’s like buying a bottle of single malt. It’s a rare event and I enjoy it very slowly over a long period.” seems rather appropriate to the next book I began reading haiku mind: 108 poems to Cultivate Awareness & Open Your Heart.

It’s the kind of book with commentary that almost demands a daily reading, something, I’ll have to admit, that I’ve never been very successful at. I bought a book several years ago entitled 365 Tao: Daily Meditation and I don’t think I ever got much beyond the 5th day. I am many things, but methodical certainly isn’t one of those things. I’ve always been better at totally immersing myself in a a subject than tackling it one piece at a time.

So, this might well be the only entry you’ll ever read on this book, but despite the fact that I plan on several outings in the next few weeks, I’ll try to read one entry a day as long as I’m home. It might help that I’ve liked the first few haiku, and the commentary following those haiku.

It begins with a haiku that explains the author’s motive in writing the book:

1 Pausing

halfway up the stair-
white chrysanthemums


Pausing is the doorway to awakening. This haiku epitomizes a moment that occurs naturally in our lives, but that we often hurry or gloss over. Haiku awareness is a simple way to slow down and tune in to this fleeting moment, to appreciate what is right in front of us. We pause not only with our body but also with our mind. And sometimes we can be attentive and sometimes we cannot, but that is all right, for the next moment always brings us the fresh possibility to pause and be present again. There are no steps to follow, there is no enlightenment to work toward-there is only the simplicity of relaxing into this very moment that is complete in itself. This naked moment is the only guide that we need to relax our mind. We need to trust this: in the midst of our daily life activities, the possibility to slow down, to stop, and then to appreciate naturally unfolds. For a fleeting moment we pause and note the sunlight on the sheets as we make the bed, note the warm sun on our cup as we sip tea, or note the fading light on the curtain as we enter the room. And we let out a breath or sigh. Pausing.

ELIZABETH 5EARLE LAMB (1917-2004). The foremost American haiku poet living a life dedicated to haiku, called “the first lady of Ameri- can haiku” Lamb was one of the founding members in 1968, along with Harold G. Henderson, of the Haiku Society of America and editor of Frogpond, its journal. She was also an early president of HSA and an honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives. Her last book was Across the Wind Harp: Collected and New Haiku.

As noted above, I tend to be a Type A personality, so pausing, except in the summer when I wasn’t working, has never been something I’ve done very well until I retired and took up Tai Chi and, coincidentally, birding. Perhaps this new found “awareness” is why I’ve become more and more fond of poetry that employs concrete images.

Ikkyu Crow with No Mouth

I discovered Ikkyu while reading either Theresa Williams’ Facebook entries or her blog, though I can’t remember which. I suspect it was the shocking elements in the poetry that first caught my attention, but I ended up sticking around for subtler elements.

It’s actually fairly tough to find Ikkyu’s poetry, but I ended up buying Crow with No Mouth versions by Stephen Berg, published by Copper Canyon Press, probably because Copper Canyon Press is up the road from me and I’ve been happy with their works in general. The introduction by Lucien Stryk is informative and does a good job of tying biographical details to particular poems in the collection.

After his awakening Ikkyu stayed with the master, taking care of him in growing illness, a paralysis of the lower limbs that necessitated his being carried everywhere. Ikkyu’s unflagging loyalty impressed all, became legendary:

my dying teacher could not wipe himself unlike you disciples
who use bamboo I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands

Kasö died when Ikkyu was thirty-five, and the bereaved monk, who at the darkest moment of mourning had been close to suicide, began an endless round of travel, lasting the remainder of his life. He could not settle anywhere, and his behavior, even in those bawdy times, was thought scandalous. He never pretended to be saintly, took his passions as a natural part of life, frankly loved sake and women. After a disappointing day he would rush from the temple to a bar, wind up at a brothel. After which there was often a crisis of self-doubt, if not guilt. At such moments he went to his hermitage in the mountains at Joo:

ten years of whorehouse joy I’m alone now in the mountains
the pines are like a jail the wind scratches my skin

Berg’s two-page preface even proved enlightening, particularly this: “Jung’s “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely” is enacted by Ikkyu in the poems that track his life and the life of his mind.” But I also appreciated this,

Ikkyu wrote in a four-line form. My couplets (with a few exceptions) came as a necessary skeleton for the work of inspiring a voice whose first notes caught me when I read the scholars’ books. A true essay about what happened between their texts and mine would have to explain at length a process not usually associated with other such ambitious transfigurations. For now, let me thank W.S. Merwin and Lucien Stryk for their suggestions.

because I’ll have to admit at times I was bothered by the two-line translations because they are not what I’ve come to expect. A few of the translations seemed like literal, rather than literary translations, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Crow with No Mouth is only 80 pages long, but it’s the kind of book you could come back to day after day to find something new to consider:

no nothing only those wintry crows
bright black in the sun


peace isn’t luck for six years stand facing a silent wall
until the you of your face melts like a candle

the crow’s caw was ok but one night with a lovely whore
opened a wisdom deeper than what that bird said

More of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o

I was hard pressed to choose a representative poem from the many I liked in the last third of Selected Poems of Su Tung-p’o translated by Burton Watson. I probably chose this one because it comes closest to expressing my own feelings at being retired:

Three Delights in My Place of Exile (1097)


Sound sleep, sea of inner breath stirring;
boundless, it ascends to the cerebral palace.
The sun comes up, dew not yet dried,
dense mist shrouding the frosty pines.
This old comb’s been with me so long –
teeth missing, still it makes fresh breezes.
With a single washing, ears and eyes brighten;
popping open, ten thousand pores come alive.
Young days, how I loved my sleep, loathed getting up –
dawn audiences at court were always a scramble,
no time even to give my head a good scratching,
and then the bother of putting on a hat! –
no different from a draft horse in the shafts,
wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.
Mounting my fancy saddle, jeweled bit jangling,
in truth it was like donning chains and shackles,
no telling when I’d be free again, unchained,
not even an old willow to rub my itches on! –
But who can describe the delight I know now?
I’ll send copies to the gentlemen with gold seals at their waist.

THE FIRST of three poems. The other two are entitled “By the Afternoon Window, Sitting and Dozing,” and “Before Going to Bed, Soaking My Feet.” The poet was suffering from swollen feet, probably due to beriberi, and soaked his feet to relieve the swelling.

Lines 1-2. The poet employs Taoist terminology to describe the physical sensation of a good night’s rest.

Line 20. “Gentlemen with gold seals at their waist” are the high government officials who sent the poet into exile. It is said that one of them ordered Su to move from Hui- Chou to Tan-chou because rumor reached him that Su was actually enjoying himself in Hui-chou. As these poems illustrate, Su remained defiantly determined to continue enjoying his life in exile.

My Army memories of having to get up and lead PT in the dark rival any of my Vietnam memories. Still, my worst memories were of donning Dress Blues to attend a formal reception and standing in long reception lines to be introduced to dignitaries who wouldn’t remember me ten minutes after I’d been introduced, not that they had any reason to.

Of course, as mentioned before, any kind of “work” seems like being “draft horse in the shafts, /wind-tousled mane full of dirt and sand.” What a joy to get up in the morning with nothing to do but enjoy the day in all its fullness.