January 16, 2008

Book Review: Haiku Haven

51yqvbn-1jl_aa240_.jpgFor northern city-dwellers, the grey months of January and February can feel like a kind of apocalyptic-aftermath, but duller: dirty slush on the subway steps and reality television. When seasonal melancholy threatens, it’s best to turn to poetry, which makes ennui seem more bearable—or, at the very least, more important. The most premium of all poetic medicines may be the haiku, being formally required to address time and loss, as well as beautiful enough to make up for the indignity of damp socks.

Turning the pages of Haiku Master Buson, you feel can feel your commonplace Seasonal Affective Disorder being transformed into something unique and delicate, more along the lines of

With the soundlessness of winter rain
on mosses, vanished days
are remembered

than the tax season blues. Yosa Buson, an eighteenth-century poet and painter, ranks as one of the three Japanese haiku masters, along with Issa and Basho. However, due to a dearth of English translations, his work is largely unknown in the United States. With any luck, this new collection, translated by Yuki Sawa and Edith Marcombe Shiffert, will bring the poet the recognition he deserves.

Divided into four main sections—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter—and accompanied by longer poems, a brief biography, and selected letters and essays, this little companion brings a fresh perspective to the turning of the seasons. Buson knows how to swoon:

Hazy moonlight!
Someone is standing
Among the pear trees

Thus, Buson sums up the lush promise of youth and season in three lines: a blossoming tree, a paramour waiting in the evening, made mysterious by fog. What winter chill? But it’s Buson’s job as a poet to keep one ear cocked toward a certain winged chariot, and so all joy is mixed with the knowledge that the moment will pass, and all sorrow leavened by that same awareness. Though it’s clear Buson has a soft spot for spring, he doesn’t discriminate, finding things to love in the austerity of winter, too: “snow snapping off twigs,” “a charcoal peddler all alone/in a small ferry boat.”

Buson’s greatest asset is his gift for paying attention; his poems show the reader a more concentrated way to see the world. Haikus are often compared to photography, but Buson’s woebegone, radiant poems are better than a snapshot: they’re meticulous dioramas, each cormorant and chrysanthemum recorded and polished to a shine. Talking about the weather never sounded so good.

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