THE DUMPLING FIELD
Haiku of Issa
Translated by Lucien Stryk with the assistance of Noboru Fujiwara
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press: Athens, Ohio, 1991.
128 pp. $19.95 (paperback) $24.95 (hardbound).
HAIKU'S GREATEST MASTER, Matsuo Basho, said that a poem is born when the object and the poet become one. A poem that expresses this unified moment is an act of direct transmission not unlike the "turning phrase" of Zen practice; the world is clarified and made real for the poet and reader as well.
Truly, then, the ability to directly transmit the world as it is found is a poet's greatest gift. Lucien Stryk's moving and extensive collection makes it clear that Yataro Kobayashi (1763-1827), who with characteristic warmth, humor, and humility, took the pen name Issa ("Cup of Tea"), gained this gift through a need to clarify the meaning of his tragic and painful life.
Issa's mother died when he was three, and after his father remarried, Issa's new mother was so manipulative and indifferent to him that at fourteen Issa left home and began a life of menial jobs, wandering, and the study of haiku. As an adult, none of his four children survived (all of them dying, like his beloved daughter, Sato, "with her second leaf just out"), and then his wife passed on as well. Poverty-stricken, bereft of access to his family home and of the family he had tried to make, Issa wrote:
them all, all—
And yet Issa's haiku are anything but cold. The detached refinement of the moment, or the striving for perfection often associated with haiku, is replaced by Issa's palpable vulnerability. Whereas the wise restraint of the great haiku poets (including his beloved Basho) have always inspired admiration, even awe, we come to love Issa because he never seems to hold back; instead he is openly emotional, remorseful, joyous, troubled, loving, "unwise" as he "walks on hell/gazing at flowers," knowing "where there are humans/you'll find flies/and Buddhas."
The subtlety of Issa's perception is rooted in his penetrating compassion. His ability to faithfully express the essence of his perception, its moment of realization, is the strength of his haiku. Here's old Issa, offering his chipped cup which contains a humble but profound confidence in us, as he prepares for our visit on a fragrant night:
guest won't mind
the chipped cup
No more than a common man who shares the world intimately with all, the affectionate connection Issa feels is present in virtually every poem. How poignant he is:
why turn away,
How humorously he expresses his small part in the flow of things:
now you can make love,
No threat of ecological catastrophe was needed for Issa to sing the value of the delicate network of our world. Companion of grasshopper and flea, he is the one who warns Brother Cicada to be still because, "Old Whiskerslis about." Issa is our neighbor. And as Lucien Stryk says in his moving introductory tribute, "Issa is necessary to us because his values ... must become ours if we are to survive as humans."
Just as direct transmission of mind ("mind" as in Chinese, where one character expresses both heart and mind) is essential to the expression of a well-made poem, as far as possible translator and poet must become one-minded as well. A true poem maintains the inseparable unity of meaning and emotion engendered by experience. For the most part, the "mind" we receive in these translations faithfully expresses both the meaning and the feeling akin to Issa's original moment of perception.
Yuzuru Miura, translating Issa's most famous poem, crushed the fly with the ponderous feel of heavy-handed language:
Wringing its hands and rubbing
Don't swat it!
R. H. Blyth blocks our direct experience of the fly with his formal, repetitive approach. Again, we do not see the fly, only words:
Do not kill the fly:
See how it wrings its hands;
See how it wrings its feet!
Stryk and Fujiwara simply follow the lead of Issa's experience and show us the fly directly, as it is, confident that its diminutive but expressive gestures will lead us to feel its life, and listen, when our natural compassion arises:
Don't kill the fly—
it wrings its hands,
There are 366 haiku in this collection—one for every day of the year, and one to leap from. Companion grasshoppers, mosquitoes, rain-splatter, and frogs: Who leaps?
Peter Levitt's most recent books of poetry are Bright Root, Dark Root and One Hundred Butterflies (both from Broken Moon Press).