March 9: What I Lost (Haibun)

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“If you want to see Dad before he dies, come now,” my sister tells me. “You can’t believe the pain he’s in.” I hang up, make the flight reservations and pack. Then, jittery with nervous energy, I note that there’s just time for me to go for a quick run before I need to leave for the airport.

I put my cell phone in my pocket before I set off, in case my sister has anything else to tell me.

childhood summers —
he combs my tangled hair
painlessly

The sidewalks are coated with ice. I try to run carefully. But a cardinal darts from a branch hanging across the walk, a flash of red that pulls my attention into the sky. Suddenly, I’m on my back, pain in every part of me, afraid, for just a minute, to try to move.

But I force myself to my feet and set off running again, even faster now, despite the ice, because of the ice. I’m young, I’m strong, no cancer will ever worm its way into me and break my bones from the inside out. I’m about to get on a plane and rise thirty-five thousand feet in the air and descend, alive, a thousand miles away.

Nothing else can ever hurt me.

deep inside
the snowbank —
a cell phone rings

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_______________________________

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First published in Notes from the Gean 2:4, March 2011

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Haiku in “The Makioka Sisters”

When I was writing about renga the other day, I said something about poetry writing having been a basic communication tool for the Japanese (at least the upper classes) back in the old days.

At the time, I was thinking “old days” = hundreds of years ago. But later, I remembered a scene from my favorite Japanese novel, The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki, which is set in the 1930s. This wonderful scene describes a family — three adults and a ten-year-old girl — writing poetry together as an evening activity the way an American family might play a board game.

Background: The book describes the lives of an upper-middle-class family consisting of four sisters, two married and two not. (Much of the drama of the story lies in the family’s efforts to get the two single sisters married off, and protect their reputations in the meantime. The book reads amazingly like a nineteenth-century English or French or Russian novel.)

At the beginning of the story, one married sister is living in Tokyo with her family; the other three are living in Osaka in the household of the other married sister. Then, due to complicated circumstances, one of the single sisters goes to live in Tokyo too. Everyone misses her. So — apparently more or less as a matter of course — they decide one night to write her some poetry:

“Suppose we each write something,” said Teinosuke [the married sister’s husband]. It was some twenty days later, on the night of the autumn full moon. Everyone thought this an excellent idea, and after dinner Teinosuke, Sachiko, Taeko, and Etsuko gathered near the veranda of a Japanese-style room downstairs. The traditional moon-viewing flowers and fruit had been set out. When O-haru had ground the ink, Teinosuke, Sachiko, and Etsuko each composed a poem. Taeko, who was not good at poetry, did a quick ink wash of the moon coming through pine branches.

The clouds are passing.

The pines reach out for the moon.

Teinosuke

The night of the full moon.

Here, one shadow is missing.

— Sachiko

The moon tonight–

Yukiko sees it in Tokyo.

— Etsuko

— Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters, trans. Edward Seidensticker

(The final poem, by the way, is by the ten-year-old.)

I don’t know whether these poems are meant to be haiku in the original Japanese. They are certainly haiku-like, though. And it’s interesting to me that there doesn’t seem to be any discussion among the family about what kind of poetry to write, yet everyone produces the same kind, as if everyone just knows that this is the kind of poetry you write on an occasion like this. Clearly poetry-writing has been a standard part of their upbringing and education. (I also think it’s touching and funny that there’s one sister who considers herself, or is considered, “not good at poetry,” and who instead specializes in a different sort of traditional Japanese art.)

Tanizaki wrote this book during and after World War II partly out of nostalgia for what he saw as the lost culture of prewar Japan — there is a lot of information about the family engaging in traditional Japanese music, dance, theater, and crafts as well. So maybe he was simply more inclined to portray characters as cultured and artistic, and this is not a realistic representation of what a typical Japanese family of their class and time would have done. But the scene seems so quiet and matter-of-fact that it’s hard to believe it was a complete fantasy on his part.



Haiku: An Introduction (Apologies to J.D. Salinger)

I’m willing to be that there are thousands of people who first found out about, or got enthusiastic about, haiku, and Japanese poetry in general, by reading J.D. Salinger’s short novel (long short story?) Seymour: An Introduction. This is particularly likely to be true of the type of precious, oversensitive, self-involved adolescent that, um, I was.

I was devoted to Salinger through most of my teenage years, not so much Catcher in the Rye (though I liked that too), but, in particular, the stories about the precocious, intellectual, spirituality-seeking Glass family. During the summer I was sixteen, I believe I read Franny and Zooey no less than six times. I would be tempted to be more critical of myself for this, except it may have been the only thing that kept me sane that summer. Somehow it helped to know that there were people out there (even fictional people) as precious, oversensitive, etc. as I was. (I have since learned that we are legion, but at the time I thought I was special.)

Anyway, if you’re not familiar with Seymour and the other Glasses, they are a family of seven children who were all child prodigies, though they appear only as adults in most of the stories about them — adults who rarely stop talking and never, ever stop thinking too much, mostly about themselves and their angst about the human condition and the nature of the universe. Seymour, the oldest, is also the most brilliant — which doesn’t work out all that well for him, but no spoilers here. (Go read “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” if you’re curious about his fate.)

Seymour: An Introduction is basically an extended character sketch purporting to have been written by the next-youngest Glass sibling, Buddy, a writer and college English professor (probably to some extent a Salinger stand-in). He devotes about twenty pages of a 120-page novel to describing Seymour’s career as a poet — much of it, since Seymour’s main poetic inspiration was Chinese and Japanese poetry, discussing the special nature of haiku and other forms of Eastern verse.

This section, fortunately for our purposes, may be the most readable one in the novel. Rereading Seymour now for the first time in many years, I’m finding it, well, pretty precious itself — much more so even than Franny and Zooey, which I revisited last year, and orders of magnitude more than Nine Short Stories, several of which are modern masterpieces. I’m having to skim most of it, the self-indulgent endless paragraphs, the ecstatic but vague descriptions of Seymour’s genius, Buddy’s overly cute cultural analysis and self-appraisal. But a lot of the discussion of poetry made me slow down and start typing out passages to consider later. Salinger (Buddy?) is guilty to a certain extent, like so many other people, of romanticizing Asian culture, but is still very perceptive about how Asian poetry differs from much Western poetry:

“At their most effective, I believe, Chinese and Japanese classical verses are intelligible utterances that please or enlighten or enlarge the invited eavesdropper to within an inch of his life. They may be, and often are, fine for the ear particularly, but for the most part, I’d say that unless a Chinese or Japanese poet’s real forte is knowing a good persimmon or a good crab or a good mosquito bite on a good arm when he sees one, then no matter how long or unusual or fascinating his semantic or intellectual intestines may be, or how beguiling they sound when twanged, no one in the Mysterious East speaks seriously of him as a poet, if at all.” (pp. 118-119)

I can clearly remember reading and being impressed by the following passage as a teenager, and somehow getting the names Issa and Basho stuck in my head for the rest of my life, so that even though I read hardly any of their writing for the next twenty years, they still seemed like old friends when I came to take them up seriously:

“I don’t really believe there is a word, in any language — thank God — to describe the Chinese or Japanese poet’s choice of material. … The great Issa will joyfully advise us that there’s a fat-faced peony in the garden. (No more, no less. Whether we go to see his fat-faced peony for ourselves is another matter … he doesn’t police us.) The very mention of Issa’s name convinces me that the true poet has no choice of material. The material plainly chooses him, not he it. A fat-faced peony will not show itself to anyone but Issa — not to Buson, not to Shiki, not even to Basho.” (p. 121)

Seymour criticizes his early attempts at writing poetry modeled on Chinese and Japanese forms, in words that resonate with me and with, I think, many other Western poets who are trying to honor the original spirit of this form while making it our own and acknowledging the realities of modern life:

“[The poems] were too un-Western, too lotusy. He said he felt that they were faintly affronting. He hadn’t quite made up his mind where the affronting came in, but he felt at times that the poems read as though they’d been written by an ingrate, of sorts, someone who was turning his back … on his own environment and the people in it who were close to him. He said he ate his food out of our big refrigerators, drove our eight-cylinder American cars, unhesitatingly used our medicines when he was sick, and relied on the U.S. Army to protect his parents and sisters from Hitler’s Germany, and nothing, not one single thing in all his poems, reflected these realities.” (p. 124-25)

Eventually Seymour does succeed at melding his Eastern and Western poetic influences, and Salinger/Buddy describes the results in what must be one of the most detailed descriptions ever written of a wholly imaginary verse form (at least I’m assuming it’s wholly imaginary, maybe somewhere in Salinger’s filing cabinet there are notebooks filled with poems like this):

“… Seymour probably loved the classical Japanese three-line, seventeen-syllable haiku as he loved no other form of poetry, and … he himself wrote — bled — haiku. … It could be said … that a late-period poem of Seymour’s looks substantially like an English translation of a sort of double haiku … a six-line verse, of no certain accent but usually more iambic than not, that, partly out of affection for dead Japanese masters and partly from his own natural bent, as a poet, for working inside attractive restricted areas, he has deliberately held down to thirty-four syllables, or twice the number of the classical haiku. … [E]ach of the poems is as unsonorous, as quiet, as he believed a poem should be, but there are intermittent short blasts of euphony … which have the effect on me personally of someone — surely no one completely sober — opening my door, blowing three or four or five unquestionably sweet and expert notes on a cornet into the room, then disappearing.” (p. 126-28)

For those of us who struggle with what kind of subject matter to bring to haiku — should we stick mostly to nature? how personal should we get? can we tell a story, make a joke, imagine things, or should we stick to personally experienced moments of Zen enlightenment? — it’s interesting to read about Seymour’s choice of subject matter, though they frankly remind me more than anything of possible plot summaries for Salinger’s next several short stories:

“The next-to-last poem is about a young married woman and mother who is plainly having what it refers to here in my old marriage manual as an extramarital love affair. … She comes home very late from a tryst — in my mind, bleary and lipstick-smeared — to find a balloon on her bedspread. Someone has simply left it there. The poet doesn’t say, but it can’t be anything but a large, inflated toy balloon, probably green, like Central Park in spring. The other poem … is about a young suburban widower who sits down on his patch of lawn one night, implicitly in his pajamas and robe, to look at the full moon. A bored white cat … comes up to him and rolls over, and he lets her bite his left hand as he looks at the moon.” (p. 128-29)

I can see now how much these long-forgotten passages have influenced my lifelong attitude toward haiku — although, as I’ve mentioned before, I hadn’t given an excessive amount of thought to the form before last month. There’s the idea that haiku can be made your own; you don’t have to be a slave to tradition. There’s the idea that poets should have a unique voice and should strive to see and write about the things that only they can see. There’s the idea that haiku are about revealing the world as it is, communicating some experience of authentic perception. There’s the idea that haiku should ring some kind of bell in the mind of the reader. There’s the idea that a wide variety of subject matter and to some extent form is possible in writing haiku; that perception and authenticity matter more than syllable counts or traditional topics.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else for whom reading Seymour was a formative experience in their haiku-writing career. Or, for that matter, from those for whom it wasn’t. What do you think of these passages — do they enlarge or confirm your understanding of haiku, or do you find them banal and twee? Would you rather gnaw your leg off than ever read another word of Salinger, or do you have a shrine to Franny and Zooey set up somewhere in the hidden recesses of your heart? (Or both?)

June 5: 3: Haibun for my sister’s birthday

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December 2008: We* were home† for Christmas, for what we knew or suspected would be the last time we would all be together because my father‘s cancer was taking root deep in his body and could no longer be eradicated, and we (the younger two generations) got up one morning and decided we needed to make a road trip to go get the world’s best doughnuts§. Forty-five minutes away, through the countryside. About halfway there, there’s this tree. My father had reminded us about it before we left, so we were on the lookout for it. This amazing tree. I had never seen it so didn’t really know what to expect; how amazing could a tree be? Well. It’s the oldest tree in the state. An oak. Hundreds of years old, with huge branches, bigger than a lot of trees, literally grown into the ground. And as we discovered, if all five of us stood around it and stretched our arms as far as they would go, we could just touch fingertips. The tree’s circumference was exactly the same as our combined heights. We’re all short. But still.

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the oldest tree we know
stretching
to touch each other’s fingers

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That’s me on the left. My sister on the right. My son in the middle. The men are in the back, stretching invisibly.

Happy birthday, sister.

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If you’re going to force me to be brief you at least have to let me have footnotes:

* me, my husband, my son, my sister, and my sister’s then-boyfriend

† at my father’s apartment and my mother’s house (they hadn’t lived together for nine years but they never got divorced and they still saw each other all the time), in the area where we grew up, eight states away from where I live now and three states away from where my sister lives

§ I don’t want to turn this blog into an advertisement so I’m not going to say the name of the place that makes these doughnuts, but if you email me privately and ask nicely I might be willing to reveal all.

June 3: 1: A sort of haibun (Old Letters)

For my 100th post I thought I’d try my hand at haibun (which for the uninitiated is haiku preceded by a sort of brief prose commentary), but as usual I am unable to be brief in prose, so this is more like a wordy, boring essay with a haiku tacked on at the end, like an afterthought.

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Down in my basement I have a plastic tub full of rubber-banded sheaves of hundreds of handwritten letters, most of them 80s-era. I went to boarding school in the mid-80s and my friends and I, tossed to separate corners of the globe (Ohio, Vermont, Saudi Arabia) over the summers,  wrote each other obsessively. A letter arrived in the mail for me every few days, it seemed, and I would repair to my bedroom, take it out of the envelope as if it were a holy artifact, and read it so many times I practically memorized it.

What did we write about? What we would have talked about, if we’d been together, or excessive long-distance phone calls hadn’t been prohibitively expensive in those days. Or, these days, what we would text or IM about. Boys, a lot of the time. (Or girls.) How bored we were. How much our parents drove us out of our mind. How crazy we were, and weird, and how nobody understood us except each other. We could write really long letters about all this stuff.

I rummaged through the piles lately and found I could still recognize different friends’ letters from the different styles of envelope they used and from their still-familiar handwriting. My best friend had terrible handwriting and liked to send ten-page missives in manila envelopes. She wrote crazy things all over the outside of them. She ended up dropping out of school our junior year and spending the rest of the year as a beach bum in Hawaii, but now she’s an anesthesiologist, married with two lovely children. Or so I see from her Facebook profile. We all seemed to have a lot of difficulty finding ourselves as adults. Maybe we were as crazy and weird as we thought we were.

Like everyone else I don’t write letters on paper anymore and I love the immediacy and convenience of email and other online communication, but these letters, as artifacts, as physical representations of my long-ago friendships and the personalities of my long-ago friends, filled me with an intense longing for that experience of missing someone and then receiving a talisman of them, one which would sustain me until the next one arrived, one which I could keep piled up with the other talismans and hold whenever I needed to. Are things better or worse now? Just different, I suspect. It seems impossible that teenagers today could ever feel as lonely and longing and isolated as I felt then on a daily basis. I wish I could have emailed my friends in high school and college. I wish I’d had a Facebook page, an online support group, a way of getting instant feedback when I felt like I was making important and difficult decisions all alone. But I still kind of wish for letters with scrawled, handwritten addresses to show up in my mailbox from time to time.

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old letters
the strangeness
of handwriting

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100 posts in 34 days does seem excessive. Things should slow down considerably once I start my summer school course in a couple of weeks, and even more when I’m in grad school full time in the fall, in case you’re concerned.

May 23: 1-30: My father

1.

freeze after thaw
cell phone ring
makes me slip on the ice

2.

colder than yesterday
my sister’s voice
on the phone

3.

on my back on the ice
clouds torn open
reveal more clouds

4.

cell phone ring
the airport
vanishes

5.

a stranger’s car
roads darker than I’m used to
curve toward home

6.

snow on dark steps
inside
the family waits

7.

pancakes heavy
in my stomach
throwing out his painkillers

8.

the day after his death
the death of the neighbor’s dog
we sympathize

9.

cold draft in his room
the cards
we used to play with

10.

knocking with cold hands
at the wrong door
of the funeral home

11.

list of funeral expenses
scratches on
the polished table

12.

early dark
white sheet pulled away
from his surprised face

13.

snow on a low wall
choosing between
two burial places

14.

PowerPoint slides
of gravestones
chairs with hard seats

15.

stack of Sunday papers
can’t stop reading
the obituary

16.

morning fog
running up the hills
I left behind

17.

trying on dresses
my sister’s
opinion

18.

Olympic snowboarding
I blow my nose
on his handkerchiefs

19.

thin pajamas
Googling the words of
his favorite hymn

20.

steam from my mother’s tea
showing her
Facebook condolences

21.

day of the funeral
rust from the leaky
faucet

22.

unheated waiting room
one by one
we put coats back on

23.

my father’s funeral
truth
and lies

24.

standing for a hymn
memory of my head
reaching his elbow

25.

minister’s hug
his sympathy card
will regret my unbelief

26.

frost on the windowpane
unfamiliar
relatives

27.

their sympathy
taste of
sweet red punch

28.

snow in the cemetery
wrong kind
of shoes

29.

fresh snow on his car
another
dead battery

30.

my inheritance
a car to drive
a thousand miles home

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My father died in February. I’d made no effort whatsoever to write about his death before. Or speak about it, really. Or think about it, come to think about it.

Something about haiku makes it easier, by forcing you to remember and concentrate on the tiny physical details of the experience. Writing these has been like compiling a mental photo album of the week of his death. It’s allowed both distance and immediacy. I approach the experience, come close enough to touch it, then draw back quickly, as soon as I start to feel it burn.

May 13: 1-3 (Sick Child)

sun clouded over
sick child reads
about the moon

storm on the way
sick child coughing
by the window

spring thunderstorm
boiling water
for the sick child’s noodles

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These are three separate haiku, not really intended as a sequence, though as I was looking through what I’d written this morning it occurred to me that they could be seen this way. At any rate, they seemed to need to be together for now.

Don’t worry, the sick child will be just fine.

Writer’s block

I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I have writer’s block. Then I come here and look at how much I’ve been posting, and laugh at myself. I don’t have writer’s block. I just don’t want to write my damn term paper.

It’s strange to be living part of my life in this haiku-world of stylized poetics and Zen moments, and the rest of it in the considerably more demanding and less dreamlike state required to cope with graduate school, teenage children, a husband with job stress, iffy finances, a house that would probably not withstand a stringent inspection from the local health department, the pace of 21st-century social networking, and a midlife crisis. As you might imagine, at the moment I’m prioritizing haiku over all these other things in my life. Wouldn’t you?

I think that probably to be the kind of haiku poet I would really like to be (not to mention the kind of human being that I can imagine tolerating, if I weren’t her), I will need to better integrate these two parts of my life, starting soon. Preferably before my term paper is due. After all, examined from a Zen standpoint, isn’t a term paper really just a 20-page haiku?

Okay, maybe not. But you see what I’m saying here. Haiku is life, life is haiku. They flow into and out of each other, they aren’t separate rock pools with their own ecosystems. Time to find the current and travel the whole length of the river…

but after I hand in my term paper, I may grab a low-hanging branch and linger around here a bit more again. And report back on what I saw in my travels.