February 17: Numerical Order

“To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test” (New York Times)

..

seven or eight
sparrows
count them again

..

This haiku appeared on this blog last May, and on Haiku News last week (with the headline above).

For some reason, even though I wrote it in pretty much my first week of writing haiku, it is still one of my favorites of my own poems. Beginner’s luck, I guess.

Why do I like it so much? (You don’t have to ask so incredulously.) Well…first of all, there’s the whole “it’s true” thing. It’s impossible to count birds. (Impossible for me, anyway; maybe you’ve had better luck.) They keep moving. They’re transient, they’re transitory.

So many things in life are. You can’t pin them down. You look one minute and things look one way; the next minute they look entirely different. Don’t even ask about the differences between years.

But for some reason we (and by “we” I mean “I”) keep trying to get some kind of firm fix on the situation, whatever the situation is. Seven or eight sparrows? Well, does it matter? Rationally, no … but so much of life is spent trying to count those damn sparrows.

Also, I like numbers. I like numbers in general; I like arithmetic; I count things and add and subtract and multiply things all the time, just for the hell of it. Give me your phone number and I’ll tell you something interesting about the digits in, like, four seconds. “The sum of the first three digits is the product of the last two digits!” Or something. It’s a little weird. Kind of Junior Rain Man. (I do know the difference between the price of a car and the price of a candy bar, though.  So your longstanding suspicion that I really should be institutionalized has not yet been entirely confirmed.)

I like numbers in poetry because they are so specific. Other things being equal, generally the more specific a poem is the more powerful it is, so numbers to me seem like high-octane gas or something for poetry.

Gabi Greve, on her mindblowingly complete haiku website, has a great page about numbers in haiku. Here are a couple of my favorites of the examples she gives:

咲花をまつ一に梅二は櫻
saku hana o matsu ichi ni umi ni wa sakura

waiting for the cherry blossoms
one is the sea
two is the cherry tree

— Ishihara 石原重方

.

ビタミン剤一日二錠瀧凍る
bitamiinzai ichi nichi ni joo taki kooru

vitamin pills
each day two of them –
the waterfall freezes

— Ono Shuka (Oono Shuka) 大野朱香

Also, Issa is great at haiku that feature numbers. (Does this surprise you? I thought not.) A few examples, all translated by David Lanoue (and if you want more you should go over to David’s spectacular database of Issa translations and type your favorite number in the search box):

three raindrops
and three or four
fireflies

.

houses here and there
fly kites, three…four…
two

.

three or five stars
by the time I fold it…
futon

.

rainstorm–
two drops for the rice cake tub
three drops for the winnow

.

lightning flash–
suddenly three people
face to face

.

mid-river
on three or four stools…
evening cool

.

cool air–
out of four gates
entering just one

.

on four or five
slender blades of grass
autumn rain

.

a five or six inch
red mandarin orange…
winter moon

and one of my favorites of all time —

first snowfall
one, two, three, four
five, six people

Interesting how many of these involve the kind of uncertainty about exact count that my own haiku does. I don’t remember whether I had read any Issa at the time I wrote it. I might have been shamelessly imitating him, or I might just have been trying to count sparrows. You try it. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

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

IMG_3949

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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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.