by Olivia Zhu
Not too long ago, I was struck by a haiku. It’s a form I know very little about, aside from what most students are taught in school about its five-seven-five syllabic structure. Moreover, I don’t read or understand Japanese, and feel very much at a loss to understand the paragons of the form in their original language—essential, I think, given their length.
But I’ll venture a clumsy stab at explaining why this haiku might be so striking, and then dare to do the same for another, because I do think there’s something here that transcends translation. I’ve taken the liberty of picking the translations I thought sounded nice, but versions abound.
First, the Japanese poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni wrote:
How far have you gone today
In your wandering?
She wrote it after the death of her son, when she had already been widowed. It is, perhaps, a simple work—for her child, who loved dragonflies and died young, the same flavor of thought for a living boy and one no longer. It makes me imagine a mother wondering where her son is playing, only to remember with a sharp breath that he has died. Yet this haiku is at once the moment before that breath, and the one after. What a sweet thought, to then picture your child continuing to do what he liked best in life, no matter that he has wandered far beyond where a mother might find him and care for him.
Here, it is the brevity of the haiku that makes me feel as if it is a passing thought, but perhaps a thought that Chiyo-ni might have had every day, multiple times a day, before committing it to paper.
This work also seems to have touched Kobayashi Issa, considered one of the great four masters of haiku. He, too, lost his children—a son, and then a daughter. It was the death of his daughter Sato that caused him the most heartbreak, for in one of his diaries, he said he believed she “lives in a special state of grace, and enjoys divine protection from Buddha.” His descriptions of her burst with a proud love and bemusement, and so his diary entry when she contracts and dies from smallpox seems all the more sorrowful by contrast. Upon her death, he wrote an entry in his journal, accompanied by Chiyo-ni’s poem on her dragonfly hunter, several other works about the loss of a child, and this haiku, his own:
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet…
Scholar Guy Newland discusses the work in his book on Buddhist grief, noting that the Issa would have followed the Buddhist belief that living things are fleeting, vanishing like dew. As Issa himself writes, “I knew well that it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall. Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not cut the binding cord of human love.” This is what he means when he says “and yet, and yet,” that even recognizing that he cannot recover his beloved daughter from death, he knows still that he shall love her and think on her, as Chiyo-ni does with her son. Newland describes it in quite a lovely way, saying that “Now this little girl’s death hurts him bone-deep, cuts him to the core. To be utterly heart-wrecked and, at the same time, strangely grateful for some lost grace—this is what it will always mean to be a human who loves another mortal.”
Consider again the haiku form, and how it shapes Issa’s feeling. It is a thought, a concise one. Yet it is a thought that lingers. Chiyo-ni’s thought—her question—revisits her over and over again, but Issa’s here is left to extend, a remnant of the cord that still binds him to his daughter. Critic and translator Donald Keene notes that Issa was generally “reluctant to express [tragic] feelings in his poetry,” yet he does so in his diaries, and especially in this haiku that reconciles his reckoning with the physics of the real world and his grief. Chiyo-ni, on the other hand, has elided that barrier, blending the spheres of life and death into her question.
So much, from thirty-four syllables!
“The Finest Female Haiku Writer”
“The Life of Kobayashi Issa”
Guy Newland, A Buddhist Grief Observed, (33-34)
Issa Kobayashi, The Year of My Life, (Chapters 12 and 14)
Donald Keene, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-modern Era, 1600-1867, Volume 1, 368