Chiyo-ni, Issa, and Their Children

by Olivia Zhu

Dragonfly-1729162_960_720Not 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:

Dragonfly catcher,
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.

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