Tag Archives: Issa

Dying to Visit a Graveyard

cropped-goodWe’ve all had the experience of wandering through a graveyard, wondering about all the names we see, the stories behind each set of dates. Entire lives seem to be reduced to a pair of dates, and yet we contemplate the dash that separates those dates, the life that was lived in between. Yet as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “It is not the length of life, but the depth.” These speculations have often been a topic for poetry, including haiku and longer poetry, producing varied yet similar moments of reflection.

I first began thinking about this topic when I published “The Dash,” by Steve Sanfield, in my journal Tundra, #1, 1999, page 87. A note with the poem says it arose “from an interview with a convicted rapist who was once the heavyweight champion of the world.”

The Dash

        (found poem)

When you die
nothing matters but the dash.
On your tombstone it says
1933 – 2025
or something like that.
The only thing that matters
is that dash.
That dash is your life.
How you live it
and were you happy
with the way you lived it.
That’s your life.
That’s what matters—
the dash.

Another poem like this is by Linda Ellis, and it’s more famous. It has the same title as Sanfield’s poem, “The Dash,” and it appears in her book Live Your Dash (New York: Sterling Ethos, 2011). The poem even has its own website, and has appeared as a picture book (for example, see Amazon). The poem was originally written in 1996, and has been anthologized and shared widely, and as a result it appears in several slightly different versions.

The Dash

I read of a man who stood to speak
at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone
from the beginning to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth
and spoke of the following date with tears,
but he said what mattered most of all
was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time
that they spent alive on earth
and now only those who love them
know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own,
the cars . . . the house . . . the cash.
What matters is how we live and love
and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard.
Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left
that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough
to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand
the way other people feel.

To be less quick to anger
and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives
like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect
and more often wear a smile . . .
remembering that this special dash
might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read
with your life’s actions to rehash,
would you be proud of the things they say
about how you lived your dash?

It’s easy to relate to the sentiments of this popular poem. Here are a few additional poems on the same subject, one tanka and six haiku, arranged in order of publication. They all speak of the same moment, of noticing that dash. The first is by Larry Kimmel, from Bottle Rockets #9, 5:1, August 2003, page 36:

a name and an epitaph
blurred by green moss
life in the end
little more than a dash
between two dates

Kimmel is not diminishing the life he is referring to, but observing that it may seem diminished by the dash, but presumably shouldn’t be. And yet he recognizes the ephemerality of life, that it’s all one mad dash from birth to death. Here I think of what may have been Issa’s death poem, as translated by Robert Hass:

A bath when you’re born,
a bath when you die,
how stupid.

Harold Stewart’s two-line rhyming version of the same poem is as follows:

Between the washing-bowls at birth and death,
All that I uttered: what a waste of breath!

And yet, all is not futility for those who wish to be positive, making the most of that dash between the beginning and the end. Here’s another Issa poem, written on the death of his daughter:

this world of dew
is but a world of dew
and yet, and yet . . .

Next is a haiku by Yvonne Cabalona, from Feel of the Handrail, an anthology she edited with W. F. Owen, Modesto, California: Leaning Bamboo Press, 2005, page 7.

old cemetery
all of those dashes
between life and death

Cabalona notes not just the dashes but how many she sees in this old cemetery. We cannot help but feel a moment of awe and respect. She also suggests that perhaps we spend our lives “dashing,” in too much of a frenzy, seldom slowing down enough to smell the roses, to make the most of life on our own terms.

A soldier’s headstone—
between one date and another
so short a line

The preceding poem is by Sylvia Forges-Ryan. It appeared in The Sixth Annual ukiaHaiku Festival Winning Entries, Ukiah, California: Ukiah Haiku Festival, 2008, page 17. Jane Reichhold was the contest judge, and this poem was the first-place winner in the “adult contemporary” category. The poem also appeared in Dandelion Clocks: Haiku Society of America Members’ Anthology 2008, New York: Haiku Society of America, 2008, page 30. This time the focus is on the deaths of soldiers, with this one headstone implying others, and how they died young—and perhaps also shared similar death dates in service to their countries.

winter gravestone
hyphen between dates
my father’s life

James Martin, in the preceding poem, also moves from many gravestones to just one—his father’s. This poem is from Frogpond 32:2, Spring/Summer 2009, page 12. The abstraction of the “father’s life” carries the weight of every story and memory that filled it. Also, we cannot help but feel that the poet is contemplating his own life, the quality of the dash that will appear on his own gravestone.

Reading a tombstone.
The hyphen between the years
tells many stories.

This poem by Jermaine Williams appeared in Pebbles 25:2, October 2012, page 9. The last line is more explanatory compared with the same implication present in other haiku shared here, but it’s ultimately the point of each poem—that each tombstone tells a story. Or, in reality, it doesn’t, but we are left to wonder about each of the stories suggested by the dash.

the dates on Dad’s gravestone
what matters is the hyphen

The preceding poem by Frank Judge was published in Last Ginkgo Leaf: Rochester Area Haiku Group 10th Anniversary Members’ Anthology, edited by Michael Ketchek and Carolyn Coit Dancy, Rochester, New York: Rochester Area Haiku Group, 2015, page 16. It previously appeared in Brass Bell, September 2014. Whether a dash or a hyphen, yes, what matters is the life it represents.

tombstone—
between two dates
the length of life

This poem, by Kwaku Feni Adow, is from his book Between Two Dates, Kumasi, Ghana: Mamba Africa Press, 2020, page 17. He means not just the length but the quality of that life. What do we do, during the length of our lives, between the two dates each of us are given? That, as with all the other examples, is the question these poems raise, an introspective challenge to improve ourselves.

The shared observation in these independently written poems is one to be celebrated. As we remember those who have died before us, and think about their lives, represented by that simple dash on their gravestones, we may all be inspired to deepen the quality of our lives. We might do that, in fact, by writing haiku.

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Watching Haiku: Other Creatures

GoodIn my essay “Watching Haiku: Cats,” I offered sixteen poems about watching cats watch something else, sometimes with a circular sort of awareness that makes watching a conscious act. Each poem offered empathy for something smaller than the observer, sometimes with hints of danger or foreboding. Many other haiku are similar to these poems, although not about cats. Sometimes they’re about other creatures, large and small. For example, the first few of the following poems are about a frog, a squirrel, a rabbit, robins, and a mouse. Humans also appear, but each verse features some sort of creature in addition to the watching human (read more about humans in “Watching Haiku: People”). These poems, despite their similarities, are uniquely told celebrations of a common phenomenon—noticing something that notices something else and writing haiku about it. We need not shy away from writing poems that share this surprisingly common observation, so long as we write what we experience and convey what we feel in fresh ways that we make our own. I’ve arranged the following poems chronologically by year.

            green and hazel eyes
watching their first frog watching
green and hazel eyes

Elizabeth G. Hood published the preceding poem in Modern Haiku 3:1, 1972, page 23. There may well be earlier English-language poems that offer this experience, but I haven’t yet discovered them. The first and third lines undergo a sort of transformation, because we may wonder if they describe the frog’s eyes or the child’s eyes. Perhaps both. And surely this is a child, since it’s their first frog, giving the poem extra delight. Surely the frog and the child (I picture a girl) both have the same eye colour.

Cold, blustery day—
a squirrel at the pecans
spies me—spying him.

This poem is by Louise Somers Winder, and it appeared in Haiku Six, edited by Phil Garland, the sixth collection of winners from an annual haiku contest run by the Washington Poets Association (Tacoma, Washington: The Rhododendron Press, 1980. page 22). There’s a measure of delight in this poem too, in noticing something that is clearly paying attention to something else—or, in this case, you. We are left to wonder if the poet will shoo away those squirrels to protect the pecans.

Watching
the rabbit watching
the falling.

This poem appeared in Ten Years’ Collected Haiku, Volume 1 (Fanwood, New Jersey: From Here Press, 1987, page 16). Out of context, the poem does not make it clear what is meant by “the falling.” However, it appears under the heading of “3 Poems at Niagara,” so “the falling” is obviously the great waterfall. We can wonder how conscious the rabbit is of the falling water, let alone its fame and magnificence, or if it’s just looking in its direction. That speculation may well be on the author’s mind as he is watching the rabbit. For humans, and perhaps rabbits too, the endlessly falling water is mesmerizing.

Watching
Robins watch
the snowfall

The preceding poem, by Richard Balus, was published in Haiku Zasshi Zō, Winter/Spring 1989, page 11. Here we feel the poet’s empathy for the robins, for surely that snowfall is cold, and a danger to their survival. And yet, by extension, cold temperatures are also a challenge for people. Or perhaps we feel a contrast, in that what is a nuisance to small birds is perhaps beautiful to human observers.

watching the mouse watching me

Joanne Morcom’s one-line poem saw first publication in Frogpond 17:4, Winter 1994, page 20. As with so many of these poems, the watched thing is vulnerable and wary. The watcher and watched are trapped in an instant of stalemate, and we may wonder who will twitch first.

at picnic tables
people watching gulls
watching people

This haiku, by Gordon Dickens, appeared in 2000 in the Mainichi Daily News. There’s a mutual wariness here, with both the people and the gulls deeply aware of each other. The people want to protect their food at the picnic tables, and the gulls are watching for an opportunity to snatch something to eat. The poet is another unspoken observer, watching the people who are watching the gulls watch the people.

watching my daughter
watch the sparrows
at the feeder

It amazes me how many variations this theme can take. This poem by Susan Scholl appeared in Crinkled Sunshine, the 2000 Haiku Society of America membership anthology, edited by D. Claire Gallagher. Just as the mother has compassion for her daughter who is intently watching the sparrows, so too the family demonstrates compassion for the sparrows by stocking a birdfeeder. In so many of these poems, something being watched is either something vulnerable, such as these sparrows, or a predator (in other poems), such as a cat.

Watching the gulls
watching the fishermen
watching the sea

This poem, by Ken Stein, was a “work of merit” in the 2003 R. H. Blyth Award sponsored by the World Haiku Club. In this case the stated watching begins with seagulls rather than with a person, but the unstated watching begins with the person who sees the seagulls. The fishermen are watching the sea to determine if the weather will permit them to go fishing, and if they do, surely they will bring back spoils that the gulls can enjoy too. A similar poem is the following, by Elizabeth Crocket, published online in Chrysanthemum #16 in October 2014 (and thus presented here out of chronological order):

watching the osprey
watching the fisherman
watching the fish

The details have changed but the here the fishermen have returned from a successful trip, and the bird, itself a fisher, is eager for a share.

watching the rat
watch me—
we both run

Doris Thurston gives us some humour here. I published this poem in the 2005 Haiku North America conference anthology, Tracing the Fern, which I edited with Billie Wilson (Sammamish, Washington: Press Here, 2005, page 18). Again the poem speaks of empathy, with both the human and the rodent being afraid of each other, a shared feeling, even if the poet has no sympathy for the rat.

dragonfly
watching me
watching him

Those dragonfly eyes are multifaceted, so their watching is very different from the poet’s, both in vision and in understanding. Marie Summers published this poem in White Lotus #2, Spring/Summer 2006. This is a fleeting moment, too, for surely that dragonfly will soon dart away. And yet, the other “watching” poems here are just as fleeting too, even if the creature being watched isn’t as fleeting as a dragonfly.

cold morning
a pair of ducks watching me
watching them

Yu Chang wrote the preceding poem, and it appeared on the Cornell University Mann Library’s Daily Haiku website on 4 December 2006. It also appeared in his book Small Things Make Me Laugh (Rochester, New York: Free Food Press, 2016, page 5). Haiku poetry has a tradition to write about established season words. Haiku poets and readers do not hesitate to repeat any of these common seasonal subjects, such as cherry blossoms or icicles. We should similarly not hesitate to celebrate other subjects repeatedly as well, of which this poem is another example. It takes its turn to express what the poet saw, without worrying about whether others have seen the same thing too—or perhaps doing so because others have seen it too. Here the ducks and the poet are mutually aware of each other, and perhaps the ducks are also wary of the poet—or perhaps the ducks are eager for a handout, and maybe the poet is feeling guilty for not having any bread to toss.

whales
watching
people

D. Boyer’s poem surfaced in Bottle Rockets #16, 8:2, 2007, page 16. In this case it’s clear that the people are whale watching, where they are seeing the whales (apparently) watching the people. The watchers are being watched too.

            desert path
a coyote watches me
watch a coyote

In Proposing to the Woman in the Rear View Mirror (Baltimore, Maryland: Modern English Tanka Press, 2008, page 13), James Tipton offers the preceding take on this surprisingly common haiku trope, this time with a coyote. The poem’s last word introduces an ambiguity—is it yet another coyote that isn’t aware of being watched, or is it the same coyote that is watching “me”? Either way, the poem creates tension, a tension that may be deepened by that ambiguity, which suggests that there could be more than one coyote nearby, increasing the danger to the observer. On a desert path the poet has encountered at least one coyote, and they are both suspiciously eyeing each other—and we don’t know what will happen next.

southern shore
watching a penguin
watching me

Nola Borrell published this poem in Taste of Nashi: New Zealand Haiku (Wellington, New Zealand: Windrift, 2008, page 67), a book she edited with Karen Peterson Butterworth. New Zealand has three species of penguins, which you can see on the South Island, thus the reference to the southern shore. Tourists, of course, are fascinated by these birds, but the birds may be just as fascinated with human visitors.

boy watches heron
watching for a glint
on the water

Alegria Imperial entered this poem in the Shiki Internet Kukai (anonymous haiku contest) in May of 2010 to fit the theme of fishing. That glint on the water will no doubt indicate a fish, which the heron will surely strike. The poet is an unstated observer here, watching the boy watching that heron, which is intently watching the water.

watching the deer
watch my morning train
pass by

Mark E. Brager’s poem was published in The Heron’s Nest 13:4 in December 2011. No doubt the person in the poem is on his way to work or some other obligatory destination and momentarily envies the deer’s idleness and its lack of obligation—or at least he empathizes with the deer.

me watching
something big
watching me

Previous poems have identified specific creatures that are being watched. But here we have a mystery—just something “big.” That uncertainty creates additional tension—the creature being big and unknown increases the danger. This poem, by Stephanie Baker, was published in Mariposa #32, Spring/Summer 2015, page 10. It brings to mind the following poem, by Issa, here in David Lanoue’s translation (from his http://haikuguy.com/ website):

我を見る姿も見へてうすがすみ
ware wo miru sugata mo miete usu-gasumi

that shape’s watching me
watching him . . .
thin mist

So as you can see, haiku poets have been inspired by this watching theme for centuries, and surely there are many further examples in Japanese. In Issa’s poem, like Baker’s, we have the mystery of not knowing what “that shape” might really be, made a notch more ominous by the mist.

The solstice
I watch an owl
watching the moon

Christina Sng’s owl poem appeared on the Asahi Haikuist Network online on 16 September 2016. To me it feels like it must be the winter solstice, because of what I perceive to be a cool moon, but it could also be summer. When not modified in Japanese haiku to indicate otherwise, the moon is normally an autumn season word, but here the solstice puts this poem on the cusp between autumn and winter. Again we feel tension in wondering what the owl might be seeing by moonlight, and thus about to devour.

watching the deer
watching me
morning moon

This would seem to be a delicate and contemplative time of day, when one can see the morning moon. Perhaps the moon’s light is enough for the deer to see, if it’s not a day moon. The poet sees the deer, which is watching the person, and in that context the moon is also mentioned. The poet, John Hawk, does not need to specify whether either he or the deer are watching the moon, but that is still possibly implied. John’s poem placed in the Ninth Yamadera Bashō Memorial Museum English Haiku Contest in 2017.

           rainy day
I watch you watching
an ant

Christiane Ranieri’s poem can be found in Wild Plum 3:1, Spring/Summer 2017, page 15. We feel at least a little empathy for the ant on this rainy day, and perhaps that’s what the “you” in this poem feels, and by extension so too does the observer of that person watching the ant.

flaring nostrils
smelling me
smelling the horse

This poem goes in a different direction, speaking of the sense of smell instead of sight, but its structure is reminiscent of the watching poems. Jerome Cushman wrote this haiku, and it appeared in his book Amidst (Windsor, Connecticut: Café Nietzsche Press, 2007, page 37). Somehow the horse smelling the human makes us more deeply aware of how the horse must smell—and our nostrils must be flaring too.

Whenever we write about our experiences, those experiences are very likely to have been shared by others. In fact, for haiku, we hope that they have, because that sharedness, that empathy, lies at the center of haiku appreciation. There’s a point when poems about similar topics might cross a line and be excessively similar, but I don’t find that to be the case with the preceding “watching” poems. Instead, we can celebrate their sharedness, celebrate their commonality, and revel in how each poet takes a turn to say, in his or her own way, what they hope others have experienced too.

 

Note: Some poems do not appear with indented lines as originally published, due to a limitation in the WordPress blog software. See also “Watching Haiku: Cats” and “Watching Haiku: People.”

 

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