Dragonfly Blues

Here in Victoria, Australia, we are in our 5th COVID-19 lockdown. *sigh*


The 4th volume of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku, the Autumn – Winter volume, has a section devoted to dragonflies.

In Japanese haiku dragonflies are an autumn kigo (season word), so dragonfly haiku might not be entirely appropriate reading at the moment, given that here in Melbourne we are currently in the depths of winter.

He has dyed his body

with autumn, –

The dragon-fly.

Bakusui (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Whenever dragonflies are given a colour in Japanese haiku they are always red.

The beginning of autumn,

Decided

By the red dragon-fly.

Shirao (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Several of the dragonfly haiku in Blyth mention late afternoon or early evening. Do we notice dragonflies more often at that time of the day? Or is it that there is a parallel between the colour of the dragonflies and sunset colours?

Between the moon coming out

And the sun going in,-

The red dragon-flies.

Nikyu (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Some of the haiku focus on other characteristics of dragonflies, like the size of their eyes:

The face of the dragon-fly

Is practically nothing

But eyes.

Chisoku (trans. R. H. Blyth)

About this haiku Blyth notes:

This is what any child might say, but for that very reason, near to the kingdom of poetry.

Dragonflies fly with abrupt changes of direction as though they are constantly changing their minds.

The dragon-fly,

Swift to the distant mountain,

Swift to return.

Akinobo (trans. R. H. Blyth)

A number of the dragonfly haiku quoted in Blyth mention graves, stones, walls (and an “uneventful” village) presumably as a point of contrast to the busy flight of dragonflies.

Old graves;

Red dragon-flies flitting

Over the withered shikimi.

Anon. (R. H. Blyth)

In his notes on this haiku Blyth states:

The shikimi or Chinese anise has a small white flower in summer. The flower smells sweet, but is poisonous. Nevertheless, sprays are offered before the Buddha. The old grave, the withered offerings, the dragon-flies rustling to and fro, - what a scene of thoughtless significance?

“Thoughtless significance” . . .? Sometimes Blyth’s prose is quite poetic and you need intuition, rather than analysis, to approach his meaning.

These haiku seem to establish that in Japan dragonflies are red, but here in the south eastern part of Australia I think most of the dragonflies I’ve seen are blue. Maybe some are yellow and black? Or yellow/green? But mostly blue.

Note: I do not have a good source for identifying Australian dragonflies, but a quick scan of the internet shows some have evocative names like: Swamp Bluets; Blue Skimmers (the female of this species is greeny-yellow and black); and the Tau Emeralds. The name Tau Emerald conjures something of the jewel-like appearance of many dragonflies.

My skim of the internet also revealed a few red species of Australian dragonflies but I don’t think I have ever seen any. So, here is a blue, south-eastern Australian, dragonfly haiku:

     Home, where I grew up –
swans are black
dragon-flies are blue. 🌵

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

Aussie Rules

Warning: post contains generalisations, misleading statements, a false attribution, and is basically bull-twang.


Australia is divided by an invisible line.

North of the line, in Queensland and most of New South Wales, people play rugby, a game that is not understood by, and is of no interest to, the people living in the rest of Australia.

In the rest of Australia (the southern part of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) people play and watch Australian Rules Football, often called “AFL” or just “Footy”. Australian Rules is extremely chaotic game, brutal and graceful in equal measure.

I have previously posted a haiku I wrote about AFL football here, but writing haiku about the footy is a far from new idea. A haiku poet called Rob Scott, AKA “Haiku Bob”, has been doing it for years. He also helps organise a yearly AFL Grand Final Kukai which is basically a bunch of haiku writing footy fans, composing haiku and posting them to a shared thread, while they watch the AFL grand final. Things can get a bit ragged as the game goes on.

Here are a few of the haiku I contributed during the 2020 grand final (for context Victoria was then in the middle of a months long COVID lockdown, and no one was allowed to have guests to their houses to watch the game).

     The afternoon of
the first night grand final –
bugger all to do.
     The Tigers win again!
watching a replay
of last year’s game.
     The 2020 AFL grand final –
the 1st grand final he’s watched
all by himself.

And to finish up here is a footy haiku I wrote in cricket season:

     the off season -
nothing to do
but write haiku

Post Script: there was a rumour during the Second World War, when a Japanese invasion of Australia was thought to be immanent, that the government had a secret plan to abandon the rugby playing states in order to defend the rest of the country. This rumour has never been substantiated.

References:

The Footy Almanac, https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/author/haikubob/

The 2020 AFL Grand Final Kukai, https://australianhaikusociety.org/2020/10/12/the-2020-afl-grand-final-haiku-kukai/#more-13608

The Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/homefront/brisbane_line

Against Agapanthus

     Winter sun –
the dead heads on hundreds
of agapanthus plants.

This is the second agapanthus haiku that I’ve written and published to this blog this year (find my previous effort here).

To be honest I’m not-too-fond of agapanthus. They’re bloody everywhere. Agapanthus must be the all-time most popular flower for councils, and corporate landscapers, to plant. In parks and formal gardens; on median strips and traffic islands; beside wide concrete driveways leading to twin car garages; showing through the safety fences of in-ground pools; and surrounding the car parks of tilt-slab retail barns, growing out of the scoria, next to low treated-pine log fences: agapanthus.

Oh God, I’m a completely obnoxious snob.

Agapanthus are obviously cheap, widely available, pretty hardy and low maintenance, and hence . . . everywhere. They’re overexposed. A bed of agapanthus essentially means: just make it look OK, and have it done by tomorrow, and, oh yeah, our budget is half what we said it was going to be. But this isn’t what agapanthus have always meant.

Trove is a wonderful website where you can access digitised copies of old Australian newspapers and other media, and there I came across a black and white photo of five agapanthus stems in a glass vase from the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, dated 4-Nov-1938. The caption on the photo reads: “AGAPANTHUS – the flower of love, a winning entry by Mrs M. Burton in the cut bloom section at St Paul’s Caladium Show” (the name Agapanthus come from the Greek agapē, love, and anthos, flower).

Another find on Trove that mentions agapanthus in the context of love is the following article published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on 29-Dec-1939:

YULETIDE WEDDING

Sexton–Dempsey 

BLUE hydrangea and white agapanthus decked the Albert Street Methodist Church on December 22nd when Miss Margaret Dempsey, only child of the late Mr J. J. Dempsey, and Mrs Dempsey formerly of Junction Park and later of Southport School, was married to Mr Cecil Sexton of Cairns. 

GIVEN away by her uncle, Mr H. Rennie, the bride wore a street-length frock of aqua blue broderie Anglaise made with a swing skirt and finished at the neckline with a spray of tuberoses. A large white picture hat and white accessories completed the ensemble. 

Mrs Frank Daly was matron of honour, frocked in lemon floral sheer, finished with a spray of mauve agapanthus and white gardenias, and she added white accessories. Mr Frank Daly accompanied the bridegroom.

The Rev. H. M. Wheller officiated. Mr Archie Day was organist, and Miss Firth Edmonds sang. 

At the Hotel Canberra, where the reception was held, Mrs Dempsey received her guests wearing a tailored bolero ensemble of navy and white, with a white hat, and she pinned a spray of crimson rosebuds on the corsage. 

Leaving for the honeymoon, before proceeding North to her future home in Cairns, Mrs Sexton wore a frock of floral germaine with a honey-toned hat.

Side Note: Agapanthus are apparently often called African Lily or Lily of the Nile in the old country (who knows why, because they aren’t lilies, and they come from South Africa which is nowhere near the Nile).

Here is another agapanthus haiku that wrote back in summer when their flower heads were green and purple, instead of dead and brown, and waiting to be cut back, as they are now:

A single agapanthus head 
growing through
the wrought-iron fence.

References:

Agapanthus, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agapanthus

Brisbane Courier-Mail, (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/40891356#)

Rockhampton Morning Bulletin (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/55999372?searchTerm=Agapanthus)

Seasonal Affective Disorder

     Pulling the doona
up over my head -
cold feet.

Another winter solstice comes, and goes, here in South Eastern Australia.

The solstice always makes me feel like we should be heading off to some deserted rural location, and building a massive bonfire, and drinking large qualities of home-made beer (flavoured with pine needles), and tearing off most of our clothes . . . and painting ourselves with woad . . . and . . . and . . . cavorting . . .

So, who’s with me?

Anyone . . . ? No one . . . ?

Oh, fine then. I’m going back to bed.

Is That a Book of Haiku in Your Pocket?

The Pocket Haiku translated by Sam Hamill is the smallest book on my shelf of haiku books. It’s about the size of a standard pack of playing cards, but a bit thinner. Think: a deck of cards that’s missing the jokers, and a few other random cards, and you’ll have the proportions of this little volume, perfectly.

A small book of small poems.

To be honest The Pocket Haiku is not a favourite book of mine. For one thing it is too small to sit neatly among my other haiku books: something that really shouldn’t annoy me, but it does . . .

. . . and then, the translations in The Pocket Haiku, while fine, are hardly ever my favourite translations of the given haiku. Take this rather nice haiku by Buson:

By flowering pear

and by the lamp of the moon

she reads her letter

Buson (trans. Hamill)

The same haiku is translated by R. H. Blyth as:

A pear-tree in bloom:

In the moonlight,

A woman reading a letter.

Buson (Blyth)

And in Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, it is rendered as:

Pear trees in flower

a woman reads a letter

by moonlight

Buson (Merwin & Lento)

Both the Blyth translation, and the Merwin & Lento translation, are simpler than the Hamill translation, and I think more beautiful for that.

To finish, a haiku of my own:

     It’s rude to wonder
what’s in her bag –
a little book of haiku.

References:

Haiku, R. H. Blyth, The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Pocket Haiku, trans. Sam Hamill, Shambala, 2014.

Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. W. S. Merwin & Takako Lento, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.

Goldfish’s Sigh by Naho Sugita

The Haiku Foundation is a wonderful resource for people interested in English language haiku. Their Digital Library has hundreds (thousands!) of haiku collections that can be access for nix, online, including some works by contemporary Japanese poets in translation.

While browsing the library the other day I came across Goldfish’s Sigh a collection of 150 haiku by the haiku poet Naho Sugita, translated by Yasuhiro Kamimura, and published by the wonderful Red Moon Press.

Here, just to give you a taste, are four of her haiku, one for each of the four seasons:

having pumped up

some spring air

into my bicycle tyres

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

a promise

valid until the next world –

cloud peaks

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

picking up nuts

in this age of

plenty

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

someone in charge of

turning off

the Christmas tree lights

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

The very brief biography of Naho Sugita included in the book tells us that she was born in 1980, and that as well as being a haiku poet, she is also an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Economics at Osaka City University.

Is it rude to sign off with a haiku of my own?

     We could spend
the rest of the afternoon
just counting goldfish … ? 🌵

References:

Goldfish’s Sigh, Naho Sugita (trans. Yasuhiro Kamimura), Red Moon Press, 2021.

“To Be Weak Is Miserable”

Here in Australia headlines and social media news feeds have made for grim reading over the past few weeks: men’s sexual violence against women (and in particular the Brittany Higgins case); the Australian Government cutting welfare payments; rising tensions with China … the USA approaching and then surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths … and conspiracy theorists protesting the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations …

… but, especially … the way we raise … and the role … and our collective failure to … and … and … and …

… how long can you keep your mind fixed on massive amounts of trauma that you feel powerless to change? After some hours, or days, I felt the need turn my mind to things safer and more mundane.

I switched off my laptop, put down my phone and took Barney, our cavoodle, for a walk.

We walked down through some areas of Flemington where the footpaths and nature strips are not-too-well maintained; past odd-shaped little corners of land where people dump the rubbish they can’t be bothered taking to the tip; and along the railway line where the weeds grow waist and chest high.

     broken thistle
milk sap wells
to the surface 🌵

On Milk Thistles

What we call milk thistles here in Melbourne, Sonchus oleraceus, are commonly called sow thistles elsewhere in the world. When we were kids we used to put their milky sap on warts. Apparently their bitter leaves can be eaten in a salad (I’ve never tried).

Often you find milk thistles growing next to another very similar plant. This second plant has tougher, woodier stems; tougher, darker green leaves; and more (and smaller) flower heads.

One other distinctive feature of this second tougher plant, is that it has round white seed heads like a dandelion’s puffballs, but whereas a dandelion’s puffballs are dense with feathered seeds and almost opaque, this tough milk-thistle-like plant’s puffballs are compromised of just a few feathery seeds and so appear translucent and lattice-like.

For a long time I’d assumed examples of this second plant were just older milk thistles, perennials rather than annuals, left alive for a second season to grow old and tough.

But over the past couple of days, while I have been avoiding social media news feeds, I have been filling in my spare hours comparing photos of milk thistles online, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these tougher milk thistles are a whole seperate species, Lactuca serriola, sometimes called Prickly Lettuce or the Compass Plant.

A Snake in the Grass

A week or so ago I went to the 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 at the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square. 

Lying on a low dias when you enter the first room was a fabulous, glistening sculpture of a Red-bellied black snake by Charlie Solomon, made from what looks to have been a single large twisting limb of a gum tree. 

I’ve seen red-belly black snakes a number of times when bush-walking in Victoria. Their backs are usually shiny black like patent leather although they can get a bit dusty sometimes. Their undersides are sometime bright red, as depicted in Charlie Solomon’s sculpture, but other times more as a dull pink colour.

Black snakes get a few mentions in Australian literature, for instance it is a black snake that invades the house in Henry Lawson’s famous story “The Drover’s Wife”, but the only work I know of that refers specifically to a red-belly black snake is this poem by Judith Wright:

The Killer

The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.

My breast on the bright moss
and shower-embroidered weeds,
my lips to the live water
I saw him turn in the reeds.

Black horror sprang from the dark
in a violent birth
and through its cloth of grass
I felt the clutch of earth.

O beat him into the ground
O strike him till he dies,
or else your life itself
drains through those colourless eyes.

I struck and struck again.
Slender in black and red 
he lies, and his icy glance 
turns outward, clear and dead.

But nimble my enemy 
as water is, or wind. 
He has slipped from his death aside
and vanished into my mind.

He has vanished whence he came,
my nimble enemy;
and the ants come out to the snake
and drink at his shallow eye.

The snake, no longer a physical threat, moves inside the poet’s mind (becoming a memory and a symbol). Wright’s poem reminds me of this haiku by Kyoshi:

The snake slid away,

But the eyes that stared at me

Remained in the grass.

Kyoshi (R. H. Blyth)

No shade on Charlie Solomon, or Judith Wright (although the Australian Museum would not approve of her destruction of the snake), or Henry Lawson, but Kyoshi on the other hand …

… the article “Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism” on the Haiku Foundation website discusses Kyoshi’s collaboration with Japan’s totalitarian government during the Second World War, a government that persecuted, imprisioned and tortured free verse haiku poets that it considered insufficiently patriotic.

     Didn't Basho say
go to the snake
     to learn about snakes?     🌵

References:

Red-Bellied Black Snake, Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/reptiles/red-bellied-black-snake/

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 (exhibition), The Koorie Heritage Trust, 5 Dec 2020 – 21 Feb 2021.

Henry Lawson’s Mates, The complete stories of Henry Lawson, Henry Lawson, Currey O’Neill, 1979.

Red-Bellied Black Snake (sculpture), Charlie Solomon, 2020.

Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalistarianism, Udo Wenzel interviews Ito Yuki, Juxta 1.1, March 2015, The Haiku Foundation, https://thehaikufoundation.org/juxta/juxta-1-1/forgive-but-do-not-forget-modern-haiku-and-totalitarianism/

Collected Poems, Judith Wright, Fourth Estate, 1994.

Melbourne in Lockdown

     Traffic lights turn green, but 
there are no cars
on Racecourse Road 🌵

When I was growing up in Kensington locals had a habit, that my brothers and I picked up, of tacking the word “but” onto the end of sentences and statements. It used to infuriate my Mum and Dad. The rules of grammar weren’t strictly enforced in our household, they had their limits but. I think Mum and Dad thought when we used the “dangling but” it was just us mangling our sentences for no good reason whatsoever, but for me it was usually that I’d had second thoughts about what I was saying as I was in the process of saying it … and allowed the second half of my thought to trail off unsaid …

At any rate, Mum, Dad, the “dangling but” in my Melbourne lockdown haiku is for you.

Eldorado!

I spent the last week on holiday with my family in the Ovens Valley, in the little town of Porepunkah. It was hot all week so much time was spent swimming.

While my brother and sister-in-law, my niece and nephew, my son and daughter, and my wife, were all swimming in a deep hole in the Buckland river, I sat on the bank wondering to myself what the river might have been like prior to European settlement. The river looked like it had been dredged, and probably dynamited, in the search for gold. The bed of the river was large fragments of stone – no sand. The banks of the river were steep, made of uneven jagged bits of rock, and overgrown with European weeds: purple-flowered scotch thistle, the rusty stems of docks, and blackberries just coming into fruit.

There is a much larger dredge hole at Eldorado near Beechworth. There the dredge is still sitting derelict in the middle of the flooded dredge hole, like a strange castle that has subsided into its own moat. Eldorado was deserted when I visited.

The Tronah Dredge Hole at Harrietville, “Lake Tronah”, on the other hand is a popular place for swimming. It’s probably about as big as the playing surface of the MCG and there is no rusting machinery (at least, none visible above the surface of the water). On this side of the dredge hole there is a little jetty that a bunch of people, kids and adults, were jumping from into the cool dark water. On the far side a rope hanging off a tree that was preferred by a group teenagers, loud music playing from a speaker. Out in the middle, groups of people were floating on lilos, inflated rings and paddle boards. God only knows how deep the thing is.

  Drop slow gum leaves
to the surface
of the Harrietville dredge hole🌵

Actually, an environmental history of bucket dredging in Victoria published in 2018 notes that the Tronoh dredge could go as deep as 130 feet. Despite disrupting 156 acres of the Ovens River, and creating extraordinary quantities of tailings (much of which has never been remediated), the Tronoh dredge barely broke even.

References:

The Environmental History of Bucket Dredging in Victoria, Davies P., Lawrence S., Turnbull J., Rutherfurd I., Grove J. & Sylvester E., The Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol. 16, October 2018.

Paulownia Trees & The Moonee Ponds Creek

The City of Melbourne has a wonderful website called Urban Forest Visual where you can look up the species of all the trees planted in the streets and parks of Melbourne. Browsing this website the other day I was surprised to find that there are paulownia (or pawlonia) trees planted in Chelmsford Street, Kensington, only ten or fifteen minutes walk from my house. A paulownia tree was referred to in a haiku by Ransetsu in my post on Japanese Death Poems.

Here is a slightly different translation of the same haiku from The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers:

A leaf falls;

Totsu! a leaf falls,

on the wind.

Ransetsu (trans. William J. Higginson)

Bowers offers the following explanations:

Just as “blossom,” when not modified, means cherry flower in haiku, “one leaf” is code for kiri. Kiri, a member of the figwort family, is the Pawlonia or Empress tree, named after the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia (1754 – 1801). A fast grower, it reaches a height of 20 feet in two seasons. The faintly perfumed wood is used in making clogs and clothes chests. The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolises loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers in early autumn are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7, and 5 buds respectively. The blooms and their bracket of leaves form the crest of the Empress of Japan. Totsu is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground on falling.

Paulownia is also mentioned more than once by R. H. Blyth, in his famous four volume work on haiku. Blyth seems to disagree with Bowers’ interpretation of the word “totsu”. When discussing the Rensetsu haiku in his first volume, Eastern Culture, Blyth writes: “Totsu is a Zen exclamation, expressive of grumbling, of anger”.

In volume three, Summer-Autumn, Blyth has this to say on the paulownia: “The flowers of the kiri or paulownia have something in them harmonious with what is old, low, spread out, peaceful, monotonous”. These haiku by Shiki are given as examples:

Flowers of the paulownia blooming;

Old mansions

Of the Capital.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

The low roof

Of the store-house;

Flowers of the paulownia.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

There are no old mansions in the area of Kensington around Chelmsford Street, but there are plenty old store-houses and factories (mostly being converted into residential apartments), and at the bottom of Chelmsford Street runs the Moonee Ponds Creek. The Moonee Ponds Creek … it sounds like an idyllic little waterway doesn’t it? And probably it was before the European settlement of Melbourne. Now, for most of its course it is a concrete drain; poisoned by the tannery that used to be at Debney’s Park and other heavy industry; and overshadowed not by ancient gum trees, but by the massive concrete towers of the the Citilink overpass.

Paulownia trees 
near the Moonee Ponds Creek –
no leaves left at all. 🌵

References:

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996.

Urban Forest Visual, http://melbourneurbanforestvisual.com.au

Doomscrolling

As the Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown drags goes on and on, I’ve been finding it less easy to follow my own advice about how to live a happy balanced life. Instead I’ve found myself: exercising little; drinking more than the Better Health Channel recommends; and staying awake long into the night “doomscrolling” (when you keep scrolling through all of your social media feeds looking for the most upsetting news about the latest catastrophe).

Days seem to blur into each one another.  Dietary choices becoming less interesting, less healthy, and at times … bizarre. 

A couple of nights ago, with only a handful of ingredients left in the house, we found ourselves sitting down to a cobbled together meal of takeaway BBQ chicken, steamed dim sims, and a lovely plate of the first new season’s asparagus blanched and dressed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

I drank two or three beers and fell asleep early while the rest of the family watched a movie. 

I woke, as the others were going to bed, and I took myself off to read on the couch in the lounge room. Soon enough I found myself browsing the Twitter feed of podcast host Cam Smith (@sexenheimer) who posts selected highlights from the most deranged Australian conspiracy theorists. Amusing highlights included:

  • A rough looking fellow, with a shaved head and a handlebar moustache, who claims to be an ex-professional wrestler and who was challenging Shane Patton, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, to a bare knuckle fist fight in the middle of Federation Square, “one on one”. 
  • A rather dishevelled character, who is apparently the lead singer of a INXS tribute band, who when confronted by police at a protest against the Melbourne lockdown, leaped into Albert Park Lake to escape … only to find the lake was less than waist deep and so had to make his escape by wading. 
  • A man from Tasmania with scraggly facial hair, who had made himself a top-heavy Ned Kelly helmet out of corrugated iron. 
  • A woman in a headdress, who was claiming that she and the “other witches” she knows have work permits to allow them to pass through police checkpoints during the lockdown, and also that she has made a spell using her “womb blood” which will cause Daniel Andrews to resign (so far ineffective). 
  • And a very earnest young man, who was claiming that his father had attended the St Kilda Road police station and charged “the entire Victorian police force with criminal fraud and misprison of treason”.

Of course, not all of the conspiracy theorists were as benign or amusing as these examples, but still I read on, and on, late into the night …

I woke up suddenly, sometime in the early hours of the morning, befuddled, anxious, uncomfortable from sleeping on the couch, and needing to pee. This presented something of a dilemma to my fuddled brain: 

Should I try to sneak into the ensuite without waking my wife? No, I’d inevitably wake her and then she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Then in the morning I’d take her a cup of coffee and say, “how are you”, and she would reply, “tired”. After a meaningful pause she might add, “I didn’t get much sleep”. Best avoid the ensuite.

The other option was to use the main bathroom, but the problem with the main bathroom is that this is where the puppy sleeps. If I woke the puppy he’d be full of energy and want to play, and honestly, that was the last thing that I felt like I could cope with.

One other possibility suggested itself … I remember when my brothers and I were kids that Mum would say that it was OK for us to go outside and pee on the lemon tree (is uric acid good for lemon trees?), but some things that were acceptable when you were seven are not so acceptable when you are in your forties, and trying to maintain a last few shreds of dignity.

Peeing in the garden
I recall
Asparagus for dinner. 🌵

References:

Better Health Channel, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/alcohol

Urban Dictionary, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=doomscrolling

Hold My Beer!

Review: Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffman

“Famous last words” is a favourite topic for internet posts, and a quick search reveals dozens … hundreds … maybe hundreds of thousands of pages devoted to things people say shortly before they die. 

Some are noble-sounding utterances ascribed to famous persons, probably intended to inspire us with their wisdom and virtue. 

Others are more akin to the Urban Dictionary definition of famous last words: “things said by a person about to unwittingly cause his own death”. Phrases like: “don’t worry, it isn’t loaded”, “I’ve done this heaps of times before, it’s completely safe”, and yes, “hey, hold my beer”.

Note: caution is advised if you’re thinking of checking my references on the Urban Dictionary website, and you’re easily offended, because about 99% of the phrases defined there are utterly improbable obscenities (most of them read like they’ve were invented by 14 year olds for the sole purpose of listing them on Urban Dictionary). 

Haiku poetry has its own version of famous last words called jisei or “death poems”, and many wonderful examples of these are compiled by Yoel Hoffmann in his book Japanese Death Poems

Some haiku poets are said to have composed these jisei in their last day or so of life, or even in their last few moments. Others apparently prepared their jisei ahead of time, just in case they died suddenly.

Nights grow short:

a dream of fifty years

breaks off before it ends.

Kafu

One thing I like about Hoffmann’s book is that many of the poems are presented with a brief passage of prose that gives some biographical details of the poet who wrote the haiku. The result is that many of sections of the book read a little like haibun (haibun, are haiku that are presented with a short section of prose, intended to be read together as a unit). Here’s an example:

One leaf lets go, and

then another takes

the wind. 

Ransetsu

Hito-ha chiru

totsu hito-ha chiru

kaze no ue

Ransetsu was a pupil of Basho’s. Basho praised Ransetsu’s poetry, but the poet Kyoriku said it was “anaemic”, and compared it to someone “who invites guests to a feast and serves no more than a menu”.

Old sources say that Ransetsu’s first wife was a bathing-house prostitute. She died after giving birth to a son, where-upon Ransetsu took a geisha as his wife. The couple became converts to Zen Buddhism. It is further stated that during a certain period, Ransetsu lived in the poet Kikaku’s house, and that “he had not even a mat to lie on”.

The word totsu is an exclamation that is made by Zen monks when they achieve enlightenment.

This haiku of falling leaves by Ransetsu is one I recognised from other haiku collections. Another haiku that I recognised was this one by Basho:

On a journey, ill:

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields. 

Basho

This is the last poem of one of the greatest haiku poets. Basho had fallen seriously ill on one of his travels. When his pupils hinted that he ought to leave a farewell poem, he replied that any of his poems could be his death poem. Nevertheless, on the eighth day of the tenth month, after gathering his pupils around his bead, he wrote this poem. He died four days later.

Some of the poems in Hoffmann’s collection seem mystical, but many of those I like the most are whimsical, or gently humorous, such as these:

Swear to me, pine,

for many years

to keep on young and green.

Koseki

I cast the brush aside –

from here on I’ll speak to the moon

face to face.

Koha

Give my dream back,

raven! The moon you woke me to

is misted over.

Onitsura

What a lark!

Swinging my arms I set off:

a winter rainstorm.

Osen

I borrow moonlight

for this journey of a

million miles.

Saikaku

Whimsical, and gently humorous … such a different sensibility to our wise and virtuous quotes on one hand, and the coarse black humour of Urban Dictionary on the other. 

Let me end with a shout out to the poet Senkei who died in 1775, who chose a plant close to my heart, the cactus or prickly-pear, as the topic for his jisei.

Somehow or other

even the cactus shows

the fall. 

Haōju no

nantomonashi ni

aki kurenu.

Haōju , “king of plants,” is the name for the prickly-pear cactus. This plant is not common in Japan, and it is not much mentioned in haiku poetry. The cactus is a robust plant which does not change with the seasons as much as other plants.

Post script: as I was completing this post my daughter, Ida, came into the room. I told her what I was writing, and here is what she replied in the form of a haiku:

A funny idea - 
staying alive to write
just three more lines. 🌵

References: 

Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann, Tuttle Publishing, 1986.

Urban Dictionary, urbandictionary.com

On Daffodils

The daffodil is recognised internationally as the symbol of hope for all people affected by cancer. Cancer Council chose it as our emblem as the bright yellow colouring heralds the return of spring, representing new life and growth.

To Cancer Council, and those affected by cancer, the daffodil represents hope for a cancer free future.

daffodilday.com.au

Cancer has been in my thoughts a lot since my cousin, Dave Sheehan, died of lung cancer earlier this year (it is always in my thoughts to some extent because I work as a cancer nurse), and it is probably because of Dave’s death that the titles of a number of poems by Philip Hodgins caught my eye when I was browsing the Australian Poetry Library recently: 

Room 1 Ward 10 West 12/11/83

Room 3 Ward 10 West 17/11/83

Room 1 Ward 10 West 23/11/83

Cytotoxic Rigor

Here, if you can bear it, is the one of Hodgins poems that really got to me:

Leaving Hospital

There was no joy in leaving. Nothing was resolved.

Blood and bone were shot and death had shown

a way with words beyond the usual sophistry.

Wounded by prognosis I had brought people together

and encouraged conversation. It didn’t help.

The right debates were held alone each night

After the chatter of the last drug trolley down

the polished corridor. It was impossible to match

death’s vocabulary. I gave up and got ready to go.

No amount of speachmaking could reassemble

those disparate friends or justify all that fuss.

On the steps I felt the hospital’s immensity

behind me. I thought of how this blood, this

volition would bring me back here to die

in stages of bitterness and regret. I turned around.

The doors are open.

Philip Hodgins

Very grim. 

“… the hospital’s immensity behind me.”

Blunt, three or four word sentences, as brief as lines from a haiku, but with no images from life in them: no birds; no sun or rain; no daffodils.

The abrupt change of tense at the end. 

The Australian Poetry Library says that Hodgins was born in Katandra West, near Shepparton, in January 1959, and died in Maryborough, in August 1995, of chronic myeloid leukaemia. Among his poems there are some about farming; and few about AFL football; and quite a lot, like those mentioned above, that are based on his experiences with cancer … 

… but, those of us with kids can’t allow ourselves to wallow in such thoughts too long. It was the first day of spring. The sun was out. I tied a green hanky across my nose and mouth (COVID restrictions) and set off to supervise with my 10 year old son Wes, and his best friend Beth, as they walked to Footscray Park and back for exercise. 

Footpaths, and front gardens, bike-paths, the banks of the Maribynong, and Footscray Park were full of people enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.

Neatly mown lawn -
daffodils
push through. 🌵

References:

About Daffodil Day, daffodilday.com.au

Australian Poetry Library, https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/hodgins-philip