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.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

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!

“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”, or maybe, “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. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References: 

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

Urban Dictionary, urbandictionary.com

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 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. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

About Daffodil Day, daffodilday.com.au

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

Eynesbury: Grey Box Forest

What is a box tree? Good question. Until recently I had no idea.

About half-an-hour’s drive west of Melbourne there is a small area of remanent grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) forest at a place called Eynesbury. 

In mid-May, a couple of weeks before the start of winter here in Victoria, my brother Theo and I, and our kids, drove to Eynesbury to explore (the lockdown for the first wave of COVID-19 had just been relaxed, and the second wave had not yet started). We parked our cars, scoffed down the bacon sandwiches we had packed, and headed off along a path into the scrub. 

To my untrained eye the grey box trees looked just like normal gums: tall, with pale grey-brown leaning trunks, twisting branches, and scraggly clumps of dull green leaves.

About five or ten minutes into our walk we came across a surprise: a baby snake. This was the first time I’ve every seen a baby snake and the first time I can remember seeing a snake of any kind this close to winter. It was, I reckon, about a foot long, maybe a little bit more; its head was dark, almost black; its body was light brown, almost translucent. It moved quickly, whipping and curving itself across the gravel, twigs, and fallen leaves by the side of the path.   

A short way further on I found a twisted, pale grey piece of branch to use as a walking stick.

     Kids, look here
a baby snake! And here's
a good stick. 🌵

“I wonder why box trees are called box trees?”, I said as we walked along, not really expecting an answer. 

“Probably because the early settlers used them for making boxes,” Theo deadpanned. 

It turns out this was not the silliest suggestion: Australian box trees were probably named for their similarity to European box trees (such as Buxus sempervirens) and European box trees do have very dense wood that is used by cabinet makers, wood turners, and in the making of musical instruments. The words “box” for a wooden container, and “box” for a kind of tree, both trace back to the same Greek source word (via Latin). So, box trees being called box trees because they are “those trees that are really good to make boxes out of” is not that much of a stretch.

I’ve always wanted to know how to identify different kinds of gum trees and other eucalypts, and despite a bit of research over the years I’m still not much good at it. This much as I have worked out (with the help of EUCLID, a database of Australian Eucalypts): gum trees have (mostly) thin, smooth bark; box trees are usually covered in fibrous, mat-like bark; and iron barks have hard, brittle, deeply-furrowed bark that is impregnated with resin.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

EUCLID, Eucalypts of Australia, https://apps.lucidcentral.org/euclid/text/entities/eucalyptus_microcarpa.htm

Shorter Oxford Dictionary (5th Ed.), Oxford University Press, 2002. 

A Cage of Fireflies

It is early August 2020 in the Inner Western Suburbs of Narrm (Melbourne): days are getting warmer; in Coronet Street, Flemington, quite close to where I live, the plum trees have set pink blossoms a month before the (official) start of Spring; and the lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19 drags on, and on, with no end in sight. 

In between the working-from-home, and home-schooling the kids, and a few desultory efforts at “self-care”, I found time to pick up one of my favourite books of haiku: Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku by Lucien Stryk.

Frozen together

in one dream – 

sea-slugs.

Seisi (trans. Stryk)

There are lots of books available in English of the so called “big four” of Japanese haiku (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), but even books that give English readers access to a wider range of Japanese haiku writers usually end their selections with Shiki who died in 1902. Cage of Fireflies starts with Shiki, so it is one of the very few books available that give English readers an insight into Japanese haiku written in the twentieth century.

Some of the haiku in Cage of Fireflies bring what feels like a recognisable, traditional, haiku sensibility to modern objects like motorbikes, and train-tracks, and pianos:

Bird song – 

a thin dust

on the piano.

Hajime (trans. Stryk)

Others seem stranger, maybe more experimental, almost surreal:

My hair’s falling fast – 

this afternoon

I’m off to Asia Minor. 

Shinkichi (trans. Stryk)

Of course, we may be missing something in translation here, but I find Shinkichi’s haiku as translated by Stryk evocative, nonetheless. 

It could be that lockdown, and day after day of gloomy news, is starting to get to me, because the haiku that stood out to me, on this reading through of Cage of Fireflies, were the ones which seemed to touch on loneliness, futility, ill-health, and death:  

My voice

blown back to me

on autumn wind.

Meisetsu (trans. Stryk)

Cricket chirp – 

now

my life is clear.

Hakuu (trans. Stryk)

Death at last – 

little by little

fading of medicine odors.

Dakotsu (trans. Stryk)

Into the cage of

fireflies, mostly dead,

I send a breath.

Kasho (trans. Stryk)

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Swallow Press, 1993.

Going With the Flow (Not)

It’s interesting when you find examples of English language poetry, and haiku translated into English from the Japanese, that seem to share a theme. Here is an example I came across recently:

Bloom, O ye amaranths ! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not ! Glide, rich streams, away !

With lips unbrighten’d, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live. 

From Work without Hope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And the haiku:

I stopped –

The stream

Flowed off alone

Seishi (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Both poets are left behind as streams, and whatever the streams represent to them, flow away. While the themes of the verses are similar, the contrast between the Coleridge’s flowery couplets, and the extreme plainness of the haiku, could hardly be more pronounced. Seishi’s haiku leaves most of the story and almost all of the meaning to the reader’s imagination.

A personal aside: about 12 years ago, when suffering from anxiety, my GP referred me to see a psychologist. The psychologist had me do the following exercise:

Close your eyes and imagine a gentle stream flowing past in front of you. Leaves fall into the stream and float away downstream. Each time you think about one of your problems, imagine placing the problem on one of the leaves, and allow it to be carried away by the stream.

So, for Coleridge the stream seems to carry away hope and inspiration; for my psychologist it was intended to carry away my thoughts and stress; and for Seishi? Seishi leaves you, the reader, to decide what, if anything, is carried away by the stream and how that makes you feel.

Seishi seems to have been quite fond of the theme of water flowing away from stationary things. Here is another of his haiku from the same collection:

Dangling in

summer river

red iron chain.

Seishi (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Somehow, reading this handful of words I seem to feel languid, and indolent, and trapped and completely hopeless, all at the same time.

Recently I looked up my psychologist on the internet to see if he was still practicing and found that he had been banned from offering any health services while under investigation by the Health Complaints Commissioner. The newspaper article I found about his case said he had prior convictions for domestic violence and was accused of breaching an intervention order against his ex-wife. It also said that he had been drinking vodka out of a lemonade bottle during his court case and when breathalysed by the police was found to have a blood alcohol content of over 0.4 (the maximum reading that the device could measure).  

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

The Oxford Book of English Verse, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ed., Oxford University Press.

Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, trans. Lucien Stryk, Swallow Press.

Dave Sheehan (31-Dec-1970 – 19-Apr-2020)

My cousin Dave died while Australia was in lockdown due to COVID-19. Only ten people were allowed to go to the funeral. Here are a few words I put together about Dave. 

“Oh, wow … you’re Dave Sheehan’s cousin … !” Those are words I’ve heard a fair few times in my life. 

Dave was a couple of years older than me and he was a big part of my life growing up. Dave, and his younger brother Amos, and their mum Marnie, were a big part of the lives of my family, my brothers, Theo and Austin, and our mum and dad, Sheila and Russell. 

Dave was a partner and father, a blues guitar player, a cricketer, and an accomplished student of ancient history. I’ve been reading some of the things that have been posted about Dave on-line on social media over the past few days. The words humble, gentle, and talented come up again and again. Dave was all these things and a lot of other things too. 

He was also tough, enthusiastic and wholehearted (maybe more wholehearted than anyone else I think I’ve known), curious, fearless, challenging, and he had an incredibly mischievous sense of humour. I’d like to tell you a few stories that remind me of these qualities. 

We spent a lot of holiday time together though our childhoods and teenage years: sleepovers, camping holidays, trips to the boxing day test match, and cricket matches played between ourselves that would literally last for days on end.

When Dave was interested in something he would be “into it” to a degree that I don’t think I’ve known in anyone else, be it cricket, music, history. He could be absolutely unrelenting and though his persistence and enthusiasm would become an absolute master in the skills and topics he was interested in. Anyone who knows my dad Russell will tell you that Russ knows a phenomenal amount about cricket, and I’ve known quite a few people to be a bit intimidated when Russ is talking cricket, but not Dave. I remember Dave at age ten or 12 coming with us to the Boxing day test and going toe-to-toe with Russ all day on all sorts of obscure points of cricket history and tactics. I was in awe of Dave’s knowledge, and his confidence.

As a junior cricketer Dave was a truely terrifying fast bowler and an incredibly tough competitor. He would just never take it easy on you. You might bowl at him for a couple of hours, and then when you finally got him out it might only take him two or three balls to get you out. Then you’d have to bowl at him again for most of the rest of the afternoon. At the time I can remember thinking of him as a bit of a tyrant. But I grew in time to admire this quality of his, and it was from Dave that I learned to fight, with every ounce of myself, for the things I want, and not to expect things to be handed to me.

Dave also approached his cricket, and everything else we did together, with humour and imagination. It wouldn’t just be Dave versus Clem in a game of cricket. It might be be Australia versus Pakistan, and you would have to get the other person out ten times before you could have a bat. The games might go on all day, or more than a day. And somehow Dave would be able to imitate the distinctive batting and bowling styles of all the Australian, and Pakistan (and English, and West Indian) cricketers. 

I have lots of non-cricketing memories of Dave as well. 

I remember visiting Uncle Pete, and Marnie, and Dave in Toolangi (I think Amos and Theo might have been little babies then). Dave had a box of treasure in the bedroom, and in it was the most amazing and exciting thing I’d ever seen: the skin of a snake. Dave told me a terrifying story about the snake coming out of the woodpile and Pete killing it. In my mind I can still see the way Dave would smile as he started to tell you about something unbelievable or horrifying. 

Another memory is Dave and Amos coming on a holiday with us to a caravan park in Somers. There was a deep rock-pool at the beach and in it Dave and I found a smallish cream-coloured octopus swimming. Somehow Dave knew what it was: a blue ringed octopus. Dave said that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory needed blue ringed octopus because they were working on developing a anti-venom, and they would pay some extraordinary amount of money to anyone who could catch a blue ring, and bring it to them alive. So, Dave got a plastic beach bucket, the kind kids have to build sand castles, and started working out how to catch it. I can remember being completely terrified, and trying to get him to drop the idea, but Dave was utterly fearless. Our first efforts to scoop up the octopus were unsuccessful, but they seemed to make the octopus angry, because it started to glow with its electric blue rings, and swim faster, and faster, around the rock pool. The octopus glowing, and swimming around and around in the rock pool is the last thing I can remember about that day, but Mum and Dad tell me that the octopus was eventually caught in the bucket, and taken to the serum laboratory, who declined to buy it saying that they preferred to catch their own.

Dave and Amos came with us on trips down to Wilson’s Prom. I remember Theo and Amos going to films at the open air cinema, and then driving Dave and I crazy by quoting lines from some film that Dave and I hadn’t seen (it might have been Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It was on these trips to the Prom that I first remember Dave’s dedication to learning to play the guitar. There were always lots of good things to do at The Prom but whatever the rest of us were up to: going for a swim, having mud fights in Tidal River, playing beach cricket, Dave would take himself off by himself for two hours each day to practice the guitar. I can remember looking at his fingers with the skin on the tips worn through.

So many other stories: going on a trip to Werribee Mansion and hunting for mushrooms;  sneaking into the cattle-yards near our house in Kensington to explore them; playing cricket in the park near Marnie’s house in Bastings Street Northcote every Christmas afternoon. 

I remember when I was in year seven, and I think Dave was in year eight, we were catching a bus together home from school and there was a group of middle-aged women who would always sort of push all of the kids out of the way so they could get on the bus first. I can remember Dave standing on the steps of a bus and proceeding to give these women a lecture about feminism. The shear outrageousness and audacity of Dave. I was in awe of him.

As and adult I remember going to see Dave play guitar at the Evelyn Hotel. All of Dave’s music friends seemed impossibly cool to me at the time. I was probably dressed in tracksuit pants and a red Japara rain coat. But after the gig Dave introduced me to his friends and took me back to an after party at a house he was staying at and included me in all their conversations. 

When I saw Dave a few weeks ago at Peter Mac he did not look much like his normal self. We talked a bit about his treatment, and how he was feeling, but the conversation kept on slipping into cricketing matters: things he’d only recently got the hang of about how to play off spin bowlers; anecdotes about games he’d played recently with his team. And when he smiled as he talked about cricket he looked exactly like himself.

Dave, I’m going to try my best to live up to your example: tough but full of good humour; full of enthusiasm, and humble, and friendly. 

Dave, dear boy, I’m going to miss you. I love you Dave.

The Drunken Master

The Haiku of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940)

Rules, rules, rules.

Of all the forms of poetry in the world are there any with more rules than haiku?

  • exactly 17 syllables!
  • include a season word (a kigo)!
  • no metaphors!
  • remove all unnecessary words!
  • no rhymes!
  • describe a single moment, in the present tense!
  • etc. etc. etc. 

Maybe this is why I love haiku so much? Because it has so many rules to break? Of course different authorities on haiku have different ideas of what the essential rules of haiku are, and many of the rules which you read seem to contradict rules that you have read elsewhere: “exactly 17 syllables”, “remove all unnecessary words”.

So what would happen if a haiku poet threw out, pretty much, all the rules? We know one possible result from the life and work of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940).

The short biographies I have read of Santōka tell of: an unhappy childhood with his mother committing suicide when he was ten years old; failed careers and a failed marriage; alcoholism; a suicide attempt of his own in his forties; and spending most of the the rest of his life homeless as a wandering beggar.

Like his life, his haiku were unconventional:

Wet with morning dew,

I go in the direction I want.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

He had little regard for the normal 17 sound symbol pattern of traditional Japanese haiku. One of the translations of Santōka that I own, For All My Walking translated by Burton Watson, refers to his haiku as “free-verse haiku”:

slipped

and fell down

mountains are silent.

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Both the translations of Santōka that I own (the other is Mountain Tasting translated by John Stevens) often render his haiku in two lines, as opposed to three, or in three lines of very uneven length, giving a feel for Santōka’s unconventionality: 

The few flies that remain

Seem to remember me.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

There are differences between the way the two books render Santōka’s haiku. It feels like Stevens tends to give the words “as written” leaving the reader a little more work to do in finding the meaning:

From the back,

Walking away soaking wet?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Where as Watson maybe adds a little more interpretation into his translation to help the reader. Watson renders the same haiku from Santōka as:

how must I look

from behind

going off in the drizzling rain

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Many of Santōka’s haiku are child-like, almost comical, in their simplicity:

The rain from that cloud

Made me wet.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

The mundane details of everyday existence, including the scatalogical, have long been considered acceptable topics for haiku, but it is hard to imagine any of the other famous haiku writers being quite as blunt as this:

Making my way through the fallen leaves,

I have a good shit in the fields.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

And this, decades before Piero Manzoni or Gilbert and George. Well played Santōka, well played.

Some of Santōka’s haiku could be seen as quite political, taking up anti-war themes:

The moon’s brightness –

     Does it know

Where the bombing will be?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Other are almost cynical:

nice road

going to a nice building

crematorium

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

The short biographies I have read of Santōka do not gloss over his heavy drinking and many of his haiku deal with drinking in one way or another. This one I particularly like: 

Slightly tipsy;

     The leaves fall

One by one.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Well, I like a teacup full of saki myself, from time to time. 

Now, everybody knows that there are four famous haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki … but every time I try to count them up  …  every time I try to count them up (maybe I am tipsy?) it always comes to five.  

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

For All My Walking, Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 2003.

Mountain Tasting, Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda, John Stevens (Trans.), John Weatherhill Inc., 1980.

Cassie, Sandy, Sandra

I’ve heard it said that Naarm (Melbourne) is the third largest Greek city in the world, and the largest outside Greece.

Maybe that’s true – I don’t think that there is a standard, accepted, measure of Greek-ness when it comes to cities – but many Australian’s do seem to have inherited a Greco-Trojan contempt for prophets and truth-tellers (Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess, doomed to always tell the truth but never be believed).

The past few months of drought, followed by catastrophic bushfires, followed by floods, have brought to my mind a poem my father used to quote from time to time. Here it is in full:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan
In accents most forlorn
Outside the church ere Mass began
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock and crops and drought
As it had done for years.

“It’s lookin’ crook,” said Daniel Croke;
“Bedad, it’s cruke, me lad
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad.”

“It’s dry, all right,” said young O’Neil
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

And so around the chorus ran
“It’s keepin’ dry, no doubt.”
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.

“The crops are done; ye’ll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o’-Bourke
They’re singin’ out for rain.

“They’re singin’ out for rain,” he said,
“And all the tanks are dry.”
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.

“There won’t be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There’s not a blade on Casey’s place
As I came down to Mass.”

“If rain don’t come this month,” said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak –
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If rain don’t come this week.”

A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“We want an inch of rain, we do,”
O’Neil observed at last;
But Croke “maintained” we wanted two
To put the danger past.

“If we don’t get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

In God’s good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.

And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.

It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o’-Bourke.

And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If this rain doesn’t stop.”

And stop it did, in God’s good time:
And spring came in the fold
A mantle o’re the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.

And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes behold the wheat
Nod-Nodding o’er the fence.

And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Throught grass knee-deep on Casey’s place
Went riding down to Mass.

While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“There’ll be bush fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

John O’Brien (P. J. Hartigan)

According to Australian Poetry Since 1788 P. J. Hartigan was a Catholic priest who, as well as writing the above poem, was said to have delivered the last rites to a man called Jack Riley, who was said to have been the inspiration for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowey River.

The poem’s joke seems somewhat less funny in this age of “climate denialism”. Hanrahan’s predictions come true all around us – but prophets and truth-tellers still get short shrift.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Australian Poetry Since 1788, Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray (Eds.), University of New South Wales Press, 2011.

Masaoka Shiki

Matsuō Bashō? What a hack.

… said, pretty much no-one, ever. In fact, Masaoka Shiki (1967 -1902) is the only person I can think of, who is known for having criticised Bashō’s haiku.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I’m keen on Shiki? It’s not that I’m anti-Bashō (I’m not!) but I do have a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak in me and I’ve always been interested in writers and thinkers who go against the consensus.

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems translated by Burton Watson is a beautiful book containing 144 of Shiki’s haiku translated into plain, economical English.

Slipping out

the back way,

cooling off by the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Cool summer darkness –

laughing voices

on the far side of the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

I don’t think there’s a single word in all of the translations that feels unnecessary, or a single phrase that draws undue attention to itself.

For me, who go,

for you who stay behind –

two autumns

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Another reason that Shiki is interesting is that he was writing at a time when there was a large amount of cross-pollination between Western culture and the art and poetry of Japan. In the introduction to Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems Watson writes:

Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western painting, he (Shiki) adopted the term shasei, or “sketch from life,” to describe the technique that underlies much of his own poetry and prose. The writer was to carry out minute observation of the scenes around him and to compose works based on what he saw there, conjuring up the mood or emotional tenor he desired through apt manipulation of the images found in real life.

Lonely sound –

simmering in the firepit,

wood chips with snow on them

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

From the rear window

in the falling snow

a woman’s face looks out

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Shiki was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a very young age and spent the last few years of his short life bedridden. In life, Shiki was said to be irascible, at least once his illness really took hold, but his haiku are a model of restraint and objectivity.

Through the glass door

the winter sun shines in –

sickroom

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 1997.

The Heap

The Settlement. Bearbrass. Bareport. Bareheap. Dutigalla. Glenelg. Narrm.

Recently I’ve been noticing that a lot of people on Twitter, who live in Melbourne, have been listing their location as “Naarm” or “Naarm / Melbourne”. Intrigued, I borrowed the Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria from the Flemington Library, and the words listed above are a few of the alternate names (indigenous and colonial) for Melbourne.

The dictionary spells the word as “Narrm” with a double “r” rather than “Naarm” with a double “a” but it is not unusual to find alternate spellings for Aboriginal words and names as Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which made them difficult for English speakers to transcribe. In the future I’d love to see “Naarm” not just on Twitter but on our street signs, maps and government websites as well as, or in place of, “Melbourne”.

The Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria also includes entries for “Barebeerip”, “Bareberp” and “Bikjomangy” but these terms may have referred to the area of Batman’s Hill in specific rather than the area where the Melbourne city centre is. “Naloke” is recorded as referring to “parliament” and “Bourke and Spring Streets”. A Narloke Train Station on the city loop, anyone?

One other item on the list of alternate Melbourne names caught my eye – “Dutigalla”. The Flemington Library is just a few doors from the Doutta Galla Hotel in Racecourse Road, Newmarket. I think most residents of Kensington and Flemington assume that “Doutta Galla” is an Aboriginal term without ever knowing specifically what it means. I scouted the internet for a bit more information on the history of the term “Dutigalla” or “Doutta Galla” and found the following information on the website of the Doutta Galla Lion’s Club in Essendon:

The Parish of Doutta Galla … was reportedly named after the wife of Jika Jika, who was John Batman’s native servant. Jika Jika parish was on the east bank of the Moonee Ponds Creek and Doutta Galla on the west bank.  This is recorded in the March 1837 field book of surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Another source says that the name Doutta Galla (or Dutigalla) was the name of the tribe of aborigines on the original Batman treaty deed, signed on the banks of the Merri Creek, at Northcote. (“The Stop-Over That Stayed A History of Essendon” by Grant Aldous) 

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club

There was a link on the Lion’s Club website to a 1892 Map of the Parish of Doutta Galla which shows the Parish of Doutta Galla covering all of the land between the Moonee Ponds Creek and the Maribynong River, from Kensington and Flemington, though Essendon and out as far as Keilor and Broadmeadows.

And “Jika Jika”? I remember the name Jika Jika terrifying me when I was a child because it was the name given to the infamous maximum security unit at Pentridge Prison.

According to the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria is available to order, but the order form on their website is currently disabled.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria, Ian D. Clark & Tony Heydon, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2002.

The forgotten Aboriginal names for 10 of Melbourne’s suburbs, Jason Gibson, Helen Gardner and Stephen Morey, The Conversation, 10-Jul-2018.

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club, https://douttagalla.vic.lions.org.au/History-of-Doutta-Galla

Parish of Doutta Galla, Victoria Shire Map Company, 1892, National Library of Australia call number MAP RM 2741/90, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-232022724/view

Such is Life

Another day, another exhibition.

This week we drove up the Calder Highway to land of the Dja Dja Wurrung. The town of Castlemaine, an hour and a half’s drive north west of Melbourne, always brings the folk song The Wild Colonial Boy into my mind:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name

Of poor but honest parents he was born in Castlemaine

Traditional

He comes to a very sticky end. When I was young my parents used to sing folk songs like this on long car drives. I must have been a very tender-hearted child – I used to forbid my parents from singing The Wild Colonial Boy because it upset me so much (history repeats, my children forbid me from playing Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, because I once made the mistake of explaining to them what the song Fourth of July was about).

I guess the Castlemaine referred to in the song was probably intended to be Castlemaine in County Kerry in Ireland, but in my mind and in the mind of most Australians he was born in Castlemaine, Victoria. The Wild Colonial Boy may have been originally based on a historical figure but it has undergone so many revisions over the years that it is now more mythic than historic.

Castlemaine in Victoria is a very beautiful gold-rush era town, with large beautiful churches, town hall and post office. The art gallery is art deco and also very impressive for a town of this size. We had gone to the Castlemaine Art Museum to see the exhibition Janina Green in conversation with the collection. Her hand-coloured photographs hold significant interest for those interested in haiku and related art forms.

First, there are her photographs of domestic interiors named after the Melbourne suburbs where the photos were taken. These recall haiku in their interest in specific localities and their focus on the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. Also in common with haiku each of these pictures seems to give a fragment of a larger story and leaves the viewer (or reader in the case of haiku) to fill in the rest of the story. We are drawn into the artwork and become active participants rather than passive viewers.

Another picture by Janina Green that caught my eye was the photo titled Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988 which is shown on the exhibition page of the gallery website. An ornate teal lamp-base with a beige lamp-shade is contrasted against a spray of yellow wattle in a vase. This contrast, of an artefact made by human hands, with the beauty of nature, recalls many famous haiku. The light catches just a few of the florets of the wattle making them shine.

One other work on display at the Castlemaine Gallery Art Gallery, not part of the Janina Green exhibition, stood out to me. Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) by Robert Hague. Whereas in haiku symbols often work best when they are subtle, when they feel like they evoke a half-remembered associations, the symbols in Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) are “writ large”. The work is a blue-printed china plate. The central image shows Ned Kelly anachronistically shooting at Captain Cook’s long boat, approaching the shore to make first landfall in Australia. The plate has been broken into pieces and then repaired in the Japanese Kintsugi style with golden fault lines. The plate with its clashing symbols and styles is a fair analogy for modern-day Australia, formed of disparate influences, and in the grip of the so called “history wars”.

And as for people who will try to tell you that Ned Kelly’s last words weren’t “such is life“, what can we say? Maybe just that they place too much emphasis on historic detail, and have not enough appreciation of the mythic.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Janina Green in conversation with the collection, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 2019-20.

Paper says Ned Kelly’s final words were not Such is Life, Alison Jess, ABC Goulburn Murray, 17 November, 2014.

Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988, Janina Green, hand-coloured photograph.

Cook’s Landing (after Maccleod), Robert Hague, 2019, porcelain, gold, brass staples, copper hanger.

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Bashō

Just a few weeks after I’d bought my first book of haiku translated by Lucien Stryk, his obituary appeared in The Age.

No … wait … that can’t be right … the internet tells me that Stryk died in January 2013 and I didn’t pay any attention to haiku until the last few weeks of 2014 …

… well, anyway, let’s not let facts stand in the way of my story. I bought a book of Stryk’s translations, and loved them, and then almost immediately read that he had died, and I was thwarted in my intention to write him a fan letter.

It is certainly true I felt an instant affinity with the way Stryk translates haiku. In On Love and Barley Stryk translates the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the best known of all Japanese haiku poets. No one else that I am aware of makes haiku translations as terse as Stryk does – sometimes he only uses five or six words to render a whole haiku:

Where cuckoo

vanishes –

an island.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

This brevity is in keeping with my own feelings of what works best when writing a haiku in English – using simple language and omitting any words that seem unnecessary.

In his introduction Stryk explains some key terms related to haiku such as wabi and sabi. These terms are difficult to translate and different translators give somewhat different explanations of them. Stryk was a noted scholar of Zen Buddhism and he gives quite ‘zen’ interpretations of these terms. With sabi Stryk puts the emphasis on solitariness and detachment.

Not one traveller

braves this road –

autumn night.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Wabi Stryk explains as an appreciation of the commonplace.

Search carefully –

In the hedge,

A shepherd’s purse.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Note: Shepherd’s purse is small weed.

As the introduction goes on Stryk starts to dive very deep into zen theory and I must confess I lost the thread of what he was talking about. Still, this does nothing to detract from the key strength of On Love and Barley – Stryk’s tough, economical translations:

Darkening waves –

cry of wild ducks,

faintly white.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There is one other curious aspect to On Love and Barley. The shepherd’s purse haiku quoted above is listed in the book as haiku 48. When I got to haiku 72, I read:

When I bend low

enough, purseweed

beneath my fence.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

It is so similar that they could both be translations of the same haiku. Then I came across haiku 55:

Yellow rose petals

thunder –

a waterfall.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

And haiku 186:

Sound of rapids –

silent yellow petals

of the mountain rose.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Now compare haiku 61:

Faceless – bones

scattered in the field,

wind cuts my flesh.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

With haiku 202:

A weathered

skeleton –

how cold the wind.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There are other examples. Was Stryk inserting a little test into his book to see how carefully it was being read? Or could he not make up his mind which of his own translations he preferred?

Now its too late to write and ask.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

On Love and Barley, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Penguin Books, 1985.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku

Bewildering.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers is the cheapest and most widely available haiku book that is currently in print. It was the first book of haiku I ever owned and when I first read it I had no idea what to make of it.  

The Classic Tradition of Haiku is unique among the books of Japanese haiku translated into English that I own because the haiku are not translated by a single translator in a consistent style. Instead The Classic Tradition of Haiku gives us the work of 42 different translators, in a range of different styles. Anyone buying this book and expecting to read haiku in the standard three lines of 5-7-5 syllables is in for a shock …

Some haiku are rendered in three lines without concern for the number of syllables in each line:

A fallen blossom

returning to the bough, I though – 

But no, a butterfly. 

Moritake (trans. Steven D. Carter)

Others as a couplet:

“Oh my thinness is caused by the summer heat”

I answered and burst into tears. 

Kigin (trans. Asatarō Miyamori)

Some with staggered indentation (note WordPress does not currently render the indentation of this haiku – in the book it has the first line justified to the left margin, the second line indented by one “tab” and the third line indented by two “tabs” – I will amend this post when WordPress update their software):

On the plum tree

one blossom, one blossomworth

of warmth.

Ransetsu (trans. Harold Gould Henderson) 

Others with no indentation:

Saying nothing:

Guest and host

and white chrysanthemum

Ryōta (trans. Faubion Bowers)

Still other haiku are rendered in a single line:

Bush warbler: I rest my hands in the kitchen sink.          

Chigetsu (trans. Hiroaki Sato)

There are even a few older examples of haiku being turned into English rhyming verse, which … does not work well, to put it kindly.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku has extensive footnotes that explain much of the context and nuance of the haiku. It also gives the Japanese versions of the haiku so English readers can get some sense of what the haiku may sound like in the original. Someone new to haiku may find all of this overwhelming. But for a reader who is already familiar with haiku there is depth of detail here that make The Classic Tradition of Haiku worth returning to again and again. 

Few other books, and none that are as short as this one, present as many possible models for English language haiku.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

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

A Town That Doesn’t Exist

This week I visited the exhibition ‘Velvet, Iron, Ashes’ at the State Library of Victoria.

The ‘velvet’ part of the title refers to an extraordinary gown worn by Jesse Clarke at the Pageant of Nations to celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934. The silver head-dress is modelled on seven electricity pylons; the cloak is green with the waterways of the Murray-Darling Irrigation Scheme depicted in silver glitter; and the dress is hand painted showing several prominent Victorian buildings.

The ‘iron’ part of the title refers to Ned Kelly’s armour and the ‘ashes’ to the Ashes urn that is the trophy when England and Australia play test cricket. Both are among the most well-known and iconic objects from Australian history. Would it be possible to successfully use symbols as well-known and impersonal as the Kelly’s armour or the Ashes in a poem as delicate as a haiku? I’m not sure …

Other elements of the exhibition include:

  • White City, the MacRobertson’s Chocolate Factory and home of the ‘Freddo’ Chocolate Frog
  • The 1934 London to Melbourne Air Race
  • The Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve
  • Portraits of Ukrainian immigrants to Gippsland

The part of the exhibition which resonated the most with me was the photos and objects from Yallourn. Yallourn was a “company town” for the State Electricity Commission (S.E.C.) in Gippsland. It was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for an open cut coal mine. My Grandfather worked for the S.E.C. and my mother’s high school years were spent in Yallourn, a town that no longer exists.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs /AWE0623b.htm

‘I was the State of Victoria’ Jessie Clarke’s 1934 Pageant of Nations costume, Annette Soumilas, The La Trobe Journal 102, 2018.

Lords, https://www.lords.org/lords/our-history/the-ashes

Public Record Office Victoria, https://prov.vic.gov.au/about-us/our-blog/town-was-yallourn

State Library Victoria, https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/explore-collections-theme/australian-history/ned-kelly

Velvet, Iron, Ashes at the State Library Victoria, 24 Oct 2019 – 12 Jul 2020.

Symbols of Australia in Haiku Poetry

Haiku …

… are observed details from nature or everyday life. They strive to be specific, individual, unique.

Also haiku …

… include a kigo. Kigo are ‘season words’. They are a form of symbolic communication.

Kigo in Japanese haiku

Many kigo in Japanese haiku are words for plants and animals, or natural phenomena like kinds of weather. Kigo contain shared cultural associations that Japanese haiku readers understand.

A translator’s notes can help English speaking readers understand the meaning of the kigo intellectually, but it is unlikely that casual readers of haiku in translation feel the full cultural significance of Japanese kigo.

Australian kigo?

It is probably not technically correct to use the words kigo in relation to English language haiku.

In Japanese haiku kigo are codified in quite a formal way with each kigo being related to a specific season of the year. Australian haiku writers do not have an equivalent system.

Australian haiku writers do often include a symbolic keyword, frequently an allusion to nature or the time of year, in the place of a kigo.

In the context of Australian haiku we may refer to these keywords as kigo.

‘Haiku Dreaming Australia’

As far as I am aware there has only been one serious attempt to make a list of Australian kigo, Haiku Dreaming Australia. The editor of the website John Bird writes with the Cloudcatchers haiku group in Northern New South Wales.

Symbolic meaning in modern Australia

The Japanese system of kigo evolved in a preindustrial country. At the time Japan had a strong “monoculture” due to more than 200 years of enforced isolationism.

Symbolic meanings in modern day Australia are much more complex and difficult to catalogue:

  • Australia is incredibly diverse and multicultural
  • Digital technology and streaming gives us access to a deluge of overseas cultural influences
  • Australia is a highly urbanised society and most people are less familiar with nature and the seasons now than they were in past centuries
  • Many words and phrases that are distinctly Australian now seem old fashioned and are falling out of use
  • Mainstream Australia barely acknowledges, much less understands or respects, the culture of the traditional owners of Australia
  • Climate change threatens to radically alter the weather and seasons in Australia and many animals and plants that we might use as kigo in Australian haiku face potential extinction.

My aim

Over the next year I will explore the use of symbolic keywords in Australia and make brief notes on this blog where I find examples of symbolic keywords being used, not just in haiku, but in poetry and other kinds of Australian writing, film, song, and other art-forms. 

I will also post brief reviews of haiku books that I read during the year.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

References:

Haiku Dreaming Australia, http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku.html

Acknowledgement:

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live, and where I write, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.