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The Haiku Masters:
Four Poetic Diaries
by Gail Sher


Part III


oh Issa
carver of poems
even in soba flour

[1] Listen. A mother crow caws pitiably for her injured young. As for me, I sometimes wonder, which is worse—feeling the feelings of the distraught crow or feeling the lack of them?

scattered seeds—
on hunter’s soil
a crane

[2] When I hear the story of the stepmother who agrees to feed her near-famished stepchild only if the village statue eats the rice she cruelly makes him offer it (of course the stone statue wolfs it down) I can’t resist:

serves the old woman right—
now she must feed
her own children
her stepchild
and the stone statue


your rainproof paper hat
the one you made
imitating Saigyo’s—
I too have felt desperately alone

[3] Though Senroku and I have different mothers, that in itself would not account for the hostility between us. Surely we were enemies in a previous life. Satsu also, vicious and contentious as she mostly is, cannot be without motives carried over from a former debt.

fog rolls in—
fat gulls
hover over the water

[4] Father’s words, arising from his delirium, “Don’t fall in the well! Don’t fall in the well!”—I would die to be again the child he has in mind.

New Year’s Eve
snow is falling

[5] When Satsu hears “Don’t fall in the well!” she screams (beet-red, pointing a finger at the dying man), “Your precious son! So you love him as much as this?”

scattering rice…
pigeons and sparrows
shoo away the clucking chicks

[6] “While you are in Zenkoji would you please bring me some sugar,” father requests towards dawn. (Sugar forces down the phlegm that interferes with his breathing.) Satsu: “It’s just wasted on someone about to die.” She rattles on, really being bothered by the fact that father shares his sugar with me.

full moon—facing it
knees braced
beneath my robe

[7] Children from my village observe a peculiar custom: capturing a lively frog they bury it, cover its grave with plantain grass, and run away:

Hey ho! The frog is dead!
Hey ho! The frog is dead!
Come, let us bury him,
Come, let us bury him,
Under plantain leaves!
Under plantain leaves!

bowing over
the frog’s grave—
cherry blossoms

[8] Having planted a chestnut in a sunny corner of my garden, I am thrilled to see it sprout, but soon, a new addition on my neighbor’s house blocks it from light and rain. Thereafter my seedling manages to grow little more than a foot. When winter comes, my neighbor shovels snow off his rooftop onto the ground breaking the sapling at its base. Indeed, such is the fate of this poor tree that every winter, snow from the roof stunts it again.

draped over a stone—
are you dead yet
little goldfish

[9] Having walked a good way beyond the village of Tsuchikuchi to visit Chorai, my beloved friend, I learn he has been dead these fifteen years. His successor (a priest) denies me even so much as a place to rest.

wet spring night…
wandering aimlessly
Chorai close by

[10] As for my unpaid debt to father (a drifter is hardly filial)—my wanderings, my staying away till my hair is white—no wonder I consider whether the Five Violations can be worse than this.

even in his company
seeing his gray hair
I long for his company

[11] My inability to sever the ties of affection for my daughter Sato reflects a profound misunderstanding of the nature of impermanence. For this reason I am deeply embarrassed. Yet I hear of enlightened masters pleading with their teachers, “Don’t die, don’t die, please don’t leave us.”

midsummer night—
the feverish man
frets over
his little boy
of years ago

[12] I quickly forgive Takamaru’s parents for weeping shamelessly, even though they are priests who preach indifference to life’s vicissitudes. “Who can blame them?” I assure myself. “It is only human that their hearts should be deeply oppressed by their unbreakable attachment to the child.”

wedged in the pocket
of the drowned boy,
blossoms of butterbur

[13] As for the hollow New Year observances, you’ll find no crane, no tortoise, no pine beside my door. Why should I sweep out the dust when my tiny cottage might, at any moment, be whisked away by the wild north wind?

silent house
silent snow
I stand in the moonlit doorway

my Kiku—
she never cares
how she looks

I inscribe imagining I am capturing something of my wife with her baggy mompe, cotton kerchief, and scarlet braids. Now I see that I, who think nothing of visiting the Lord of Kaga in my scraggly clothes, am merely recognizing (and admiring) something of myself in this lackadaisical side to her.

stumbling upon them
outside my gate

[15] No matter how many villagers pick fruit from the old chestnut tree near Suwa Shrine, it never lacks (at the very fewest) one or two of its little prickly husks for the next hungry person.

cakes rising on the stove—
the moon

[16] Until he learns its meaning, Ota, the wealthy baron, is naturally irritated at receiving from the farmer’s daughter, instead of the cape he requests in the sudden rainstorm, a sprig of kerria. He is deeply embarrassed however to learn from a retainer that her gesture, being a punning allusion to an old poem, is a poetical way of expressing that no cape is available. Ashamed of his ignorance, he becomes an eager student of literature.

softly softly
through the undergrowth



Gail Sher lives, works and practices Tibetan Buddhism in Emeryville, California.