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The Haiku Masters: Four Poetic Diaries PDF Print E-mail

by Gail Sher



Part IV



[1] My father dies. I am five. In order to support Ritsu and me, mother sews. The living room is constantly cluttered with her paraphernalia.

carrying dawn
a dove sails off—
following it with my eyes


[2] One day, while my uncle, Kato Tsunetada, is massaging my maternal grandfather’s back, Kinbei, owner of the Tanakaya pawn shop on Tojin Street, walks in without even knocking and demands payment of a debt. Displaying a polite amount of embarrassment, grandfather replies, “Kinbei, I am so sorry. I can barely afford rice for our New Year’s cakes. The children are screaming for their kites. I will surely pay you after the New Year. Please be patient.”

a temple gate creaks—
the sound of wind
through the door-crack


[3] At first silent, Kinbei stands up muttering angrily, “What do I care about your kites and your rice cakes? At least I can take this!” and he storms out carrying my mother’s precious brass handwashing basin. Not noticing mother’s pain, grandfather remarks, “Kinbei always was a man of action.”

bolt upright
on the still, blue water—
morning moon


[4] Uncle Tsunetada notices. He resolves at once to retrieve the handbasin. During the day he pounds rice. At night he copies text from elementary-school books. After several months he proudly redeems the basin whereupon grandfather looks at him with annoyance, “Do you suppose you’ll become a great man by worrying about such trivial things?”

“how charming!” I think, seeing
one wisteria tuft, trailing from its vase
onto my pile of books


[5] Later, when uncle and I are walking in the country he happens to say, “It is remarkable how a piece of white paper will turn black when you spill Indian ink on it.” Then he reflects, “When a man puts on a woman’s clothes and does his hair up like a woman, he looks just like a woman. Yet a man is a man; one can never say he is a woman.” His words are stirring and I cannot help but think, “Three years of study seem worthless compared to this conversation.”

“no, not the scarlet peach blooms,
it’s the forsythia . . .”
I say to the flower lady


[6] While I am aware that philosophy is serious and literature is not serious (Buddhist priests, for example, don’t write novels), I am also aware that I cannot live without novels.

“more arrogant than a farmer
which he is not”—he reads—
drenched in a ray of sun


[7] I am eighteen when I start writing haiku. At nineteen I call on old Ohara Kiju (a disciple of Baishitsu, one of the three great haiku masters of the Tempo era) whose study (I take this as a sign of his complete dedication and immersion) is wall-to-wall haiku. Kijo is very kind and reads my poems. By way of response, he composes two of his own about a dragon bounding over Mt. Fuji. I hope it’s not too presumptuous to read this as an endorsement—that he is confident I will become a great poet.

so cool, the sea
through a hole in the storm lantern—
Buddha too opens his altar doors


[8] My interest in haiku and novels begins to overshadow the attraction of my university classes. At one point I actually stop attending them and move out of the dormitory. I rent a house in Komagome, a very quiet spot suited to the studying I plan to do. But when I sit down to study, a haiku emerges before I even read the first page. Since I have dutifully put everything related to poetry aside in order to force myself to concentrate on the task at hand (my university exams), I don’t have anything on which to write my poem. So I write it on the lampshade. Soon I become engrossed in covering the lampshade with haiku.

bulging, swelling
rosebuds on my fence—
“hello rosebuds!”


[9] Needless to say, I fail my exams. Which gives me an excuse to withdraw from school once and for all.

beyond young leaves
water, wheat,
the mirage aswirl with sun


[10] I am twenty-two when I first cough up blood. In response I adopt the penname Shiki which means hototogisu, the bird that (according to legend) coughs blood as it sings. Having made this concession to my illness, I proceed to live an intensely active life with the result that I suffer several more lung hemorrhages.

summer dawn—
a slug, its crawl,
smearing the dewdrop


[11] When the Sino-Japanese War breaks out, with all my heart I wish to go to China. My two friends, Kuga and Iogi are adamantly opposed. Iogi, a surgeon, reminds me that, if nothing else, the sanitary conditions should dissuade me. My greatest enemy, he stresses, are not shells and bullets. If I fall ill, there will be no medical care. As the boat chugs away, the clarity of its whistle arouses the thought, “I will never return alive.”

clipping roses in a clear spell—
from my bed
hearing the shears


[12] Ironically, even as we wait to disembark, a truce is declared.

at his gate
instead of sun . . .
its memory in his body


[13] Aboard ship I cough up blood. The hemorrhaging continues, as drugs (except for cholera) are unavailable. Even so, a case of cholera breaks out, with the consequence that when our ship docks in Shimonoseki, disembarking is prohibited. Instead, the ship proceeds to a quarantine station. Six full days we are detained, at which point I am so weak I have to be carried by stretcher to the Kobe hospital.

“you see,” she says—
as she cleans its cage
the bird begins to sing


[14] The pain hits my pelvis. I can barely walk, which means I can no longer avoid facing the fact that I have tuberculosis, that it is incurable, and that I will never be able to do anything more strenuous than read and write. As you might expect, I become fierce about reading and writing.

pelting rain:
my life and lives
in the cock’s sober cry


[15] Having set my heart on a lineage, I think my life is over the day Kyoshi, a mere boy, refuses to be my literary heir. My disappointment reflects my own immaturity. One needn’t ask. Kyoshi, along with Hekigodo, are to become my literary heirs whether they want to or not.

from rock to rock
lifting his robe . . .
even the stream seems to curtsy


[16] Kyoshi’s refusal comes as a great shock. He admits that he wants to be a writer but not badly enough to study. I say, “Then your aims and mine are completely different.”

’neath a thinner and thinner moon
slender branches
shiver with the bell


[17] We leave the restaurant separately. Hands in the sleeves of my kimono, I drift aimlessly back to Uguisu Lane.

summer evening—
even my jacket
wants to flee


[18] Formerly I was desperate; now I am alone with no one but my dying self to rely on.

the waterbird’s neck
as the rainbow
gathers its clarity


[19] Dawn peeps through the shabby paper glued over a hole in my screen.

one limb
in a spot of light
turns . . . suddenly. . . up


[20] In my dream a tormented beast accepts the paw offered by a gentle rabbit.

taking the rabbit’s paw
in both of its own—
kissing it

So exciting is my dream that my underkimono soaks through with sweat and my temperature soars to 102 degrees.

misty dawn—
in my fire
in full color


[21] Mother and Ritsu cannot leave my side. Sachiio, Hekigoto, Kyoshi and Sokotsu take turns trying to divert me. Diarrhea, flatulence, nosebleeds, migraines—my only hope is morphine, but since my allotment is restricted, relief is never long.

crows at four, sparrows at five
thus I reckon
the endless summer night


[22] “Some dumplings would sure taste good right now,” I say cheerfully. Ritsu doesn’t respond. So I say, “Go now. Buy me some dumplings!” What is an invalid to do?

evening falls—
from the shadow of a hill
the old man’s sigh


[23] With the canary, however, Ritsu sits motionless in front of its cage for hours at a time, simply gazing.

“is today Wednesday?
I thought . . .” she begins
stroking its light blue feathers


[24] Though I care more for the sublime in poetry than the elegant, more than both, I care for plainness, its pleasant freshness. For example, when I write about Ritsu awakening from a nap and swatting a fly, commonplace though this image may be, my particular perspective conveys the heat, my sister’s exhaustion nursing me, my crankiness and inability to sleep and a little of her embarrassment in the face of having dozed in front of me.

is it death it paints
this mirror moon
lighting my eyebrows?


[25] Actually, it is not just tone but scale—the seeming banality—that give my poems the unassuming, mortal quality, that I have come to so appreciate. I could be talking to myself.

in the bubbles of a spring
how still
its horny body


[26] From 1897 I have to wait, virtually immobilized, in steadily increasing pain, for death to come. My inflamed spinal cord, tubercular boils, pus and festering sores are agonizing. Since there is no treatment, all that can be done is to wipe away the pus and wrap the sores in cotton bandages. I am a mass of oozing slime girded in oiled paper.

hot-water bottle tepid
I hug it anyway, cheered, somehow,
by a glimpse of winter moon


[27] Bujian and I correspond until he dies, of my same disease. That is spring 1901. Some time later, members of his family pay me a call. They are struck by our many similar mannerisms—not letting our nurses leave our bedside even for a second, becoming angry when demands are not fulfilled before we even finish expressing them, finding it difficult to breath in the presence of a large person, showing intense likes and dislikes of people, feeling pain if the coverlet is hard but also if it is soft, overeating and becoming furious if visitors comment on our lack of thinness whereupon we both poke out our match-stick legs saying, “How ’bout these?”

Bujian Bujian
you are my brother—
we have never met
but only you
understand how I suffer


[28] Living with ever-palpable death, my relationship with time is different from most people’s. On the one hand, it passes slowly, making boredom a constant torment. On the other, it seems fleeting, leaving me with an unsheddable sense of urgency.

spring evening:
squandering its light
the cloister’s duff


[29] I take pleasure in the bathing drama that goes on inside my large wire birdcage. It used to be that even before one’s hand is out of the cage, having replenished the water in their basin, the finches arrive and splash away till most of the water is gone. Which, needless to say, leaves the other birds very little to go on. Lately, however, I’ve noticed that the two black-headed manikins zip in ahead of the finches. After them come the Jakarta sparrows, the zebra finches and finally the canaries. The basin’s edge is thronged with birds in order of arrival. As each pair finishes, they fly up to their perch and flap their wings furiously. Their joy is so great, I am not even jealous.

just outside my door
they chirp and play—
I myself have not
been able to bathe
for five years


[30] when I can read at all 
I read newspapers and magazines
even at this, pain often interferes

The boy who was so promising, who at age eleven wrote poems in classic Chinese, never expected to be reduced to statements like the above.

“your chrysanthemums, honey,
you know that pink . . .”
but her voice trails off


[31] When my diaper is changed, I peek at my abdomen. (It’s been hurting a lot these past few days.) It is completely black. I’m sure another fistula will open.

windy night
loosely fastened, beyond the moor—
to whom might it belong?


[32] Six months later (March 1902) I gather all my strength and look at the fistula on my stomach for the first time. I expect it to be small, but it is a hollow.

ladling trout
’neath the mountain’s blue sky
the surprise, my surprise!


[33] Meanwhile I cannot write at all. I must dictate what I have to say.

spring quail
from Shimosa’s Yuki Village—
oh teeth, would that you were here!


[34] Left alone one autumn night, my eye falls on a penknife and an eyeleteer on the inkstone box. I think of the razor in the next room, but I can’t even crawl.

demure yew
in the shade
waiting your turn


[35] Instructions for My Funeral: I feel it necessary to formalize such directives because of the tendency people have to misconstrue a thing. My death is an occasion for joy. Let’s not mince words. I want:

No advertisement
No speeches
No posthumous Buddhist name
No tombstone made of natural stone
No wake before the coffin
No tears

Please laugh and talk in an ordinary way. Celebrate!

“in the shade of trees I sleep”—
this, on a piece of paper
tied to his quiver


[36] Today, as usual, it rains. My grogginess is intolerable, so I take morphine. Then I try to sketch the Ezo chrysanthemum.

abandoned train station
a stone Buddha sits
autumn leaves in hand


[37] Four or five years ago, when I first became an invalid, I used to say I wouldn’t mind being unable to walk far, if only I could walk in my garden. After a few years, when I could no longer walk, it still seemed that simply being able to stand up would be a joy. By the summer before last I had reached the point where I grumbled, “I’m not hoping to stand—I only ask the god of sickness to let me sit up.” Yesterday and today my plaint has been, “Who cares about sitting up? What joy to simply be free of pain, able to lie down in comfort for a single hour!”

along the railbed too
on the road to Akabane—
next year I’ll have time


[38] Morphine Diary—1902

I take the drug
two to four times daily
along with sedatives
and medicine for my stomach—
even so my condition gets worse—

that crow where we hang the wash
looks at me . . .
looks away


[39] I cannot think
the evening news confuses me
I cannot write
or talk
with any degree of coherence

occasionally I lift my head
peer through the glass
at the garden’s rampant bushclover


[40] I cannot move my body—
only if I take three
doses of painkiller can I achieve,
even for a short while,
a sense of well-being


“to bloom afresh
stick wilted stems in strong sake”—
if it works for wisteria, churns my mind . . .


[41] my body hurts
I have no strength
even to take up my writing brush—
to whom shall I talk
how shall I pass the day


“how deep is it now?”
“has it buried the pampas grass


[42] I have legs
like someone else’s legs
I have legs
like huge immovable stones
if one so much as touches them
all the earth’s plants and trees
cry out
heaven and earth quake


the stalks
his knife—
the monk hesitates


[43] call Kyoshi too
please call Kyoshi too—
Ritsu hold my writing board
Hekigoto guide my brush
and Shiki—too weak to speak—
slowly write three deathbed poems


windy winter night—
wild ducks settle into sleep
in the harbor where the boats tie up


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