Snakes and lawyers

river in November light between bare woods and mountain

Leaving the house to drive Mom to the lawyers’ to sign papers yesterday, I stepped on a six-foot-long black rat snake stretched across my front stoop. they are lovely people these lawyers, but sometimes life throws you a potent metaphor (i’m not gonna say sign).

There are at least two snakes of this size in and around my house, which as an *ahem* historical building, slapped together by farmers in 1865, is very much a semipermeable membrane open to all manner of wildlife. so the snakes while predatory on nesting birds—haven’t heard a peep from the Carolina wrens behind the fuse box in about a week—are still a better deal with the devil than a free-roaming cat would be

At the lawyers’ we got into a brief exchange about the way legalese while seemingly anodyne and boring actually represents a nonviolent distillation of conflict and confrontation. I said something to the effect of anyone who’s ever read the Icelandic sagas knows this and the head lawyer smiled sweetly and said not everyone understands that about us. it amuses me to think that the most Viking-like people in State College PA aren’t the fire fighters or even the violent drunken partiers after a Penn State game but a firm of property lawyers, expert at avoiding feuds between neighbors and keeping families from dissolving into open warfare.

the snake was fine by the way. or seemed to be—immediately drew itself into a tight coil with as much dignity as it could muster, then slithered at top speed toward its hole in the laundry room wall

Between sleep deprivation in the morning, the lawyers in the early afternoon, a rare late-afternoon nap and thunderstorms in the evening i never had time for a proper walk let alone the abbreviated three-mile version of it i was trying to squeeze in before dark (a great way to keep up daily walking during a heat wave). so it didn’t feel like a real day.

funny how whatever we do becomes how we define ourselves. it’s as if this has become my real job now. (because, thank Whomever, my mom is still in a robust state of health)

I haven’t read Stephen King which is probably good because i do sometimes find myself murmuring lines from the title track to Anthrax’ 1987 classic Among the Living:

I am the walking dude
I can see all the world

Cartoonish lyrics for the most part—Anthrax were never what you’d call sophisticated—but i still find this part vaguely interesting:

Good versus evil
The stand to vanquish evil
Man can only live one way
That place right in the middle

—a less Manichean worldview than, say, Black Sabbath in “War Pigs”

i had forgotten that Anthrax was with Metallica during the fateful tour for Master of Puppets on which Cliff Burton, their genius bassist and the working-class conscience of the band, was killed in his sleep when their tour bus went off the road.

His death profoundly impacted the thrash-metal community in which he was a highly regarded figure, and the members of Anthrax dedicated their new album Among the Living to his memory. In 2012, Ian said in an interview that part of the reason ‘… the album sounds so angry is because Cliff died. We’d lost our friend and it was so wrong and unfair.’

Wikipedia, “Among the Living

with Cliff out of the way, the remaining assholes in Metallica were free to sell out and became the most famous thrash metal band in the world. Anthrax remained much more of a niche band, sounding like a cross between Dio, Exodus, and the Beastie Boys (who were part of the same NY hardcore/skater scene from which Anthrax emerged)

I am honestly not sure who i am blogging for at this point. the Venn diagram of metal heads and poetry heads has very little overlap i’ve found. astonishing that there’s any really. it involves mental toggling between the delicacy of perception required to appreciate (let alone compose) a haiku or a sonnet, and a much more blunt-instrument approach to language, with value placed on shock effect and sometimes deliberate obscurity. often metal lyrics are just flat-out bad writing. but there are three points I’d make about that:

  1. most popular music lyrics aren’t very good either. even a lot of Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s lyrics are pretentious twaddle. let alone Puccini or Nat King Cole.
  2. prioritizing catchiness leads to very different lyrical choices than prioritizing subtlety and insights. and as impenetrable as thrash may sound to the uninitiated it is all about the riffs. bands learn how to write in such a way as to practically compel moshing and, um, extremely emphatic nodding along
  3. alternating between registers is something that traditional audiences all over the world seem to have loved, whether you’re talking about West African or O’odham epic recitations, comedic Kyogen performances in between the high seriousness of Noh, or, you know, Ben Johnson, Marlowe and them

the ancient peonies are in bloom in my disreputable front garden, which with the irises open as well looks about as good as it ever gets:

i transplanted the peonies from the front yard of our former neighbor Margaret McHugh, a descendant of the original settlers in Plummer’s Hollow. they were getting overwhelmed by wisteria (the peonies not the settlers, unless someone was buried in front of her house). i find their soapy smell interesting though not as much as Mom does—she dove nose-first into a big peony bush outside the lawyers’ office yesterday. sadly i failed to snap a photo in time.

the peonies’ timing is always excellent: just before a big rainstorm. assuming their goal is to flop over and return their ants’ delicate handiwork to the earth as quickly as possible. Alternating registers, innit. Buson once likened a rotten peony bloom to a hell mouth:

Enma-Ô no kuchi ya botan o hakan to su

the King of Hell’s mouth:
peony petals ready
to be spat out

与謝蕪村 Yosa Buson

Hiking in the rain again. I’m dry above and soaked from the knees down, which is wonderfully cooling. The rain comes with a breeze—the edge of a storm no doubt.

the foot to its footprint
bear-flipped rock

Here’s a life hack to spend less time on social media: post about hiking until the algorithm starts showing you outdoors-related gear, then click on some of those ads. if you’re suggestible like me you do run the risk of spending money, but you probably needed new shoes or ultralight trousers anyway. the flip side is that every time you log into instagroan or facebonk you’ll be reminded to go for a walk instead

placing my phone in my shirt’s left pocket to keep it dry and feeling the warmth of its processor against my heart, this small computer many times more powerful than the room-sized supercomputers which our high school computer class assumed were the future…

(yes, my rural Appalachian school system had a computer room from the late 70s on. the Tyrone Area School District is legitimately progressive in many respects being run by basically liberal Republicans, though i suspect they would not appreciate that label. they work hard to not only graduate but also educate poor and working class kids: still not nearly enough, but better than any other school in the area including State College, if the results of universal, standardized tests are any indication)

(i remember those tests, or at least an early version called I believe the California Achievement Tests, which we not only didn’t study for but weren’t informed about in advance, just like an IQ test. I had aced the latter because of my upbringing: i knew how to talk like an adult, use big words and charm the tester. it was very subjective. i felt guilty about my placement in the gifted program knowing that everyone is gifted more or less the same and that the way we decide whose gifts matter is deeply unfair to people without either the gift of gab or an analytical mind. the CAT which we took in the 8th grade was a much more humbling experience, showing me to be as off-the-charts bad with some mental skills as i was off-the-charts good at others. they handed the results out in art class, for some reason, so kids from all tracks got to compare results, which ended up being extremely educational. I remember the kid across the table from me, a quiet, really genuine kid named Mark whom i’d gotten to know fairly well by then, showing me the bar chart of his results and asking me in a troubled voice, “Dave, does this mean I’m stupid?” and me with my gift of gab showing him mine, an almost perfect opposite to his: No Mark, i said, it means you’re really smart at these absolutely critical skills that well-spoken idiots like me sometimes like to pretend aren’t as important, just because we are so bad at them. [i forget exactly how they broke down intelligence but what Mark was brilliant at and i sucked at were mechanical/engineering-type stuff, and the reverse was like creativity and communication])

…and taking my phone right out of my shirt pocket again to type all that. Oh look, it’s stopped raining already!

brightening sky
a red eft hurries back
under the leaves

Dear diary reader, today after i got back from my walk i felt a sudden pang—i wanted to be making an erasure poem! going on a treasure hunt for fragments of fossil poetry in a coalface of prose. I miss it.

also when i took my sodden trousers off two ants tumbled out. that’s taking closeness to nature a little too far! i said to myself—then remembered my trousers had been doused with Permethrin. Poor ants.

Later, sitting on the porch, i was struck by how closed-off the forest edge looks now that all the leaves are out. Once inside, sure, it’s all green mansions, but from the outside, it’s a wall. so radically different from the view the other five months of the year when the leaves are down and it’s so open—more welcoming on the one hand but less inviting on the other. Talk about shifts in register.

Buson tells a fart joke

Gakumon wa...  haiga by Yosa Buson
Gakumon wa... haiga by Yosa Buson (photo by ionushi on Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license)

Gakumon wa ketsu kara nukeru hotaru kana

(Study/scholarship as-for, ass from exiting/emitting firefly [exclamatory particle])

All this study—
it’s coming out your ass,
oh firefly!


I found this gem while looking for a photo of one of Buson’s haiga (haiku illustration, a proto-Manga-like genre he did much to advance) as a possible addition to Sunday’s post. It comes courtesy of Mexican blogger and man-of-letters Aurelio Asiain, who, as it happens, now teaches at the very college in Japan where I spent a formative year as an exchange student back in 1985-86.

This is as close to an outright simile as a haiku can get. Notice that there’s no firefly in the painting, which acts as a kind of commentary on the poem. In the absence of any additional information, one could certainly read this as a poem about a firefly whose diligent study bears fruit in the radiance coming from his abdomen. But the facial expression of the figure in the painting encourages a more Rabelaisian interpretation. Notice, further, the placement of the text in relation to the figure, the calligraphy suggesting curls of vapor. This is a fart joke.

It translates particularly well into modern American English, since “talking out one’s ass” is such a popular way to characterize know-it-all bloviating. Intellectual pursuits had a much higher value in Edo-period Japan, though, where students and scholars were often poetically said to study by firefly light — a conceit that survives to this day:

“Keisetsu-jidadi” which literally translates into “the era of the firefly and snow,” means one’s student days. It derives from the Chinese folklore and refers to studying in the glow of the fireflies and snow by the window. There is also an expression “Keisetsu no kou” which means “the fruits of diligent study.”

So Buson’s insight consists simply in pointing out where on its anatomy the firefly’s light emerges.

We shouldn’t be surprised that such a humorous haiku came from the brush of one of the greatest haiku masters. Humor and earthiness were primarily what distinguished haiku and haikai no renga from the much older renga (linked verse) tradition in the first place. In social terms, haiku poetry represented a middle-class appropriation and popularization of what had been a very aristocratic pursuit. And Japan was and remains an earthy culture; there’s nothing like the split between classical and vernacular views of the body which has afflicted Westerners since the Renaissance. Buson was able to paint equally well in a high-brow Chinese style and in the cartoonish fashion seen here, just as Chaucer included the Knights Tale and the Miller’s Tale in the same work.

Between dream and metaphor: haiku of Yosa Buson

Whenever I have to bang out a bunch of haiku, I like to read from the masters for inspiration. I’ve been avoiding translations which I suspect to be very good, such as Robert Hass’ The Essential Haiku, because I’m afraid they will make me lazy. The best way to read Japanese haiku, as far as I’m concerned, is with the aid of a literal English translation by someone like Harold G. Henderson or R. H. Blyth, so I’ll be forced to refer to the Japanese text and, if present, the syllable-by-syllable interpretation. I’ve forgotten most of the Japanese I studied in college, but at least I remember the basics, such as how the grammar works and how to use a kanji dictionary. Attempting to translate poetry is one of the best ways I know to fully engage with it. Today I thought I’d preserve not just my attempts, but also some of the thoughts that got me there.

Yosa Buson (1716-1783) is generally considered one of the four greatest writers of what we now call haiku (the others being Basho, Issa, and Shiki), and he was a brilliant painter and sketch artist to boot. Though ambiguity has always been prized in Japanese poetry, Buson took it to the limit in some of his haiku. Others, of course, are entirely straightforward. Here are a few of each.


Nashi no hana tsuki no fumiyomu onna ari

The blossoming pear—
a woman reads a letter
in the moonlight.


Is it live, or is it metaphor? Other translators tend to make this a bit more instrumental and say “by moonlight,” but the grammatical structure suggests that letter-reading woman is to moon as blossom is to pear tree.


Shigi tôku kuwa sugusu mizu no uneri kana

A distant snipe.
Rinsing off the hoe,
how the water quakes!


The association here may be with the circling, diving courtship display of a common snipe (Gallinago gallinago) at dusk, or simply its zig-zag flight when flushed. The verb uneru means to undulate, meander, surge, swell, roll, etc.


Kura narabu ura wa tsubame no kayoi michi

Behind the warehouse row,
a road busy with the back-and-forth
of barn swallows.


This is Hirundo rustica gutturalis, a different subspecies but substantially the same bird familiar to Europeans and North Americans.


Yado kase to katan nage dasu fubuki kana

“A night’s lodging!”
and the sword thrown down—
a gust of snow.


Buson really makes the little words work hard. The Japanese particle to attributes the opening phrase to someone — we’re left to imagine who — while at the same time introducing the down-thrown-sword gust of snow.


Me ni ureshi koi gimi no sen mashiro nari

As utterly blank as it is,
I can’t stop looking
at my lover’s fan.


The archaic mashiro means “pure white,” but the contrast with the norm — brightly painted fans — is clearly in play here. And though we might not share the premodern Japanese attraction to pure white skin, our fashion photography suggests we still understand the sexiness of a blank expression.


Enma-Ô no kuchi ya botan o hakan to su

The King of Hell’s mouth:
peony petals ready
to be spat out.


The King of Hell in popular East Asian Buddhist iconography is always shown with an angry, open mouth. Is Buson looking at a statue of Enma-Ô and imagining a peony, or vice versa? I picture an aged, pink peony blossom in a state of partial collapse.


Kujira ochite iyo-iyo takaki o age kana

The diving whale—
how its tail keeps going


Iyo-iyo means both “increasingly” and “at last.” There’s probably a better way of conveying that dual sense in English than what I’ve gone with here.


Kari yoroi ware ni najimaru samusa kana

Fitting the borrowed
armor to my body—
Christ it’s cold!


The last line is not, of course, a literal translation of samusa kana, but in modern colloquial American English, it’s hard to imagine exclaiming about the cold without deploying at least a mild curse.


Sakura chiru nawashiro mizu ya hoshizuki yo

Cherry petals
in the rice-seedling water,
moon and stars.


Another conjunction that’s not entirely a metaphor, but could be if you wanted.


Ichi gyô no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su

All in one line, the wild geese,
and the moon in the foothills
for a seal.


Nature as calligraphic painting.


Asa giri ya e ni kaku yume no hito dôri

Morning fog—
the road full of people from
a painter’s dream.


Fog, mist, haze: the East Asian landscape painter’s way of collapsing time and distance.


Tsurigane ni tomarite nemuru kochô kana

On the temple’s
great bell,
a butterfly sleeps.


“Bell” is of course entirely inadequate. The English word conjures up a clanging or tolling thing with a clapper, nothing like the booming bronze behemoth meant here. Tomarite — “stopping,” “lodging” — seems redundant in translation.

This butterfly is the Buson equivalent of Basho’s ancient ponderous frog. So many interpretations, so much weighty critical analysis! How can it possibly sleep?


Utsutsu naki tsumami gokoro no kochô kana

Not quite real,
this sensation of pinching—
a butterfly.

This haiku is notoriously hard to pin down: is the sensation one that a human feels, holding a butterfly by the wings, or is it — as the grammar seems to suggest — the butterfly who feels this not-quite-real sensation? Personally, I favor a third view: that the sensation is the experience of a human on whose finger a butterfly has landed. Butterflies can cling quite tightly — I don’t think it would be a stretch to use the verb tsumamu for that — and when they then begin to mine the grooves in your finger for salt with their long proboscis, the sensation is very strange indeed.


Asa kaze no ka o fukimiyoru kemushi kana

Morning breezes
play in the hair
of a caterpillar.


As with the temple-bell butterfly haiku, there’s an extra verb here (miyoru, “can be seen”) that really doesn’t need to be translated. Even without it, the poem is all about perspective.


Kin byô no usu mono wa dare ka aki no kaze

Whose thin clothes
still decorate the gold screen?
Autumn wind.


Painted on the screen, one wonders, or draped over it? I think this is another haiku that merges world and painting. Autumn wind typically conveys loneliness in Japanese poetry.


Shira ume ni akuru yo bakari to nari ni keri

(final deathbed poem)

The night almost past,
through the white plum blossoms
a glimpse of dawn.


Buson in fact died before dawn, so this glimpse, too, is an artist’s vision, poised between dream and metaphor.

Landscape With a Solitary Traveler, by Yosa Buson (courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)
Landscape With a Solitary Traveler, by Yosa Buson (courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons)

Harusame ya / Spring rain

harusame ya

Ranko (student of Basho, fl. 17th c.)

Harusame ya yane no ogusa ni hana sakinu

Spring rain:
flowers opening
on the thatched roof.


Taniguchi Buson (1715-1783)

Harusame ya kawazu no hara no mada nurezu

Spring rain:
not enough yet to moisten
the frog’s belly.


Harusame ya monogatari yuku mino to kasa

Spring rain:
a patter of gossip
from raincoat & umbrella.


Harusame ya dôsha no kimi no sasamegoto

Spring rain:
my lover’s low whisper
in a shared carriage.


Harusame ni nuretsutsu yane no temari kana

Spring rain:
a rag ball on the roof
is getting soaked.


Kobayashi Issa (1762-1826)

Harusame ya ai ni aioi no matsu no koe

Spring rain:
the voices of a pair of pines
growing side by side.


Harusame ya yabu ni fukaruru sute tegami

Spring rain:
a discarded letter blows
into the bushes.


Harusame ya uo oi-nogasu ura no inu

Spring rain:
a dog on the shore
chases the fish.


Harusame ya na wo tsumi ni yuku ko andon

Spring rain:
going out with a small lantern
to pick vegetables.


Harusame ya kuware-nokori no kamo ga naku

Spring rain:
the lusty quacking of ducks
that haven’t been eaten.


Harusame ni ôakubi suru bijin kana

Spring rain:
a pretty woman


Harusame ya imo ga tamoto ni zeni no oto

Spring rain:
in my wife’s sleeve,
the sound of coins.


Harusame ya neko ni odori oshieru ko

Spring rain:
a child is teaching the cat
how to dance.


Harusame ya hara wo herashi ni yu ni tsukaru

Spring rain:
I draw a hot bath
to settle my stomach.


Translated with the help of a dictionary and some imagination.