April Diary 12: flowers in hell

This entry is part 12 of 31 in the series April Diary


Dear April it’s been a day spent largely in my head a commodious place since i haven’t stuffed it full of facts or indeed much of anything with a practical use

walking down the mountain i was thinking about something the Norwegian poet Rolf Jacobsen once said: “In an age of tiredness” he said “I write for the half-tired”

there’s definitely a class angle to the accessibility vs. difficulty debate (which for many of us is also an internal debate) though here in the chronically overworked US, sleep deprivation cuts across class lines. it’s more inescapable though for those near or below the federal poverty line. for members of the professional-managerial class it can be a bit more volitional

the point is as an insomniac i am intimately acquainted with all the ways that sleep deprivation can interfere with concentration and aesthetic appreciation, to say nothing of the mind’s overall speed and ability to function

with my strong preference for shorter lines and stanzas and for direct, more colloquial diction perhaps i too write for the half-tired

i do not believe in ever writing down to people which is i’m afraid how some on either side of the debate perceive accessibility. but
(insert winter wren trill here—i’m close to the stream)
gnarly or unfamiliar ideas can be presented in ways that invite a reader in and experimental language can be presented in a way that’s fun—see Christian Bök’s Eunoia or pretty much anything by Gary Barwin

it’s the cliquishness and austere aesthetics of a lot of avant-garde work that turns people off. if you doubt that people without college educations can appreciate difficult art, i’d invite you to consider the extreme metal underground, where in many genres complexity of composition is fetishized by the still largely working-class fan base. i believe the same was true of bebop in its day. you don’t need an expensively educated elite to have sophistication in the arts

all that said, there’s no denying the deep anti-intellectualism of anglo-american culture. what poetry does do well commercially tends to be pretty straight-forward fare, whether prosy free verse, rap- and Beat-influenced spoken word, or artistically arranged motivational poster copy

it’s quite a late spring. the first round-leafed hepaticas are finally fully out in Plummer’s Hollow after just a few hours of warmer sunshine this morning. now it’s clouding over again

i tell myself i don’t need any more hepatica photos but it isn’t a matter of need

first hepaticas
will the circle be

that haiku came a bit too easily. hope i’m not unconsciously plagiarizing someone!

also the first stinking Benjamin is out of the ground, green blade stained with mud

the best vistas must now contain something dissonant, tacky or even garish or else risk becoming cliché

bright red roof
the devil is just a hard
working cook

(is that even a haiku?)

(does it matter?)

no one ever talks about how Africa is giving birth to a new sea

also, two of the greatest poets i ever knew never published a book. one stopped writing altogether i suspect. brilliant but troubled. how fortunate must of us are to be neither

i say i’m talking to myself but i’m not — in the same way you say you’re talking to god but you’re not

(maybe that’s why i’ve begun to resist capitalizing i)

no ideology can ever be a perfect map to reality. i feel this is something that poets and physicists should intuitively grasp and it always bothers me when they don’t

places are the best mnemonics. they’re irreplaceable that way

when global corporate monoculture eliminates the last corner of local quirk and the same suite of hardy invasive species grows everywhere, what will happen to memory?

i suppose everyone will be on THC by then so it will be a moot question

i sometimes get really angry when i hear about texts or speech intended to be private, for a single person’s eyes/ears and ephemeral being nevertheless recorded and eventually shared. if this angers you too, prepare to be outraged when you find out how all the classic Zen ko’ans came to be

the collected ko’ans of masters such as Yunmen and Linji are unique gems of world literature and i’m so glad we have them. but a significant part of their opacity is down to us not knowing every intimate detail of the master-student relationships that gave rise to them. at their origin in other words while still conundrums intended to lead to breakthroughs they weren’t necessarily quite as mysterious as they seem today

mystery like many products of fermentation gets better with age

April shower
that heavenly odor
rising from old leaves

i really love how the flat thin soles of my shoes let me feel the smallest contours of the earth

trail running is a strange subculture of exercise freaks but they make some good products

but i wanna say to anyone who does like to run through the woods: imagine if you slowed down and got to know the trees and flowers so well that you began to see the natural world less as a passive environment to discover yourself in and more as an endlessly fascinating series of unique neighborhoods to lose yourself in—likely the way you already imagine cities. imagine walking at one mile per hour and feeling it’s much too fast.

imagine there’s a heaven and you’re in it
it’s easy if you try
but it’s also possibly a pointless exercise in privilege
hell isn’t exactly beneath us but we do manage to keep it out of sight most of the time
above us only the vacuum of space

which puts me in mind of Issa’s famous haiku

in the midst of it all
with hell yawning under us
gazing at flowers

that’s my version but you should try your own

yo no naka wa
世 の 中 は
world’s midst as-for
jigoku no ue no
地獄 の 上 の
hell’s on-top-of’s
hanami kana
花 見 哉
flower viewing!

all of which has me reaching for Baudelaire

he sits right next to Basho on my bookshelf

Time and nature sluice away our lives.
A virus eats the heart out of our sides,
digs in and multiplies on our lost blood.
Charles Baudelaire, from Flowers of Evil (Robert Lowell translation)

so. much. more. metal.

Matsushima ya

Waves at Matsushima
Waves at Matsushima by Tawaraya Sotatsu (fl. ca. 1600-1643)

Matsushima is a group of islands in Miyagi Prefecture, Japan. There are some 260 tiny islands (shima) covered in pines (matsu) — hence the name — and is ranked as one of the Three Views of Japan. Matsushima was very seriously damaged by the Tsunami following the Sendai earthquake in March 2011, with more than 600 people killed.
Wikipedia, “Matsushima”

hundreds of tiny islands, each
with its own pine tree
like a flag planted by Mother Earth
Jason Crane, “Matsushima”

* * *

matushima no
iso ni murewiru
ashitadu no
ono ga samazama
mieshi chiyo kana

A thousand years
in the eye of each
& every crane
flocking on the rocky shore
of Matsushima.

—Kiyowara no Motosuke (908-990)

tachi kaeri
mata mo kite min
matsushima ya
ojima no tomaya
nami ni arasu na

once more to gaze
on Matsushima,
the waves at Ojima lashing
my rush-walled hut.

—Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204)

shimajima ya
chiji ni kudakete
natsu no umi

Islands upon islands—
thousands of shards smashed
by the summer sea.

asayosa o
taga matsushima zo

Morning & evening
like someone at Matsushima—
unrequited love.

—Matsuo Bashô (1644-1694)

Matsushima in Rikuzen Province by Toyohara Chikanobu
Matsushima in Rikuzen Province by Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912)

The town was protected by a stunningly beautiful maze of coves and islands, topped with bonsai-shaped Japanese pines, which kept the worst of the tsunami at bay.

The water rose three metres and the town was relatively lightly affected, as the local emergency services chief told a group of stranded tourists earlier this week.

But everything is relative. Tetsuo lived, against the odds, but said some of his neighbours died. He is now staying at a friend’s house.

The Sydney Morning Herald

* * *

matsushima ya
tsuru ni mi o kare

Borrow the body of a crane,
oh cuckoo.

—Kawai Sora (1649-1710)

matsushima ya
hito kobushi-zutsu
aki no kure

Autumn dusk—
each island like a fist
at Matsushima.

matsushima ya
kosumi wa kurete
naku hibari

As the light fades
on an islet at Matsushima,
a skylark’s song.

—Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

matsushima ya
aa matsushima ya
matsushima ya

ah, Matushima!

—Anon. (attr. to Bashô)

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.

Kobayashi Issa: haiku about shitting

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) is generally counted as one of the four greatest haiku poets, along with Basho, Buson and Shiki. Issa was a devout, if irreverent, Buddhist of the True Pure Land sect whose pen-name means “one cup of tea.” His haiku are extremely down-to-earth, making ample use of vernacular speech and often taking insects or other invertebrates for their subject matter. He wrote at least fifteen haiku about excrement and excretory functions, in which I believe he was not only riffing on the Buddhist doctrine about the essential oneness of nirvana and samsara, but also trying to challenge traditional Japanese concepts of beauty and purity. Japan is a purity-obsessed culture, in which cleanliness and beauty are closely linked. Foreign visitors to Japan are often surprised to discover that, in this otherwise extremely clean and tidy country, public restrooms, especially in train stations, can be unspeakably filthy. Since such places are considered inherently impure, little effort is expended to keep them clean. But to Issa, any place where people or animals pause to take a shit seems worthy of a second look. After all, anything that breaks us loose from our ordinary mental habits might lead to rebirth in the Pure Land.

For a more comprehensive sample of Issa’s work, see David G. Lanoue’s massive online archive (to which I am indebted for the Japanese texts below). The following are my own translations.


ta no hito no kasa ni hako shite kaeru kari

flooded fields—
wild geese take wing
shitting on the farmers’ hats


sôjô ga no-guso asobasu higasa kana

in the middle of the field
the high priest’s parasol—
taking a dump


no setchin no ushiro wo kakou yanagi kana

impromptu outhouse
screening bare asses from view—
the lone willow


musashi no ya no-guso no togi ni naku hibari

Musashi Plain—
listening to a skylark
while I take a shit


nichi-nichi no kuso darake nari hana no yama

cherry blossom time—
each day the mountain is deeper
in excrement


kado-gado ni aoshi kaiko no kuso no yama

at every gate
that blue-green mountain—
silkworm frass


uguisu ya kuso shi nagara mo hokkekyô

bush warbler
intoning the Lotus Sutra
even as it shits


kasugano ya dagashi ni majiru shika no kuso

between the temples
in Kasuga Field, deer pellets
mingled with cheap candy


hatsu yuki ya furi ni mo kakurenu inu no kuso

first snow:
not even enough to hide
all the dogshit


Revised 10/25/2020