Kobayashi Issa & Death

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827) along with Basho and Buson, is considered one the greatest Haiku poets of Japan. His most endearing gift was attention to detail, with such intense delicacy and sometimes playfulness, that the ordinary came to transcend its everyday mundaneness. Even though my interest today is in his focus on death, but I will start with the birth of his daughter.

Last summer, at bamboo planting time, my wife gave birth to our daughter, whom we named Sato. Born in ignorance, we hoped she would grow in wisdom. On her birthday this year she whirled her little arms and her head for us and cried. We thought she was asking for a paper windmill, so I bought her one. She tried licking it, then sucking on it, then simply tossed it aside […] When we sing her praises, her face lights up. Not a single dark cloud seems to have crossed her mind. She beams like clear moonlight, far more entertaining than the best stage act. When a passer-by asks her to point out a dog or bird, she performs with her whole body, head to toes, poised like a butterfly on a grass blade, resting her wings. She lives in a state of grace […]

The wonder of Issa is how he makes us see the obvious, raising it into relief, so that what is unremarkable yet beautiful comes to stand out for us. I can with Issa’s tutoring see my granddaughter lying on her back, grabbing her feet and thrusting one toe into her mouth whilst at the same time holding a wry, unprepossessing smile and gleam in the eye. And then to see in that gesture, the merest swivelling of a butterfly balanced on a petal that also rocks back and forth with the most delicious puff of wind on its back.

Sadly, Issa’s daughter died,
It is often said that the greatest pleasure results in the greatest misery. But why is it that my little child, who’s had no chance to savour even half the world’s pleasures – who should be green as new needles on the eternal pine – why should she be found on her deathbed, puffy with blisters raised by the despicable god of smallpox? How can I, her father, stand by and watch her fade away like a perfect flower suddenly ravaged by rain and mud? Two or three days later, her blisters dried to hard scabs and fell off like dirt softened by melting snow. Encouraged we made a tiny boat of straw and poured hot sake over it with a prayer and sent it floating downriver in hopes of placating the god of the pox. But our hope and efforts were useless and she grew weaker day by day. Finally, at midsummer, as the morning glory flowers were closing, her eyes closed forever.

I can never read this passage without my breath catching in my throat, like a fishing line snagging against some detritus in a fast-running river. And again, Issa takes us and immerses us in the fragility of life, the deep dread that accompanies love, the surrender to that inscrutable face of Fate that is at once a sentinel and a shadow, an undertow clutching at the feet.

Issa often speaks to fragility, but also to the possibility of surviving even if barely,

While visiting the Forest of the Mountain God in Rokugawa village in the Takai area, I picked three small chestnuts, which I eventually planted in the back corner of my garden. One sprouted, lifting up its green head in spring, happy in warm sunlight. Shortly thereafter, my neighbour on the east remodelled his house, cutting off even the falling rain and dew. That year it grew little. All winter, he shovelled the snow from his roof, piling it deep around the building until it looked as if Great White Mountain had been planted there overnight […] Toward the end of winter, the happy signs of spring began to appear as green buds spotted the fields, and trees began to blossom. Still the great snowpile remained, deadly white and cold […] I went out to search for my little chestnut tree buried for months under snow to find its broken trunk. Had this tree been human, I’d have sent its remains up in smoke, but it wasn’t long before the stump sent out a few leaves, and by the end of the year it had regained its former height.

Here in Birmingham, at the very end of February, our Magnolia is already in bud and there are blossoms out on the Blackthorn. The cycle of life continues but for how long? All the news is of the worsening state of the planet, crustaceans and whales wash up on beaches dead, and floods and fires, the blistering heat, signal events but that are buried in noise. The hope is that like Issa’s chestnut there is enough resilience in nature, to see life reinstated in the wake of the coming disaster.

To return to my subject, Issa’s preoccupation with death,

On a beautiful spring morning, a young monk-in-training named Takamaru, still a child at eleven, left Myosen Temple with a monk named Kanryo. They planned to pick herbs and flowers in Araizaka, but the boy slipped on an old bridge and plunged into icy, roaring river, which was swollen with snowmelt and runoff from Iizuna Mountain. Hearing the boy’s scream for help, Kanryo dashed down the bank, but there was nothing he could do. Takamaru’s head bobbed up, then disappeared. A hand rose above the raging water. But soon his cries grew as faint as the high buzz of mosquitoes, and the young monk vanished in the river, nothing left but his image engraved forever on Kanryo’s eyes […] When someone found a handful of young butterburs in the dead boy’s pocket, probably a gift for his parents, even those who seldom weep began to soak their sleeves. They lifted his boy onto a bamboo palanquin and carried him home.

Once again, it is the life abruptly cut short, the failure of promise, that Issa draws to our attention. In both his daughter’s case and the young monk’s too, it is nature, that implacable, even obdurate actor in our lives that causes grief and suffering.

I want to end with a favourite Haiku by Issa,

With just the slightest
parting of my lips, thousands
of plovers take flight.

Indeed reading Issa is like seeing his lips parted, and there, there the plovers are taking flight.

Quotations are from The Spring of My Life translated by Sam Hamill

Photos by Jan Oyebode

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