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"... eternity in the transient world ..."
on 28 February 2011
Breaking the silence
Of an ancient pond,
A frog jumped into water -
A deep resonance.
Praise first to Nobuyuki Yuasa, whose lucid and natural translation throughout is a joy to read. As the haiku above amply demonstrates, Yuasa's decision to render Basho's haiku in 4 lines in English, to my eye and ear at least, captures the precision of the images and the depths of meaning beautifully. Yuasa writes a long introduction, that's highly enjoyable, introducing an overview of haiku, and some of the background to Basho's own life and story, before looking in more detail at the five texts contained within this book.
The reader will most likely concur with the translator, that the first four "sketches" (The Records of a Weather-Exposed Skeleton, A Visit to the Kashima Shrine, The Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel, and A Visit to Sarashina Village) are all steps on the journey to the classic The Narrow Road to the Deep North, whose combination of prose and haiku "illuminate each other like two mirrors held up facing each other." This journey is in the art of writing "haibun": a composition where prose and poetry meet and neither are ascendant.
Basho's personal journey, as a student of Zen Buddhism, was one in which he travelled to escape from the bonds of the material world, looking for enlightenment: "neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another" he tells us in A Visit to the Kashima Shrine. And it's hard to say whether he found what he was looking for, ending:
So I must take to the road again,
Farewell, my friends.
Basho's work has undoubtedly transcended its own time, and nearly 350 years later fills our contemporary world, so separated from the natural rhythms of the earth, with "the very paths of the sun and moon". It captures mountains and moonrises, temples and tears wept, history and the composition of haiku as a gift: "the old seed of linked verse once strewn here by the scattering wind had taken root ... but ... these rural poets were now struggling to find their way in the forest of error ... I sat with them to compose a book of linked verse, and left it behind me as a gift."
His prose is composed with the same clarity and grace as his haiku; and his wanderings are painted in vivid colours: "the wind seemed to breathe out black soot through every rift in the hanging clouds." He rarely complains of the hardships of travelling by foot, or by occasional borrowed horse, through Japan's 17th century hinterland, though a humorous haiku hints at it:
Bitten by fleas and lice,
I slept in a bed,
A horse urinating all the time
Close to my pillow.
And so the work is part travelogue, part spiritual journey, and part evolution of an art form. Unique and inspiring, Basho has left us with "his vision of eternity in the transient world".