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Haiku – Asymptote

1

すいちゅう       か    ば            も                              ぼたんゆき
 水中の河馬が燃えます牡丹雪

                                                                  ““
                                                         A bathing hippo
                                                                 blazes—
                                                                         snowflowers.
                                                                  ““

                                                       
               ““
               hippo
bathing    ⊕    burning
           snowflake
               ““
                  

                                                                    ““““
                                                     A hippo immersed in water
                                                         is & is not
                                                             a snowflake on fire.
                                                                    ““““

                                                                         
                ““
        inside water
        the river horse
        burning snowflakes
                ““
                  

                                                                        ““““““
                                            That smoldering hippo! That snowflake, burning.
                                                                        ““““““

The elliptical lines or orbits trace the way the words in this poem interact with one another. There is movement here. The poem is a living thing. Especially the largest ellipse traces the path of a planet traveling around its sun: it heats and cools. There is a relationship between snow and water and fire. When water is furthest from heat, it recools, recoils. Similarly, a hippo is a river horse, an animal whose house is of water. A cluster of snowflakes is a male animal of the earth. It is also snow. It is also a flower. A male horse gets fired up. When this occurs, it is enough to melt the snow. It is enough to set the river on fire.

はるかぜ       はは   し      りゅうかくさん         ち
春風に母死ぬ龍角散が散り

How’re you, Cassini? Ha ha! (she knew). Are you coxswain? Got cheery.
harukaze ni haha shinu ryûkakusan ga chiri

                                                                  ““
                                                        To the spring wind—
                                                        mother is dead,
                                                        her medicine scatters.
                                                                  ““

                                                                      
          ““
mother is scattered
on the spring wind
her medicine breath
          ““

                              
                                                                          ““““
                                                        What dissipates—
                                                        mother’s death on the spring wind;
                                                        medicine called “scattered dragon”
                                                                          “““`

                        ““““
spring                                                  scattering
wind   
            mother                                   
            dead                     (medicine)
                          dragon
                          corner
                          scatter
                        ““““

There is an association in Japan between the falling of cherry blossoms, which occurs in spring, and dying a noble death. Countless Samurai stories end with the hero’s death under the falling petals. The echoing of scattering or falling of leaves or blossoms in the name of the common medicine Ryugakûsan with the last word chiri, to scatter, places death at the center of this poem, and thus death is the apex between the mother, the spring wind, and the scattering of petals (or ashes). The scattering out from death is represented by the dots emanating from the center while the triangle is an attempt to acknowledge the sharpness of the word “corner” in the medicine. The poem also contains grammatical ambiguity as to what exactly is occurring on the spring wind (the mother’s death, the scattering of the medicine, which comes in the form of a red or green powder, or the scattering of the mother herself). This merging of traditional Japanese culture (the correlation between the falling of petals with noble death) and the contemporary (the inclusion of a common over-the-counter medicine) is part of Nenten Tsubouchi’s project and is handled beautifully by him here.

                                                                        そら
バッタとぶアジアの空のうすみどり

Bat a toe, boo! Ah, gee, uh . . . no. Sorta’. No it’s you, my diary!
batta tobu ajia no sora no usumidori

                                               ““““
                                       A grasshopper hops—
                                            the weak-green sky of Asia.
                                               ““““

                                                  
                        ““““““
O grasshopper, leaping into the watery-green sky of Asia.
                        ““““““

                                                                                     
                                                                                    ““““
                                                                 A child’s reading of grasshopper
                                                                         green Asian sky without
                                                                                 the complexity of Asia
                                                                                    ““““

                                                                                                                            
                              ““““
            Lacking the grasshopper’s hoppers—
                the green sky of Asia thins.
                              ““““

                  
                                                                                     ““““
                                                                    Language declines—
                                                             the grasshopper becomes less grasshopper.
                                                                    The green of Asia’s sky less green.
                                                                                    ““““

Language is the sky and the sky is made of language: as one thins, the other must follow. The words in this haiku are written almost entirely in the simplified phonetic alphabets of hiragana and katakana, although more complex kanji exist. The only kanji that remains is one of the most simple and airy available: sky. In this diagram the sky (read clockwise) thins as the grasshopper spreads its wings. Words that were once represented in kanji, word pictures—grasshopper, Asia, light green—have been usurped by modernity and their inner lives abridged in favor of accessibility. Moving up from the center of the diagram, the image of the grasshopper transforms into kanji, then to katakana, then to English. The haiku is as much about the dilution of the Japanese language as it is about the dilution of the green sky of Asia. We do not see, in hiragana, that leaping is the essence of the grasshopper, or that light green is thinning pampas grass made into language. One other difficult notion to translate here is that the batta, though it is commonly called a grasshopper, also refers to the locust, and that singular and plural nouns are often determined by context. Thus, above the single grasshopper, or perhaps inside of it, the sky over Asia turns green in the time it takes an infinitude of locusts to leap, simultaneously, to fill the poem.

                                                                                                 か     じ
たんぽぽのぽぽのあたりが火事ですよ

Ten Popo, no Popo, no! Atari god. Cagey, the show.
tanpopo no popo no atari ga kaji desuyo

                         ““““
   Surrounding the tanpopo’s popo—fire!
                         ““““

                                                                                     ““““
                                                              The mane of the dandelion’s lion is burning.
                                                                                     ““““

                                                                    
                                      ““““
                             Both word and object—
                                 a dandelion blazes.
                                      ““““
                                             

                                                                                            ““
                                                                               The fire pops—
                                                                                   inside the dandelion
                                                                               a steam locomotive.
                                                                                            ““

                              ““
                   A dandelion bursts—
                       fire spreads.
                              ““

A dandelion, once it has d(r)ied, is held together by a preponderance of parachute pods. They part and pop, as fire does, in play and on the planes of prairied minds. The tanpopo’s popo is the dandelion’s lion, but it is also the pop of Pop-Rocks, the pip of pomegranate, the chugga chugga of the choo-choo. A train engineer is a popo-ya, shushu-popo the child’s word for locomotive, popo-popo-popo the sound a train makes moving across an empty field. A 1603 Jesuit Japanese dictionary lists poppo as “the manner in which steam or fire rises.” But in Japanese, tanpopo is not onomatopoetic until Tsubouchi makes it so. Popo itself is a wordless word, it is the seed of a word, a seed which bursts into flame as soon as it is spoken. Imagine a great gust of wind. Imagine a fire.

Haiku 1 and 2 excerpted from Rakka Rakujitsu (Kaifusha, 1984), 3 from Neko no Ki (Chusekisha, 1987), and 4 from Popo no Atari (Chusekisha, 1998), by permission of Nenten Tsubouchi, Kaifusha, and Chusekisha. 

 
『落下落日』(海風社、1984)より2句(水中の〜、春風に〜)、『猫の木』(沖積舎、1987)より1句(バッタ飛ぶ〜)、『ぽぽのあたり』(沖積舎、1998)より1句(たんぽぽの〜)を、坪内捻典氏、海風社、沖積舎の許可を得て掲載。

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