Photo: Scott Thiessen

Reading Bashö in the Suburbs

Don’t follow in the footsteps of the old poets, seek what they sought. – Bashö[1]

Rain drips through the pines in the backyard, shushes down the siding and away in gutters and spouts. It slips through the boards of the old tree house and is shaken from an owl high in the dark top of a spruce. It billows out in great gusts over mountain, over plain, over strip mall and rooftop.

My husband and dog snore lightly beside me; down the hall the kids are sleeping, unplugged for now. Lying in bed in the Denver suburbs, I feel the rain reach in and waken me to the night outside, to the vastness of the foothills and the deep dripping crevices of the distant mountains. Alone in my wakefulness, I am on the cusp of that harmonic resonance where all the fragmented pieces of the world suddenly come together in an expanding whole—

Then the dog jerks and stretches, pushing his paws into my side, and I am back again in my bed. Everything looming, bills and work and my clock ticking toward the too-early alarm.

I’ve been seeking this resonant whole by reading classic haiku. On my bedside table is Robert Hass’ translation of three Japanese poets, Bashö, Buson, and Issa. I reach out a hand to touch the cover in the dark. Bashö in particular speaks to me, seems to catch what I am looking for.

Awake at night—
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold. (Bashö)

 

I pull the dog closer to me and stare at the night walls. What is the human place in the universe? I have begun to be obsessed by this question, but the answers that come from today tend toward the economic and political. Take effective political action, say the voices; agitate for legislation to abate climate change, take public transportation, contribute. Humans are the hammer, breaking everything: and to turn our hammer-ness toward action, toward doing good, is our responsibility as citizens.

Fair enough. But what about the spiritual dimension of the hammer? How shall the hammer be? This is what I do not know and hope to learn; I am convinced that the secret lies in listening to the world. That’s what these tiny ancient poems do.

My life couldn’t be much further from that of Matsuo Bashö. Born in provincial Japan in 1644, he was an early poetic prodigy and by age 34 was considered a master of aristocratic verse. His life was punctuated by catastrophe and triumph, restlessness and striving. At the height of his literary popularity, he shaved his head and began studying to be a monk. At age 45, he sold his house and became effectively a homeless wanderer, seeking enlightenment by stripping himself of most of his possessions. He strove to capture that enlightenment in a new, raw form of haikai. Where I have stability, family, and material comfort, he had roaming, hunger, and grief; where he had talent and renown, I …do not. It seems likely that seeking instruction from Bashö is misguided and bound to fail.

Nevertheless, it is my quest right now. As I listen to the many voices of the rain—its whisper spreading deep within the grass, a trickle at the corner of the roofline, the faint creak of the Scots pine bowing beneath the weight of the water—I sense the rest of the universe begin to shift and listen. Up in the pines, the squirrels fold themselves into their nests and the fluffed-out finch and chickadees huddle up, while beneath, the mice sleep in the compost, the snake in the woodpile, the wood lice under the rocks, and we in our beds.

 

Bashö sought to connect to nature and the universe by cultivating the proper receptive spirit—meditating, fasting, creating the perfect haiku. I do yard work. The morning after the rain I put on my boots and head out to spread compost on the garden beds. I lift out the front panel of the bin and start shoveling leaf mold and soil into a wheelbarrow. Press, lift, turn, dump. There is a joy in the motion of it. The steel blade rips through last year’s tomato vines, eggshells, and leaf stems with a rewarding crack.

The compost shrinks. The wheelbarrow fills. It is simple and satisfying work; it does not count as the effective political action I sometimes pretend it to be (“Of course I am deeply committed to the environment! I compost!”), but it helps me focus and listen. Bashö instructs us to pay close attention to the ordinary: “The old verse can be about willows. Haikai requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.”

Picking snails in a rice paddy is as unordinary here as Ming vases and palaces, but the compost, with its undigested fragments of free range eggshell and the PLU stickers from fruit, fits the bill and might therefore be a Bashö-approved discipline.

The compost also allows me to reflect on the juxtaposition of close-to-home and the larger world; here we dump the remains of produce grown in Chile and California, and submit them to a process as beautiful and mysterious as evolution itself. We bring our scraps and our leavings, our waste and wastefulness, and through the alchemy of rot make new soil, rich and nourishing, that can in turn feed our tomatoes and our pumpkin plants all summer. In this way maybe we can repair some of what we have broken. The hammer is, after all, constructive as well. We can build as much as we can break apart.

Coffee and grapefruit / rotting under fallen leaves / making summer food

Musing on these virtues, I am about to take a break when I lift and almost drop the shovel: two pinky mice, hairless and blind, writhe on the end of the steel blade.

The mother mouse has fled, and she won’t come back; I have ripped her nest apart. I scoop the babies up—hot dry grubs tickling at my palm—and go off to find a box and heat lamp.

Hot baby mice / seeking their lost mother’s milk / brought indoors?

Shut up, I tell myself. Haiku will not undo what I have done. I am a hammer, through and through.

 

The hot buzz of the heat lamp almost drowns out the miserable squeaks of the starving pinkies. I am aware that I am being faintly ridiculous—wouldn’t I put out traps if these two came into the house a few months older? Yes. I would. But for now they are naked and helpless and alone. I set up a triage nursery and try to get some food in them, dog food soaked in milk, administered with a baby medicine dropper.

I feed them regularly throughout the day, between making dinner, cleaning the bathroom, monitoring the kids as they do homework. The mouse triage station feels very official, a little outpost of Red Cross efficiency on the kitchen counter. The kids are enthralled, especially my seven-year-old daughter; she wants to feed them herself, sporadically, and I have to coach her to make sure she doesn’t bruise their muzzles with the dropper.

Their muzzles are lightly furred with proto whiskers and their mouths are perfect circles the size of the “o” on my keyboard. They open and close in a constant pulse, a heart beating.

But by dinner the whine of the heat lamp has me on edge. I drip plain milk into those little mouths with a sinking feeling as the milk comes spilling out again. They don’t seem able to swallow.

Exciting at first,
then sad,
watching the cormorant-fishing.

 

I am not sure that Bashö really speaks to this, I think. I want to help but I haven’t gone far enough; I am failing to save the mice. Bashö’s haiku advocate withdrawal, detachment, resigned acceptance, but this course of action dooms the mice to a miserable death. Is it even responsible, as a hammer, to entertain the idea of detachment?

 

I pad into the kitchen at five in the morning to turn on the gas beneath the teakettle. A dedicated wildlife worker will feed an infant animal around the clock; apparently I have already given up. I have left the mice warm but unattended since eleven last night. I glance nervously toward the box: there is a sluggish thump, and I relax.

I know it is temporary reprieve, and as I wait for the water to boil I drip more milk at each one’s mouth. Would it have been kinder to smash them at once with the shovel? I suspect it would have been, but I can’t quite countenance such action. My squeamishness seems significant. Rather than seek out resonant feelings of enlightenment, shouldn’t I be doing something active and coordinated to mitigate my human damages to the world—agitating for climate change legislation, maybe, or consciously downsizing? Or at least maintain the compost so that it doesn’t attract invasive species and then lure them to a bloody death.

We build and we destroy. It is possible that this duality is a spiritual discipline, too: the hammer must accept its role as hammer, and get on with it.

 

Perhaps Bashö is a false muse. He lived in a non-mechanized world of feudal relationships, when large parts of Japan were still wild and even the cities had game parks. His era, the Edo period, is now seen as a golden age of ecological balance, when Japan was both civilized and entirely self-sustaining. It was also conservative; political decisions were not up for discussion. Bashö’s philosophy offers little on how to engage, how to take on the responsibility of action, how to argue and convince.

Of course, it is a lovely thing to listen to the rain at night. But wouldn’t I be better off—wouldn’t the world be better off—if we took as instructors those who can teach us to move beyond listening?

 

I work from home all day, alternately trying to feed the mice and working on my editing. The refrigerator rattles on and rattles off. Planes roar overhead. Lawnmowers and weed whackers start up and mercifully shut off. The “garden suburb” was originally designed for common people to live in healthier, greener spaces with more access to nature, but all I can hear from my suburban couch, besides the occasional writhing of the starving mice, is mechanization. As the mice grow weaker, those motors hold an ominous note.

The smaller mouse dies on the second day, before the kids come home from school. I am relieved that it is no longer suffering, but I am still sorry. Melancholy descends.

The long rains—
silkworms sick
in the mulberry fields.

 

In his journals, Bashö writes about envying those with political influence, about wanting to rise in the hierarchy of the priesthood. He regrets his mistakes and his clumsiness and explores questions of right and wrong. He was no stranger to engagement, in other words. And yet his poems celebrate resignation, solitude, and loss.

His resignation is more than simply giving up. In his poems, the human spirit must be able to look at what is built and what is destroyed and cope with both. That is why I find such comfort in them.

 

The second mouse holds out longer, almost a week, his bigger, stronger body genetically designed for survival. I drip the milk and dog food into his mouth, one drop at a time, wondering, if this one pulls through, if he will remember this care and be thankful. This, of course, is a Disney wish for a world in which birds and rabbits flock sentimentally to my studio-perfect singing. It ignores the facts; mice don’t imprint and are not going to maintain the neurons necessary to remember who fed them in their infancy. It also makes me the hero of their story: this is one of the things I hate most about the human-as-hammer mentality. It dominates the narrative.

I prefer the ecological view, which gives their story back to them. This view requires something closer to Bashö: “Learn about pines from pine, and about bamboo from the bamboo.” Nature has something to teach us about humanness—even the ornamental pine trees planted in the backyard, or the nonnative bamboo planted around the car dealership. And haiku can tell us how to learn. Instead of the warbling studio voice singing our praises, the haiku instruct us to listen, to make our soundtrack the dripping rain pipe, the soft scrabble of the mice, the wind bending the trees on its way from the mountains to the plains.

 

The sound the spade makes in the grassy clayish loam along the back fence is different than the sound it makes in compost. The dirt is grainier and scours back against the steel. It is a remnant of the original foothill soil, and it seems more independent, more resistant to human suggestion.

I am burying the mice at my daughter’s insistence, although now that she has made her point she wants nothing to do with it. I work alone. The sky is overcast, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. An early season wasp bumps along the blistering eave, looking for a hole in which to start a nest.

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields.

 

At dawn I step onto the patio, comb in hand, to brush out my hair. A low breeze rattles the seed pods on last winter’s grasses, making a hollow sound. It seems to blow right through me, through my bathrobe, through the buttonholes in my night-shirt, curling the warm sticky flesh above my rib cage and reaching in to the bones themselves. Give up, it seems to say. You are the hammer. You will always be the hammer.

But then, above the whispering of the grass, comes the repeated bark of the neighbor’s dog. It’s the voice of an animal that refuses to drift into silence, that refuses resignation. I can almost feel that bark against my flesh, the hot wet breath insistent and alive.

The night before, it rained again. This was their sound, too, I think with a pang: the little pinkies in their milk-warm nest could hear the rain beating and dripping as they slept, and it was their connection-to-the-universe sound just as much as it is mine.

And there, on my back patio, I start to feel the immensity of the turning earth. The abiding mountains, the jumbled city, the endless plains rolling toward the rising sun; within it all is me, tucked into my spot in the grid. All of us bend before the wind, letting it take the lead, while at the same time, we each pay heed to that sharper call within.

 

[1] All haiku and quotes are Bashö, from The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashö, Buson, & Issa, edited and translated by Robert Hass. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

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1 Comment

  • Elizabeth says:

    This reminds me of a baby bird I once tried to nurse back to health. She’d been sat on by her mother and had dicky legs. Sadly she didn’t make it, but that’s the way of the world.
    Lovely piece.

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