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Alex Stein

NOTES ON SOME POEMS OF ISSA

Issa writes, of his wife, Kiku, that: My  Kiku / doesn’t care tuppence/ How she looks! There are so many compliments in the poem that one cannot begin to draw them all out. The haiku poet, the haiku, reckons the thing as it is, accounting the spiritual harmony that irradiates the condition, making of beauty something else again. This is also a poem, one might say, of sexual happiness. “The lineaments of gratified desire,” writes Blake. One might think of “his” Kiku, rising tousled from the bed upon which they have been  making love. Of her, then, pinning up her hair, wrapping a robe about her, and going out to market to get food for that evening’s meal.

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Issa writes: Look snail,/ Look, O look,/ At your own shadow! Art is the shadow that remains to tell us that swiftly or slowly, well- or ill-wrought, we are all moving toward death. And, too, the form of a snail is perhaps the most uncannily psychic reduction of man’s condition to its core elements: protective shell; soft, amorphous being; antennae.

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Issa writes: Chrysanthemums bloom,/ And make, with the dung heap,/ A single picture. We are born from our own mothers out of muck and by-product. Any one of us might bloom like the Chrysanthemum and say thereby to reflect the bodies of the  heavens, but that would just be art, talking fast. Zen is beyond art. Issa is beyond art. The poetry of Issa is irradiated with the spirit of Zen. Zen is not a tradition or an intention. Zen is not a practice. Issa writes: The dew is scattered,/ And today once more/ The seeds of Hell are sown. Neither is this Zen, but neither, either, is it poetry. It is like the wheel of a cart, fallen and left in a field. It will remain there in snow and when the springtime comes, spring shoots may sprout through and about it.

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Blyth says of Issa that he had “happiness, or rather blessedness.” A fine distinction, inasmuch as happiness can be achieved by dint of will, but blessedness is something bestowed. Blessedness does not ensure happiness. Blessedness ensures only that in one moment or another, ongoing, one will have the satisfaction of bearing witness the divinity with which the world is charged. Chasing the wild boar! writes Issa, Voices at night!/ Rushing through the pampas grass!

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Issa writes: No talents/ and so no sin/ winter confinement, a poem which, except for the superfluous—but formally necessitated—last line, could have been composed by Shakespeare. However, it is a rare Issa haiku from which anything like an imperative, even a fleeting imperative can be derived.

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Issa writes: The distant mountains/ are reflected in the pupils/ of the dragonfly. The dragonfly is literally “the dragon.” That creature who crosses over worlds. It is not that the poem is metaphoric, it is that the poem, despite the appearance of detail, is simple to the point of emptiness.


Alex Stein is the author of "Weird Emptiness" (Wings Press) and "Made-Up Interviews With Imaginary Artists" (Ugly Duckling Presse), and he lives in Boulder, Colorado.