"The greatest power that haiku have is the gift of freedom," Hoshinaga remarked as he was looking over the translated poems below. Having a living author to confer with in terms of translation is a godsend, and more so, a writer so conversationally ebullient. The commentaries accompanying these haiku progressed in stages, from first translation, to conversations with colleagues, and finally, discussions with the poet. It is necessary to draw distinctions between the poet's own relationship with the poem, the sense that might be made of it by a sensitive Japanese reader, and what might be evoked in an English-language environment, particularly in that Japanese haiku generally require some knowledge of a poet's life and times for improved comprehension. A given work may have implicit linkage to biographic and social contexts this may make the poem more "dependent," from a Western sensibility. Although the works below certainly do stand on their own as haiku in English, presenting universal themes and concerns, readers glancingly familiar with Hoshinaga's life will know that poems of childhood and young adulthood reflect personal experience the implied "I" is the author, in a particular locale and circumstance (which can be garnered by reading through his oeuvre); childhood haiku occur against the background of World War II, while poems of young adulthood ("rebel" haiku particularly) are often set in the postwar circumstances of the 1950s; images such as "postwar fathers" and "dazzle of the era" below, ostensibly relate to this time period. Importantly, Hoshinaga is a resident of central Kyushu, the southern countryside of Japan, and his haiku arise from this unique environment.
In working to provide a balance between cultural and language contexts I've been helped by the Kumamoto University English Haiku Society, particularly Professor Masahiro Hori, Shinjuku Rollingstone, Ito Yuki, and Shinobu Yamaguchi. Most of the haiku below use kigo (season words). Where the season isn't obvious in a poem, the kigo is mentioned in the commentary. Hoshinaga's use of kigo, while drawing upon the historic kigo environment, uproots the tradition through the use of symbolic, psychological, or iconic allusion. The literal season or image given by the kigo is only one of its dimensions; there are no cases where a particular kigo is meant to be taken only realistically or pictorially. In fact, Hoshinaga's poems educate the reader into a new haiku sensibility, as it is through multiple allusive dimensions that they unfold. With a publication date of September 2003, Kumaso-Ha arrives in the midst of the Iraq war. The biting relevance and poetic import of these haiku speaks precisely to our era.
Adapted from the bilingual foreword to the book:
The zeitgeist of an era seems indicated by the spring kigo "mirage of water" as subject. The main image hovers on the surface, to disappear as we move closer. The phrases of the poem syntactically evoke the mirage, almost, but not quite cohering. The deceptively transparent style fuses social comment, personal truth and imagistic landscape to comment on a lost generation.
From the chapter "Myself:"
A freestyle haiku with great rhythm and an unexpected image. kenken (hopping on one foot), a concise onomatopoeic expression, evokes the environment of childhood: a children's game more popular in an era prior to television culture, and in poor postwar circumstances, the author comments. The kigo "snake" evokes a rural, summer setting, but may be taken metaphorically due to the idiosyncratic use of the number six. Another poem ("counting down," shown below) also uses this number. The numbers one, two, and three have the familiar sense as, for instance, "ready, set go." In Japan the number four (shi) is the number of death (shinu), while five (go) is a very lucky number. After five, it's hard to say if six provides a good omen or not there is some uncertainty and ambivalence in the number. As a result, the haiku above may indicate a tragedy or shock spelling the end of childhood innocence.
An image of James Dean in East of Eden comes to mind. The rhythmic substitution of kande ("chewing") in the first two phrases (the same word used in different rhythmic patterns) binds the metaphor. The author is likely referring to chewing gum given to him by American soldiers following the war. What will these soldiers bring, liberation or more deception? Shônen shoka at the end glides on the tongue and rides like a youthful wind. The manner in which rhythm plays against meaning creates a charismatic music, fusing polarized emotions into an ambivalent image.
A childhood remembrance: the unique image strongly evokes its reality. The assonance and circularity of the English version attempts to echo the repetition (of wa) and "circular" sound sequence of bi-ni-hi-shi. The higurashi is a particular species of cicada (and kigo), appearing in the early fall, suggesting the end of a school summer vacation. This cicada lives for only one week the sense of impermanence is sharp. The jump rope's spinning ring resonates with life and time, the spinning ring of becoming. Does the poet jump in? There is perhaps a delicate reference to Bashô's furu ike ya.
From the chapter "Fellow Travelers:"
It's common to find any number of street stalls (yattai) to eat and drink in around train stations this loose sense of national "neighborhood" exists throughout cosmopolitan Japan. "Era" here is personified as a drinking partner. The poet drinks in solitude and with the zeitgeist. The poem balances or parses realistic and psychological image; space, person and time. This poem has no kigo, though "era" has strong environmental and historical connotations.
The Turkish loan-word "kiosk" in a winter setting of snow. Kiosks filled with novel items began to appear in train stations throughout postwar Japan as the rail lines developed, and represented a new world, a new era of consumption and economic development. The resulting revolution spoken of here is domestic and cultural. A unique formal feature of this haiku is its last, fragmentary character na, which follows a question marker (ka), comma, and space, a uniquely creative contribution. Hovering between a statement of certainty and strong doubt (disbelief?), an indefinite solution is created by the orthography, causing this haiku to reflect back upon its topic, deepening the question.
From the chapter "Social Foibles:"
A freestyle haiku of 21 on (8-8-5). A mountain of young bamboo shoots, a kigo of summer, is valuable and delicious, though in recent times fewer farmers are entering the groves to harvest the shoots. Consequently, disused groves have become overpopulated and diseased. The young bamboo shoots allude to youthful rebels, who set off to challenge such winds as prevail. Here, poetic metaphor is used as a means of social critique. There seems also a deeply personal dimension to this haiku, a call for a free and defiantly individualistic spirit in relation to society; the poet rides with the rebels.
The focal point of this haiku seems to be on a subject that is either indistinct or missing: the subject is not allowed or able to solidify or cohere. A difficult technique to manage, as an indistinct subject will in general create a haiku lacking in poetic direction it will be unclear what images to base sensation upon. Ending with "obscure" (also "dreamlike, foggy," a spring kigo), the haiku seems to echo with multiple dimensions of obscurity of goodness and its measurement, of finding goodness, and the sense that, in the human realm, such findings may be moot. The obscurity of the subject is instigated from the unusual syntax of the leading phrase "counting down the goodness," an idiosyncratic collocational phrase combining counting with an uncountable noun, an ironic pun. "Sixth" is significant: as a whole number it is definite, though ambivalent in its symbolic meaning (as previously discussed); to what type of subject does it refer, exactly? We see a successful use of allusion in Hoshinaga's style. The mystery of the subject as well as the content and sense of deep questioning in the haiku keeps the reader involved (adapted from "Disjunction in English-language Haiku," Modern Haiku 35:2).
From the chapter "Lament:"
Many of Hoshinaga's haiku comment on the darker side of human nature, referring to destructive political events or social conundrums. In Kumaso-Ha, Nazis are mentioned several times (rebels and revolution are also encountered). The dark ironic humor which pairs "amusement" with Nazis implies the Holocaust, and more literally, a gang of neighborhood toughs. Will history once again repeat itself, the author seems to ask. The kigo "autumn" adds bluntness to the sense of chilling contemplation.
The playfully dark, ironic metaphor of "becoming Hitler" is disjunctive, allowing a sense of depth to enter the haiku, a depth partly created through allusion. Due to itchy feet (a summer kigo), the author cannot smartly click his heels or march in goose-step. The poem presents a disturbing psychosocial complex indicating the will to power or assumption of dictatorial authority which often remains hidden in persons or society.
From the chapter "Revivification:"
Surprise and impossibility fuse human and natural realms in this haiku. The idea of "completely into" is creative: rhythmically one finds that strong first-beat feet (NAri|KIru|MAde) bring reality-sense and presence to the transformative notion. This haiku seems a good example of what Hoshinaga refers to as the creation of "human mental images." Metaphor and idiom are employed both to irrupt realism and create a natural scene, that is, "no separation between man and nature harmony." The play between the allusion of becoming "frozen up" and actually (impossibly) transforming into a natural object is delightful and refreshing.
Here, a mountain of cedar is likened to an army. As with the haiku just above, the phrase "fully armored" creates realistic impossibility. Yet the perceptual impression seems deeper and more powerfully resonant than that found in many pictorial haiku styles, due to the added psychological dimension. The poem seems equally concerned with nature and culture, implying an era of warfare and strife. The Japanese cedar (particularly, in the Oguni area of Kumamoto prefecture, the poet remarks) stand at attention in their legions. The addition of "armored" shifts the image toward cultural commentary, that is, frighteningly inhuman aggressiveness, as reflected perhaps in a modern mechanized army, the contemporary result of an ancient pedigree. On the other hand, is it merely the poet's internal conflict which images a mountain of trees as fully armored? In this indeterminate image, completeness and incompleteness play against each other what is innovative here are the psychological and imaginative realms in which this play occurs.
From the chapter "Conflict:"
Here, pictorial shasei style and allied straightforward juxtaposition are subverted by the revelatory shock of war seen over the wall, reversing the expectation of a natural (beautiful, pleasant) pictorial scene. Concision and rhythm create biting social commentary within the frame of boyhood observation. Is the image realistic or an internal portrayal? By remaining indeterminate as an image, war is made vast, a fusion of internal and external phenomena.
This haiku has a relationship to summer, which accords with the destruction of Tokyo by fire, atomic bombing, and the end of the war. Ginkogai is a Tokyo district, whose American synonym might be Wall Street. Though wartime history is implied, the word "from" places the battleship within the banking district, creating a surreal or symbolic image. As well, the death ray of "disintegrating light" is not what might be expected from a battleship. Here multiple levels of allusion may indicate a causal relationship between economic force, leading to military force, resulting in destruction and annihilation.
From the chapter "Alone:"
An experimental use of form emphasizes the fusion of number with blooming (late spring/early summer) magnolia flowers. The flowers bloom: 1, 2, 3, and with that, does death occur? Death is the number four, which lies implicitly before "if." It is difficult to translate the conditional sense of this poem, which is fragmentary and bare. The kigo of magnolia is paired with the end of life: life with death, as a mathematically inclined child might count up mortality, including it as a whole number in a simple series. Do a child and a man of seventy count up the blooms (acts of life) in a similar manner or from entirely different perspectives? The polarity between these two voices or personae, as between number and time, generates a philosophical speculation on mortality.
A rhythmically outstanding haiku, which breaks up time into fragments of immanence. In reading this haiku aloud, it was suggested that the last ku, which is the verb, be preceded by a long pause; a dramatic semantic and rhythmic break. The final verb seems more a force of space than time, a wave of sorrow or grief in intimate quiet.
From the chapter "Unsettled Affairs:"
In this poem space becomes time through the use of impossible metaphor, as the author gazes into the stars over the roof and sees the life of a previous era. We now know that space is a living history show of time, the light from even nearby stars being many centuries old. The metaphor is ambivalent: one cannot recapture the past, though one perceives it at a distance, present in space (so space is here both physical and psychic). Traveling through the far horizon, the past exists as a presence. At the same time, the obverse is likewise true, the past is present in the near-horizon of personal memory. Space, memory and time inhabit a holistic landscape without separation.
From the chapter "Timber Trees:"
Like a butterfly collector's specimen, a single instant or fragment of a psychological moment is positioned to view. Just at the moment of petals falling the author's mood of irritation disappears in a gap of self-forgetting (represented by the orthography). In Japanese, the rhythm of the second half seems the obverse of the first, creating a mirror-like effect between the two emotional states. This haiku has a free rhythm of 9-9 on, which can be further broken down to 5-4 on / 5-4 on.
A sense of mystery and depth pervades this haiku. The namahage are dangerous and deadly masculine-toned demon-deities with human aspects, having the power to confer health and longevity. They are also known to be on the lookout for disobedient children and lazy family members. The animate and monstrous nature of a roiling fog or mist (a prebirth environment) is the atmosphere in which mysterious and profound borders between nature and living force are articulated: the paradoxical juxtaposition between the demonic namahage and "womb's softness" evokes an eerie and almost frighteningly wild image of neonatal development. Because namahage can also bring health and long life, this poem confers blessings upon a child yet to be born, suggesting that all life is likewise blessed and protected, in order to survive into birth. There is a paradox expressed here, in that the namahage, masculine and violent, are paired or opposed by feminine sanctuary and power ("womb" is also read as hara, a mystical as well as literal power-center of the body). The poet poses these opposing and sacred forces as gateways into human existence in a poem of blessing for a child, and for humanity.
Reprinted from Modern Haiku, 35:3, Autumn 2004, pp. 46-55.