Ban'ya Natsuishi is well known in world haiku circles both as an innovator and a tempestuous spirit; his tirades are legendary, his poetry the recipient of several awards. A professor at Meiji University in Japan and the founder / leader of the World Haiku Association, the 50 year old poet is a driven, passionate human being who is unafraid to think "outside the box." Needless to say, one cannot be neutral regarding his haiku, which is often the case, when critiquing the work of a truly creative writer.
Reading through Natsuishi's short 87 page book of 111 haiku translated into English and Romanian, which is divided into 6 sections, I harbored high expectations, especially after reading American poet Jim Kacian's comments about the book's first segment, "A Future Waterfall":
"A Future Waterfall" is a seminal work in the history of haiku, Japanese and otherwise . . . Everything is available here, and the result is a freshening of the atmosphere, an enlargement of the genre overall.
a garishly colored sky
For the irascible professor
for crossing the Equator
These two excerpts are far from seminal and, ironically, not haiku at all but its closely related cousin, senryu. "A Future Waterfall," like the poetry in the other four sections, is a collection of uneven hits and misses.
Take for instance:
a little cedar
nine hundred ninety-nine years old
This is an innovative haiku, the poet identifying here with an ancient tree, his cultural identity and memory, affecting his poetic eye. It flows, has excellent choshi (rhythm and tone), yugen (depth and mystery), and does not "tell all." More importantly, it is the kind of haiku one will remember for a long time, a mirror for poets to see themselves in. This is the haiku I have come to expect from Natsuishi.
A world traveler, Natsuishi has a deep affection for Italy, as evidenced by his title for the book's 2nd section, "Fantastic Italy." It too is a hodgepodge of good and mediocre haiku and senryu, consisting of six poems.
The only haiku I found to be representational of Natsuishi's genius here is:
Black thrushes in a squabble-
this wall lasting
two thousand years
The other five were either senryu, overly eclectic, or mundane such as:
Language rots -
a big pinecone
I found more of the same in section three, "Genoa: A Sword of Light":
The fever of Genoa:
The poem above is a poorly written senryu, accomplishing what a photograph does for a member of a tour group, capturing a moment meaningful only to the person who experiences it.
This senryu, however, is a true gem:
from the belly of Death ---
The best poem in Natsuishi's book is in the 4th segment, "Drum in Macedonia/Macedonian Road":
Sheltered from the rain
under a tree
that smells of Jesus
This is a brilliant poem, the kind of haiku that merits international attention. Introspective, multi-layered, textured, and striking all in one, it represents Ban'ya Natsuishi at his best.
Then again, in the book's final segment," Right Eye in Twilight," we are treated to:
a professor with dilated eye pupils
takes a taxi
Poems like this are not, as Kacian claims, "an enlargement of the genre overall."
When Natsuishi is on, he is ON; but in this small collection of haiku and senryu, the poems are uneven. Let us hope that his next book of poetry will be a return to the poetry he is known for.