On the Topic of Carnage by David Lanoue


On the Topic of Carnage by David Lanoue

fukuchu^ wa dare mo asama no keburi kana

deep in its bowels
who now is Mount Asama's

Issa wrote the above haiku in 1812, and he prefaced it with the headnote, "On the topic of carnage." Mt. Asama is a volcano in the mountains of central Japan that Issa called home. it erupted in 1783, killing over one thousand people. At the time, Issa was living far off in Edo, today's Tokyo, perhaps beginning his training as a haiku poet. He surfaced in the historical record four years later as a student of the Nirokuan haiku school of Chikua. Though he was safely away from the mountains when this monumental disaster struck, Issa certainly would have heard of it within days. Twenty-nine years later, in his 1812 haiku, he considers the pall that still hangs over Asama and wonders: How many living beings contributed their bodies to this deathly smoke?

It is a haiku of deep awarness. The world that we walk through is a graveyard, its dust and air filled with particles of countless generations of the dead. This is not an abstract thought for Issa, but an inquiry into the truth of things imbued with deep, troubled feeling. The verse is one of the very few that he wrote without a season word. Smoke can appear in any season; disaster can strike in any season. Issa's volcano, like our planets' recent, recurring nightmare of tsunami, hurricane, and earthquake; wreaked its havoc without the slightest regard for human welfare or timetables, reminding us that despite our technology and cleverness, we are helpless when Nature's upheavals come to claim us. Issa's haiku is an act of mourning. Twenty-nine years after the event, he finally finds the words to honor it.

If he were with us today, in our time of unprecedented carnage--both natural and human-made--what would he tell us? I suspect that Issa would advise us to emulate an insect that he once observed being carried away by floodwaters. In a haiku with the headnote, "Flood," he describes the scene in a way that speaks volumes about the precariousness of our existence in this universe and yet teaches us, despite this fact, that we are here not to dwell on death but to celebrate life, to sing...

naki nagara mushi no noriyuku ukigi kana

still singing, the insect
is swept away...
floating branch


Visit David Lanoue's website: http://haikuguy.com/issa/



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