Saturday 2 May 2020

On reading Basho with my ten-year-old

By late February of this year, the virus had made me sufficiently nervous that I began packing to leave San Francisco. I wanted to go to my family home on the coast of California where I had grown up. It was isolated and my parents had always kept a pantry stuffed with dry goods, plenty of toilet paper, and two freezers filled with food in the garage. This semi-survivalist attitude had seemed an extreme and eccentric way to live when I was a child; now it seemed like we had reached the dreaded moment for which they were always preparing. As soon as my son and I arrived, I began to prepare the garden, planting the seeds my mother had left in the pantry before I had abruptly moved her into a nursing home in December. Then I turned my attention to homeschooling.

In school, my son, Ewan, had been instructed in something called new math, which was supposed to make him feel like he understood the process of mathematics—the “narrative.” Suddenly acting as his teacher, I found his math sloppy. I felt something awful gestating inside of me: a latent tiger mom enraged that her son could not quickly multiply numbers. I could and would fix math. I was irritated, too, that his writing was full of run-on sentences. I began teaching him conjunctions, and his sentences became fluent fairly quickly. And what should we read? I dug out my old copy of Tom Sawyer.

“He is not a nice boy,” my son observed rightly after Tom had beaten up Sid. “I’m afraid if we keep reading, a cat might get hurt.”

I had been teaching my own class of M.F.A. students over Zoom, using the books I had brought with me. That week we were reading poems by the Japanese haiku master Basho, translated by Jane Reichhold. I put away laddish Tom Sawyer, and opened up Basho, on a whim. Here is his second poem.

The moon a sign, this way, sir, to enter, a traveler’s inn.

“I see a hotel,” my son cried. “Like the kind we used to stay in, in Japan. With a huge white lantern outside. And the moon looks like one of those lanterns.”

There are one thousand and twelve haikus by Basho. If you read six a day, that will sustain you for about six months.
The old woman, a cherry tree blooming in old age, is something to remember.

“I see Oma,” he said, referring to my mother. “She’s sitting under the tree and she is old and the tree is old, but you can see where she was young peeking through when she smiles. Like flowers on the old tree. They are the same.” One by one, we went through the haikus on the first page, and then I asked him to write one. I told him that unlike new math, he did not have to worry about numerical precision. Forget about syllables.

He scribbled down:
The virus spreads, deaths increase, the earth is in grave danger.

Yes it is, I thought.


All poetry requires interpretation, but it is a characteristic of Basho’s haiku that the reader plays a role in fully constructing the poem. It’s as though Basho has left out a step somewhere in a math equation, and you must make the mental effort to do that step for the answer to reveal itself. This kind of cooperative art feels relevant right now, in a time when we are all staying home as much for ourselves as for each other. While Basho is respected in the West for his sense of play, his concision, and singular imagination, he himself most valued his ability to write poems that required another poet to add lines to his prompt, to which he would add additional lines. He valued most his ability to share a creative space.

My American father occasionally told me a story about meeting my Japanese great-grandmother, a former noblewoman.

 She had tossed out the first half of a witticism to my mother, who had been unable to complete it. “Shame,” my great-grandmother reportedly said. “You were not trained properly.” I was intrigued by this story and asked my mother to tell me more about it, but her failure had left her with a lasting sense of shame and she evaded answering me.

“I do not wish to discuss,” she would say.

Someone once said to me that harsh cultures seem uniquely able to produce beauty. Homeschooling has brought out a repressed desire to insist on precision from my son, just as it was once squeezed from me. I am trying to use haiku as a chance to explore beauty, wonder, and play—something beyond the search for one perfect answer.
After a couple of weeks, we have run out of vegetables and ice cream. This is a small town with a still-low infection rate, but the news has made it clear to me—to us—that anyone could be a carrier. I leave my son home alone when I go food shopping, and he always walks me to the door, making sure I have gloves and a mask, implements that appear in one of his first haiku:

Ewan, haiku 6:
Gloves are necessary. Hard masks. We are still under threat.

Basho, haiku 36:
Inside the temple, visitors cannot know, cherries are blooming.

In 1635, the ruling lord closed Japan’s borders to the rest of the world in an effort to keep out as many foreign influences as possible. Basho was born in 1644. And while historians like to point out that Japan was not entirely isolated from the West during this period of its history, it was closed off enough during Basho’s lifetime that his aesthetics are often admired as “purely Japanese.”

This is also interesting to consider at this moment since I, who have for decades gone to Japan at least twice a year, now cannot go at all; Japan has closed its borders to foreigners. Before this, in early February, I had joked to my friends in Japan that this would be a good year to see cherry blossoms; for once the most popular sights would not be overrun by tourists. Instead, I can only look at photos on Instagram, taken by photographers who have not willingly submitted to lockdown.

Ewan, poem 7:
Darkness takes the land
But the sky
Is left out.


It is a weird bit of synchronicity that Basho’s early poems seem to focus on spring, the season through which we are passing now. In northern California, spring comes early, making it possible to plant peas, beans, and carrots even in March. Now it is April. The plum blossoms have faded; the cherries are starting to open. Wild irises are blooming at the edge of the property.

Basho, haiku 86.
Scudding clouds. As a dog pisses while running, scattered wind showers.

“I think,” Ewan said, looking appalled, “that this is a very twenty-first-century haiku.”

“Because the dog is pissing?” I asked.

“Don’t say that word.”

“Dogs have always pissed. This is why we love Basho. He doesn’t sound old-fashioned or fake.”

The tiny amber-colored rufous hummingbird has arrived. Two pairs of purple finches (which are really red) are fighting daily over who may rest on the most desirable branch in the as yet leafless wisteria. One afternoon, I was clipping one of two bonsai pines, which had been neglected for the past two years since my mother became ill. I don’t know how to clip bonsai, but I have been watching instructional videos on YouTube. My son was picking up dead camellia flowers, but an insistent hummingbird persisted in dive-bombing the two of us, chattering at a high pitch frequency. It was annoying. 

“The feeder is empty,” Ewan finally observed.

I refilled the feeder and we continued our work in the garden.

Basho, haiku 97.
Iris growing under the eaves from a sardine’s weather skull.

“I know what irises are,” Ewan said. “Why is there a sardine head?”

“You have seen this in Japan when you were very small,” I replied. “In the old days, people hung up a sprig of holly with a sardine…”

“…and the holly would poke out the eye of the demons from last year.”

“Yes. The stink from the smelly sardine was supposed to help keep the demons away.”

“I remember!”

We spoke of how the last time we had seen my mother, in February, before her nursing home had disallowed visitors, we had thrown soy beans around her room to chase out the demons that had accumulated over the year, and then opened the door to let in good luck. We have not been to visit her since. She exists, like so much else, only on a screen.

“And so, in the poem, only the skull of the sardine is left over from February,” I said.

“And the irises are blooming because it is April.”

Over and over, the poems remind us of the intensity with which life continues.

That night, Ewan wrote:
He scares me. Wings. Red head.

It took me a minute to realize he was not talking about the virus, but the hummingbird who had demanded we refill the feeder.

Basho, haiku 96.
First blossoms. Seeing them extends my life seventy-five more years.

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