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Volume 35.1
Spring 2004


book review:

“Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!”: A Theme from In Praise of Olde Haiku,
with Many More Poems and Fine Elaboration

by Robin D. Gill


reviewed by William J. Higginson

“Europeans or Americans who call any two- or three-line poem
a haiku should be subjected to Japanese water torture in their dreams?”
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti

“Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!”: A Theme from In Praise of Olde Haiku, with Many More Poems and Fine Elaboration, by Robin D. Gill (Key Biscayne, Fla.: Paraverse Press, 2003). 480 pages, 7.5 x 9.5. ISBN 0-9742618-0-7 (paperback). $25.00 from booksellers.

Those who think of haiku as simple little poems should certainly get out and read “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!,” with its title quoted from one of Gill’s translations of a poem by Issa, one of several poems the master wrote on the subject. For, like the book, haiku are not as simple as all that, and Gill would have us plunge deeply into the complexity that richly endows Japanese haiku with enough guts to keep going for generation after generation.

The book is definitely about guts, and the guts of sea cucumbers (the sea slugs of the title, a problem in nomenclature Gill addresses early on) are slippery and endless. As are the guts of the haiku tradition. Anyone really interested in the power of season words (= “season terms” in Gill’s terms) should take up this book of nearly 1,000 poems on the little critters with gusto. For in its pages these poems come to life as no other haiku translated from Japanese have ever come to life before. Gill’s chapter titles give only a glimmer of the range of what those poems are “about” (quoting a dozen of 21):

1 the frozen together (solid, collective, reified, dead/alive)
2 the featureless (neither head nor tail, fin nor scale, lots of nots)
3 the protean (shrinking/stretching, form-fitting/losing, self- eviscerating)
4 the do-nothing (ancient, still-to-be, unmoving, taoist)

• • •

10 the ugly (disgustingly odd, embarrassing, yet homely and blessed, gross)
11 the lubricious (shell-loving, sexy yet impotent, squirting)
12 the just-so (the silenced, dewy, rock, whale poop, star and wave-born)
13 the tasty (gourmet, novelty, ozone and moon-scented, trans- substantialist)

• • •

18 the melancholy (dark and heavy, nimia solitudo)
19 the stuporous (sleepy, mumbling, snoring)
20 the nebulous (overcast, placid)
21 the cold (and deep)

Following these chapters—each ten pages minimum and often dealing with up to 30 or 40 verses, sometimes more—Gill launches into nearly a hundred mini-chapters on themes represented by only a few poems.

A good part of the book’s size is accounted for by the fact that Gill appeals to readers who revel in ideas and expansive footnotes. He also often gives three or more translations of one poem. To give an extreme example, at the beginning of Chapter 5, “The Agnostic Sea Slug,” we have this poem by Issa (titles provided by Gill):

oni mo iya bosatsu mo iya to namako kana — Issa

no black, no white, just gray!

phooey to saints
as well as to devils,
huh, sea slug?

followed by two more:


denial of hell
and heaven, too—the life
of a sea slug


bad gods stink
good ones stink, too
sez sea slug

The kicker is, all three of these are translations of the same poem. And Gill goes on, providing yet more visions of the poem, each accurate to some nuance or other lurking in the Japanese language and the poem as set in Japanese culture:

the original

beyond good
and bad, simply
sea slug

the grey way

ye who’d neither
sin nor saintly be
be a sea slug!

my way

the way of saints
and devils forsaken
a sea slug

and onward with seven more versions of the same poem, for a total of 13 different readings of the one poem. For those who wonder, the one named “self-sufficient” above comes closest to the literal meaning of Issa’s original. But that is not the point. “Literal” is only one kind of meaning.

Yes, Gill is right. Each good-to-great haiku in Japanese has many, many possible ways to be understood. Any self-respecting group of Japanese haiku aficionados could wrangle over the many meanings of a good poem for hours. It’s a bit of an ego trip for a translator to even hope to get most of them into only one translation. (See, for another example, the diversity of the views on many of Bashô’s poems reflected in Makoto Ueda’s Bashô and His Interpreters; the people Ueda quotes are talking about the meanings of original poems, not how to make translations of them.)

Gill ably justifies his multiple-translation efforts:

Multiple translation is often the only way to translate all the faces of a poly-faceted poem in a witty, which is to say, brief manner, when trying to squeeze all the information into one poem would kill it, and not including that information—and this is, regretfully, almost standard with haiku translation today—would constitute negligence with respect to the intent of the original. (33)

Gill, who spent twenty years in Japan finding and assisting with the translation of English nonfiction books fusing science and the humanities for two Japanese publishers, not to mention writing half a dozen substantial books in Japanese himself, probably has a better grasp of Japanese haiku culture than anyone since Jack Stamm. (Oh God, how Jack would have loved this book!) Sure, Gill has leaned on dozens of others for specific help here and there, neatly summarizing his indebtedness in two densely packed pages of acknowledgements, but he’s the one who looked at each poem from many angles. And he’s the one who writes some of the most engaging commentary on haiku (and senryu and the occasional tanka or kyôka) ever to see print. As a deeply experienced researcher in two languages, Gill has dredged up incredible amounts of material to bolster his readings of the originals he tackles, and his use of English to bring those readings across. Not afraid to offer as many translations as he thinks a poem needs to fully come across, he’s also not afraid to admit he still has more work to do on a specific poem here or there.

Hang on, here, did I mention that the following chapter, “The Mystic Sea Slug,” includes a full dozen more renditions of Issa’s “double-yuck” sea-slug haiku, that each of these is supported by considerable thinking-out-loud or stream-of-consciousness commentary, and that, yes, he does discuss many other poems in both of these chapters?

Gill hopes to release a second, expanded edition of “Rise” when more data comes in response to this first edition, but I would not wait around for it. There’s too much to enjoy here and now.

Reading “Rise” is not as huge a task as might be assumed from above. In fact, with his layout that includes the original Japanese text, a romanized text, a word-for-word literal trot, and then the one or more translations, all centered in lots of white space on his generous pages, a reader might very well enjoy the book first by simply reading through the centered material, treating each “version” as a new poem, in which case the number of poems rises to 2,000 or more.
In addition to the 900 numbered verses on sea slugs, there are many more poems on other subjects, brought in as R.H. Blyth brings poems on other subjects into his discussions, to illuminate this or that point about the verse at hand.

It would be pointless in a brief review to try to mimic the breadth of the Japanese vision of sea slugs, or of Japanese haiku and of Japanese culture, reflected in Gill’s book. Just for a taste, though, here is his relatively brief comment on another poem, Bashô’s famous “Sea-slugs; / alive,— / but frozen into one.” (in R.H. Blyth’s translation, which he supplies, along with a few of his own):

So the original sea slug of the haiku world was taken, rather than witnessed in the wild. I first imagined Bashô saw sea slugs pulled up by long poles fitted with rake-like scoops, and thrown together to freeze by cold-fingered fishermen; but chances are he saw them in a pail on land. I have never come across an allegorical reading of this poem, but, considering that most of Bashô’s poems alluded to his social circumstance—greeting, farewell, praise, censure, description—we might also dare to imagine our poet sleeping together with other travelers in a very cold inn. (40)

The poem was written in the winter about a year before Bashô died, in 1693. Gill’s metaphorical/allegorical reading is precisely within the bounds of haikai culture as practiced and practically defined by Bashô.

Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!” goes far beyond “olde haiku,” however, including verses from any and every era that touch on its subject, right through the scatological senryu of the eighteenth century down to verses by leading poets of today. The book is one of the most reliable magnifying glasses ever held to Japanese haikai and haiku culture.

As a specialist in the seasonal aspect of Japanese haiku, I welcome Gill’s very extended essay on one of the seasonal topics of Japanese haiku, a topic that may seem minor to foreign readers but is classed among the top 500 of the thousands recorded in season-word guides. Reading it, we see the deep affection of the Japanese for the phenomena of their own environment and culture.

At the same time, we encounter one of the most original minds to take up the related subjects of haiku and cross-cultural communication. As a translator, I find Gill’s approach stimulating and challenging. He has raised the bar very high in terms of a translator’s responsibility (= “ability to respond,” Robert Duncan) to the text.

I shall certainly enjoy rereading “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!” while eagerly awaiting the multivolume In Praise of Olde Haiku of which Robin Gill says this is but a spin-off. This single-topic tome may be our best English-language window yet into the labyrinth of Japanese haikai culture. If you have read Yasuda, Blyth, Henderson, Ueda, and Shirane, then read Gill. He will expand your mind. If you have not read those guys yet, then read Gill first. He’s more fun.



©2004 Modern Haiku • PO Box 68 • Lincoln, IL 62656