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Volume 40.2
Summer 2009

featured essay

 

Something with Wings:
Fay Aoyagi's Haiku of Inner Landscape
[1]

by David G. Lanoue


In recent years San Francisco poet Fay Aoyagi has been exploring what she calls “the inner landscape” with the same keen focus and subtle perception that traditional poets of haiku bring to birds, flowers and the moon. Her haiku and haibun that appeared in Woodnotes (1995–97), Modern Haiku (1997–98) and Frogpond (1996–99) — to name only three of the more prominent magazines in which she published in the waning years of the twentieth century — signaled the arrival of a fresh new voice to American haiku, but her style in that period was comfortably mainstream. These haiku are taken from Modern Haiku’s winter-spring ’97, fall ’97 and fall ’98 issues:

New Year’s Eve:
     scent of
     fresh tatami

half hidden by a parasol      powdered neck

ants in a single file      tokyo      once home     [2]

In the same journal’s winter-spring 2000 issue, however, Aoyagi offered
a boldly different sort of haiku:

pre-surgery dinner
tiny ocean
in the oyster shell     [3]

The first three haiku present sensual images that evoke feeling; in the third one and perhaps lurking in all three we sense nostalgia for a Japan that the poet left behind. These are all good haiku, but could any one of them compete, in a one-to-one seashell game of the sort that Bashô liked to conduct, with the “pre-surgery dinner” haiku of 2000?

The answer to this question depends on one’s assumptions about haiku, about what constitutes a good one and what defines a great one. Personally, I believe that haiku is about discovery: the deeper the feeling of discovery, the better the haiku, in my opinion. In a great haiku we sense the poet finding out something in the process of composition, not reporting on a thing that has been previously mentally digested. When Aoyagi brings us with her to the table for her pre-surgery dinner, we suspect that she has no a priori idea that the journey will take us to a tiny ocean in an oyster shell. We arrive there with her, sharing the “ah!-moment” of the vision and sensing its nonlinear, non-logical connection to the poet’s (and our) interior life. Thoughts of mortality, the fear of the surgeon’s knife, a vague feeling of dread and lament … so many emotions ebb and flow in the tiny ocean in the shell. The shell on the plate is itself a post-op carcass that on closer inspection becomes a gleaming continental shelf enclosing a tiny, salty sea. Aoyagi doesn’t say what she feels about her vision, whether it comforts or terrifies her; she invites us into the intimacy of the moment to contemplate for ourselves what it might mean.

Her “ants in single file” haiku of 1998 only superficially relates to
Aoyagi’s later ant poem of 2006:

ants out of a hole —
when did I stop playing
the red toy piano?      [4]

The earlier haiku follows a linear trajectory exactly like the file of the ants. This image of their marching leads in a straight mental line to the marching of crowds in
Tokyo, suggesting the poet’s sense of alienation from the city that was “once home.” The later haiku, however, pops unpredictably, nonlinearly, from an external view of ants to an inward, childhood memory, presenting for our contemplation an emotionally charged artifact of half-remembered childhood. We sense that, for Aoyagi, the writing of the haiku has been an unlocking of remembrance. Ants emerge one by one from their hole, hinting at an inner process of memories rising from the subconscious mind, suddenly unearthing the red toy piano.

This next example, published in 2002, further supports my claim that Aoyagi’s poetry, in terms of my depth-of-discovery criterion, has gotten better and better from 2000 on.

monologue
of the deep sea fish
misty stars      [5]

Here again, writing is an act of discovery that leads to revelation. Again too the journey surprises, it seems, even the poet herself. With her we are invited to experience her vision and then to arrive at our own inferences, connections, and emotional conclusions. I, for example, imagine an actual sea with an actual fish — so far removed from the stars yet so intimately, mysteriously connected to them. Or, imagining differently, I discern a creation myth in the haiku: distant stars come into being as a deep-sea fish mutters their names, one by one. Or, perhaps, the fish is something deep inside us and its monologue speaks a yearning for the
unattainable stars. Or … Or … (Isn’t this fun?)

In a series of columns that appeared in Frogpond in 2007–08, Aoyagi set out to familiarize readers with haiku tradition, yet like a tricky fox god, she actually put forth her own personal, whimsical, meandering manifesto for the new haiku. Writing more as poet than pundit, she admitted at one point, “Sometimes I wish I had wings. Then I ask myself a question. If I can be something with wings, what do I want to be?” [6]  I believe that an astute reader of her haiku can answer this question, but more on this later. In her 2007 article “Dissection of the Haiku Tradition: Inner Landscape” she quotes Cor van de Heuvel’s assertion (in the 3rd edition of The Haiku Anthology) that haiku is “about living with intense awareness, about having an openness to the existence around us — a kind of openness that involves seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.” In addition to these five senses, Aoyagi identifies a sixth sense that she believes is just as useful for the poet of haiku. She writes,

“Not only watching and observing the things around us, we also explore a flower with a close-up lens. We can inhale the air filled with songs by trees. The sky can be a mirror of our feelings. Church bells can sound differently when we are lonely. I certainly enjoy interweaving haiku with my inner life.” [7]

Her decision to probe her inner life is not new in haiku tradition, though few do it as well or as interestingly. The contemporary Japanese poet Hasegawa Kai (whose work Aoyagi has translated) describes the shift from outer to inner focus within a haiku as a sort of kire or “cutting.” In a interview with Richard Gilbert, Hasegawa defines zengo no kire as “The cutting which cuts a haiku from this reality within which we live — from the literal place / environment / atmosphere (‘ba’) of literal existence.” [8]  Such cutting, according to Hasegawa, entails a shift of focus from outward scenes to the “realm of the mind” (81) — exactly Fay Aoyagi’s method.

Though the method isn’t new, Aoyagi’s application of it is fresh, honest and intensely personal.

tadpoles with legs—
I assure him there’s no need
to leave his wife

Mother’s Day—
one uterus lighter
than the last year     [9]

These haiku appear in her 2003 collection, Chrysanthemum Love. In the preface to the book Aoyagi writes, “If you believe haiku must be about nature, you may be disappointed with my work. There is a lot of ‘me’ in my haiku. I write very subjectively” (2). I, for one, am not disappointed. The personal is the universal. When she writes:

icy rain
at the bottom of the lake
a door to yesterday     [10]

she invites the reader into her real life and sincere consciousness, and once again discoveries are made. We stand with her by a lake, watching as icy rain pelts its surface — outward perception. Then, looking down into its cold depths all the way at the bottom, we perceive with her “a door to yesterday.” The door, an inner perception, gives the haiku its power. Aoyagi invites us to join her on a journey of perception, an “interweaving” (as she puts it) that connects threads of outer vision
with threads of deep, half-secret, inner signification. I say “half-secret” because her style is never impenetrable. She leaves the door at the lake’s bottom half-open for her readers to follow her through it, guided by their own imaginations and hearts.

Not all poets of avant-garde haiku leave the door to their art invitingly ajar. A counter-example to Fay Aoyagi in this respect is the contemporary Tokyo-area poet who writes under the name of Ban’ya Natsuishi and who in real life is a professor of French. In 2005 Natsuishi asked me to help him polish the English translations of some of his poems, several of which dealt with “flying popes.” Wondering what he meant by popes that fly, I turned to my Oxford English Dictionary and found that “pope” is a local name for various birds: the puffin, the bullfinch, the painted finch, and the nonpareil. To find out which bird he meant, I e-mailed Natsuishi and asked him. He wrote back, informing me that he was not referring to a bird but to the Pope with a capital “P” — and seemed mystified that I would require an explanation of such an obvious fact. Natsuishi wrote and published scores of flying pope haiku. I helped him with the English translation of this one:

Pope Haiku kanji
uo no ue no kôri ni utsuru tobi hô-ô

Reflected on ice
over a fish
the flying Pope      [11]

Compare it to Aoyagi’s:

icy rain
at the bottom of the lake
a door to yesterday

Both haiku begin with external nature scenes, and both end with surprises. Whereas Aoyagi’s haiku touches a deep place in her inner life and, for sympathetic readers, our inner lives; Natsuishi’s surrealistic image of the Roman Catholic pope flying like Superman over the ice is surprising, yes; interesting, maybe; but a doorway into his and the reader’s inner life? Definitely not! This is not to say that his flying pope is without resonance in the private, inner life of Ban’ya Natsuishi. Only he can say. Fay Aoyagi, in contrast, leaves the door of signification open for the reader to enter. Natsuishi offers no door into his image of ice, fish, and flying pope. The dream-like picture of a flying pope (inspired by the French professor’s study of French surrealism?) might be amusing or even vaguely satirical at first encounter, but after more than a hundred such poems repeating the fantasy, it loses originality and power, and ends up sounding like a poetic gimmick, an advertiser’s slogan, a new cliché. [12]

Fay Aoyagi teaches us that not all new-style haiku are created equal. Natsuishi’s one-breath shocks are clever, obscure fabrications, while the haiku of Aoyagi are fearlessly sincere discoveries-in-process that plumb her real inner landscape while inviting readers along for the journey. These two poems appear in her 2006 book, In Borrowed Shoes:

a hole in my sweater
I ask him one more time
what he meant

the hunter and the hunted
a black balloon becomes
a hole in the sky      [13]

I chose these two haiku to use as my last two examples of Aoyagi’s post-2000 style before noticing that both mention holes. Holes, like doorways, are open spaces that beckon the reader to become a co-poet, making connections, conjuring feelings, perceiving, and discovering. Aoyagi doesn’t explain the connection between the hole in her sweater and “what he meant”; she trusts the reader to find this out, alongside her, in meditation. When I meditate on the haiku, I conjure a darkly comic, real-life scene of a man and woman whose romance, I predict, won’t go far. Of course this is just my reading; the fun of interior, open spaces in poetry is that they allow each reader the freedom to find his or her own meaning. In the second haiku the connection between the first phrase, “the hunter and the hunted,” to the balloon similarly requires each reader to take the initiative, filling the void with his or her own thoughts and feelings. In my own contemplation of it I picture the
balloon growing smaller and smaller as it rises, disappearing and reappearing to the poet’s “hunting” eyes. Ultimately black balloon becomes black hole: a gravity star from which no light and no further meaning can escape. I have no idea as to what Aoyagi “meant” in this haiku; I only care about where it takes me. When you read it, where does it take you? Her art is capacious, leaving plenty of room for us readers to invent and discover.

Not all of Aoyagi’s recent haiku are as open to interpretation as some of the examples presented here. She continues to write verses in which the reader “gets” the images and their connections fairly easily. But her most powerful haiku, I believe, are those that stubbornly refuse to be grasped or circumscribed by rational explanation: those with doors and holes that invite us readers to enter with our imaginations and hearts as we explore her (our) inner landscape. In such poems the potential for discovery — my criterion for haiku greatness — is almost infinite.

In one of the passages quoted earlier Aoyagi posed the question, “If I can be something with wings, what do I want to be?” Later in the same essay, she goes on to think out loud:

As a waterfall never keeps one face, Tokyo, my birthplace, has changed from “a place I cannot leave” to “a place I visit.” Since I began studying haiku in Japanese I read more Japanese books and watch more Japanese videos than before. I do a blog in Japanese. Yet I feel I have lost something fundamental as a Japanese person. Do I become a perfect expatriate? Maybe. Subconsciously, I may need a thing to fill a hole in my soul. I think haiku is helping me to do this. I still want to be a creature with wings rather than a stationary plant. But I do not want to be a mosquito anymore. I would like to avoid being slapped and killed easily. It does not mean I am clinging to life. Because I am involved with haiku, my senses have sharpened. I hope I can sharpen them more by exploring life through haiku. (16)

With her sharpened senses to the worlds without and within, Fay Aoyagi has indeed become “something with wings” — and I don’t mean a mosquito. Her imagination soars freely, her perceptive eyes look deeply, and best of all, she takes us along for the journey, not shutting us out but rather inviting us to explore with her and draw our own conclusions. I call that something with wings a poet.

 

NOTES

1 - This paper was presented at the Haiku Society of America South Region’s
meeting in Hot Springs, Ark., November 7–8, 2008.

2 - Modern Haiku 28.1 (winter-spring 1997), 3; 28.3 (fall 1997), 16; 29.3 (fall
1998), 4.

3 - Modern Haiku 31.1 (winter-spring 2000), 22.

4 - Fay Aoyagi. In Borrowed Shoes. San Francisco: Blue Willow Press, 2006, 49.

5 - Modern Haiku 33.3 (autumn 2002), 39. Reprinted in Fay Aoyagi. Chrysanthemum Love. San Francisco: Blue Willow Press, 2003, 31.

6 - Frogpond 30.2 (spring-summer 2007), 14–18.

7 - “Dissection of the Haiku Tradition: Wind” in Frogpond 30.2 (spring-summer
2007), 15.

8 - Quoted in Richard Gilbert. Poems of Consciousness: Contemporary Japanese and English-Language Haiku in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Winchester, Va.: Red Moon Press, 2008, 77.

9 - Blue Willow Press, 2003, 71–72.

10 - Fay Aoyagi’s Haiku World. January 2008. <http://www.bluewillowhaiku.com/
haikuJanuary08.html>. Accessed Feb. 6, 2008.

11 - Ginyu 26 (April 20, 2005), 36; see also Flying Pope: 127 Haiku. English
translations by Ban’ya Natsuishi and Jim Kacian. Allahabad, India: Cyberwit.net,
2008.

12 - Attendees at the HSA meeting perceived more layers of signification in Natsuishi’s haiku than I did. One participant viewed the fish, symbolically, as Christianity locked under ice while the Pope flies blithely above it. Another participant speculated that the fish could be Christ. A third was reminded of the frozen lake at the pit of Dante’s hell, and a fourth saw the fish, through the lens of Joseph Campbell, as a sign of new beginnings. This haiku, for this particular group of poets, is rich with symbolism and therefore interesting. However, they agreed with me that it does not reveal much about the inner life of Natsuishi. One participant theorized that Aoyagi’s contrasting gift of self-disclosure derives from her years of living in California. Her early cultural training, in Japan, to suppress self-revelation gradually, magnificently, wore off. Now, as another participant put it, we encounter in her haiku “the real Fay.” Participants of this lively and helpful session included Howard Lee Kilby, Johnye Strickland, Susan Delphine Delaney, Sydney Bougy, Vic Fleming, Donna Pohlmann, and Carolyn Graetz.

13 - San Francisco: Blue Willow Press, 2006, 74, 87.

 

 

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