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A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Founder & Owner
Ray Rasmussen, General Editor

Volume 11, Number 2, June 2017
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Rich Youmans
North Falmouth, Massachusetts, USA


Telling Her Stories: Two Haibun by Fay Aoyagi

Fay Aoyagi has long been among my favorite haiku poets, creating work with tender insights, resonant (and sometimes startling) imagery, and a freshness in which iPhones and cherry blossoms can commingle. She also writes very personally. “There is a lot of ‘me’ in my haiku,” she said in the introduction to her first book, Chrysanthemum Love. “I write very subjectively. I am not interested in Zen and the oriental flavor to which some Western haiku/tanka poets are attracted . . . I write to tell my stories.”

Those stories include her relocation from Tokyo to the United States in the early 1980s, a transition of both geography and culture that has informed her poetry from the beginning. “The core of my haiku is my emotion as a woman, as a Japanese person, as an immigrant,” she writes in “Dissection of a Haiku Tradition,”1 a series of essays she wrote about Japanese kigo. As you page through her haiku, you’ll find those last two aspects become very clear: many poems refer to the continuing tug she feels toward her native country, even after several decades in the United States (primarily in San Francisco). In those poems, the speaker sometimes seems to be caught between cultures. In the following haiku, she references emblems of Japanese culture—tofu, summer festivals (such as the Bon festival, in which both children and adults might wear masks of their favorite anime characters), and even Astro Boy.

a stone bridge
my old name whispered
in the north wind2

simmering tofu—
father asks where I intend
to be buried3

summer festival—
my Astro Boy mask
has lost its power4

These aspects of Fay’s writing can also be seen in her haibun. For example, take the following two pieces: “Confession,” which first appeared in Modern Haiku 46.1 (winter/spring 2015), and “‘Urgent Message,’” which was published a few months later in Frogpond 38.3 (autumn 2015). As with so much of Fay’s work, they exhibit fine craftsmanship and a deceptively simple approach that, at first reading, can mask the depths of meaning they hold. Let’s look at “Confession” first.

                                                            Confession

          Rorschach test

His favorite flower is a white chrysanthemum.

          I cut the night

He is the only child, but says he has many ghost cousins.

          with my knife

He confesses that he’s never been comfortable with his thorns.

When I first read this haibun, I was left both mesmerized and a bit perplexed (a condition I find myself in more and more these days). Its power was obvious, its meaning less so, at least to me. But I knew that any effort to unlock its mysteries would be amply rewarded.

The structure employs a technique introduced into haibun over the past few years, in which the individual lines of the haiku are dispersed among the lines of prose. In its entirety, the poem reads:

Rorschach test
I cut the night
with my knife

What is the speaker doing here? Carving the night into an imitation of the inkblots in Hermann Rorschach’s famous test, the interpretation of which will hopefully lead to psychological insight? Maybe. As a metaphor, “night” brings to mind a sense of mystery, a darkness in which so much lies hidden. Is the speaker trying to turn that mystery into meaning, to see into the darkness to a deeper understanding? If so, what’s there?

Just as the night is being carved, so too is the prose, with each sentence separated from the others by the lines of haiku. All the sentences are written in the third person and presumably refer to the same man. But that’s where the similarity ends. Together they read like non-sequiturs, with little apparent relation to one another; in a way, they’re like little koans. Undoubtedly, each must have a meaning that, once unlocked, would ultimately coalesce into a recognizable narrative. Let’s go through them, one by one, searching for clues and remembering as we go that Fay writes to tell her stories.

“His favorite flower is a white chrysanthemum.” A straightforward enough sentence. Obviously, the key here is figuring out the special meaning of the chrysanthemum. For help with that, I turned to something Fay wrote in one of her “Dissection” essays: “My association with chrysanthemum is somewhat complicated. It is the flower of the Japanese royal family. A chrysanthemum is embossed on the front cover of Japanese passports. In a way, the chrysanthemum is a husk of the things which I left in my native country. Yet, I feel I am a chrysanthemum wherever I go, whatever I do.”5 Good to remember.

“He is the only child, but says he has many ghost cousins.” OK, a little less straightforward. At the literal level, the subject of the sentence is alone but connected to “ghosts.” Are they family members who have passed away but are still felt, in the same way a man might reach to scratch a phantom limb? If we use Fay’s background as a foundation, is “he” an immigrant alone in a new country? Are the “ghost cousins” the family he’s left behind, or fellow immigrants from his native land, all of whom may be unaware of the others but still connected in their isolation and their shared heritage?

“He confesses that he’s never been comfortable with his thorns.” Here, in the last line of the haibun, we have the confession referenced in the title: “He’s never been comfortable with his thorns.” Very powerful, and very obtuse. What are the thorns? Do chrysanthemums have thorns? If, like me, you’re a flower illiterate, a Google search will show no instances of thorny chrysanthemum flowers. But there are two books, first published in the 1980s, that have both “chrysanthemums” and “thorns” in their titles: Chrysanthemum and Thorns: The Untold Story of Modern Japan by Edwin M. Reingold, and The Thorn in the Chrysanthemum: Suicide and Economic Success in Modern Japan by Mamoru Iga. Both books talk about the stresses that accompanied Japan’s economic success during that era, the “thorns” in the harmonious, nationalistic “chrysanthemum” image of old Japan. They primarily focus on how traditional values and rapid social change were having mixed (and sometimes devastating) results. There’s always a danger in explication of focusing on a random connection and weaving out of whole cloth a meaning that sounds good but is nowhere near true. That may be the case here, but then again, given Fay’s background, perhaps the “thorn” (social change, which in her case is living a Western life) and the “chrysanthemum” (traditional Japanese values) do have a similar relationship as in the two books.

But before getting too caught up in a lovely but possibly empty theory, let’s consider a few more possibilities. Chrysanthemums may not have thorns, but other plants do, primarily for protection. Is that it, the need for the immigrant to protect him- or herself? Or perhaps the imagery has religious overtones, recalling Christ’s crown of thorns. Regardless, it seemed that the narrator feels a bit estranged, maybe persecuted, and not at peace with his life.

So, when put together, do all these clues add up to anything? Here are two possibilities:

1. Based on Fay’s own story, the speaker is a Japanese immigrant (perhaps a male stand-in for the poet herself) who still feels the pull of his native land, feels connected to ancestors and their traditions, and does not yet feel settled in his new country with its different culture and religious hierarchy, its greater emphasis on individualism. The narrator has had to adopt new traits to adapt, to fit in, even to protect oneself and survive, but they still feel alien.

2. The speaker is not an immigrant but someone caught between the Japan of legend, memory, and myth and its new reality in the 21st century, someone who feels connected to ancestral traditions and is isolated in his individuality.

And what of the haiku? Is the “I” the poet, Fay, coming out from behind the curtain, or is it actually the interior monologue of the male speaker? Either way, it describes an attempt to better understand one’s self, to gain personal insight, and in a strong, forceful way. (Is there anger in the knife strokes? Or just a sense of purpose, as a surgeon wields a scalpel?) By having the haiku and prose intersect the way they do, the disassociated lines become something of a Rorschach test themselves, with the reader trying to interpret the overall intent.

Of course, if Fay is reading this, she may be shaking her head and thinking, “Wow, that is so wrong. I didn’t mean that at all.” But that’s the beauty of the Rorschach test and of explications, I guess. And the beauty of this spare and emotionally loaded haibun.

If, like me, you leave Fay’s work reluctantly (as well as a bit amazed), here’s another one that, again, touches on her personal story.

                              Urgent Message

Dear Valued Customer

All other dragons living in Japan have already purchased their package to the Sky Garden Palace. It includes a round-trip ticket by Cloud Express and a private slumber room. I hereby remind you that the sale will end a day before Spring Equinox.

Kindly regards,

Reservation Manager

P.S. I hope you still remember this marvelous tradition even though you have been away from home for many years.

     hermit crab finds
     my passport expired
     sent from my iPhone

Here, Fay recalls one of Japan’s venerated holidays in a creative way: a message from a travel agent. Vernal Equinox Day—Shunbun no Hi—is a public holiday in Japan. A celebration of the Spring Equinox, it is a time when many Japanese return home and honor their ancestors, tending to their graves. In Fay’s haibun, the imagery of the message reads is if it almost from a dream, a call from the past, a reminder of her origins.

But returning to those origins isn’t easy. Again, if we look back to her “Dissection” essays, Fay wrote about one of her “favorite” spring kigo, the hermit crab (yadokari). “The literal translation of the Japanese characters for yadokari is ‘a worm living in a rented dwelling,’” she wrote. “Sometimes I feel close to yadokari, which has to rely on the shells of other creatures. After all these years living in the United States, I sometimes feel like yadokari if I stay in Japan longer than a month.”6

Small wonder, then, that her haiku starts with a hermit crab that finds her expired passport—again, a surrealistic image in which I picture the booklet in the crab’s small, extended claw. (It also continues the dream-like imagery of the prose message.) Knowing Fay’s background, we don’t have too hard of a time interpreting the meaning of the first two lines: The poet has been away too long to return comfortably to her origins. But that last line truly seems like a non-sequitur—until you juxtapose its modernity with the ages-old tradition described in the message. The narrator truly is a citizen of the 21st century, far removed from ancient traditions. (I would imagine the “urgent message” came through as an e-mail or a text.)

It’s just one more example of how Fay can create startling contrasts that lead to deep and deeper insights, all in service to telling her stories. We can only hope she has many more stories to tell.


References

1. The 10 essays of “Dissection of a Haiku Tradition” originally appeared in Frogpond (2007-08) and is now available on her Blue Willow Haiku World website.

2. From Beyond the Reach of My Chopsticks, Blue Willow Press, San Francisco, 2011.

3. From In Borrowed Shoes, Blue Willow Press, San Francisco, 2006.

4. From In Borrowed Shoes, Blue Willow Press, San Francisco, 2006.

5. From the “Dissection of a Haiku Tradition” essays (“Flowers and Plants”), Blue Willow Haiku World website.

6. From the “Dissection of a Haiku Tradition” essays (“Rivers and Oceans”), Blue Willow Haiku World website.

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