Haiku Written on the Verge of Death

      by Franz Wright

              After Issa

As they carry me out on a stretcher two young men, believing I was born this way, born as a frail elderly man about to die anyway, think nothing of setting me down in the snow so they can stop and watch with interest the ravenous persimmon-colored flames which only minutes ago were my little house, perhaps the last picture I will ever have the heart to do, and a sheaf of pretty good poems. I’m too old to remember. If I write a poem in the morning, three spontaneous lines it took most of the night to produce, I may come upon it later that afternoon, mutter under my breath, Who wrote this? Pretty damned good, I will say, a little troubled, but at the same time secretly pleased to take note of its glaring immaturities. I stare into the flames. Does this mean all things are removed by only one or two small steps from ash? And was it necessary to take away from some half-mad old poet his small shack, his paints and brushes, the only things that gave him any peace or comfort in this world, when only a metaphor to warn against the futility of attachment and the fragility of temporal things were required, when the splendid palace of the Prince still stands in its pearl-like beauty just a short way down the road? Stunned with anguish I attempt to recite with the Blessed One, All is on fire, all is burning. It’s not working, and now the extremely realistic illusion of tears roll down my cheeks silently. Death will find me just as unprepared as when I started out shedding my fear of it as something no more real than shadows in a dream, and evidently there has been no point in all the sufferings and trials of living this long life. Lonely, growing old—the neighbors stare and quickly turn their eyes away when I greet them in this odd sounding croak that was once a good voice. No time. No more time to become wise, achieve salvation, or become simple and literal minded as a child. Words, more words, what horse-shit. Shivering with fever, meanwhile, the body is busy observing, from a much greater distance than usual, big snowflakes as they light on my blanket like ash, like white November moths, and disappear. Where? Won’t the mind ever be still, does it really have to die just to find stillness? I am afraid more often now. More than ever I am haunted by the lives of the small, brief, powerless, filthy, and poor. Take the flies. Once I overheard some men speaking of them as an irritation in the heat, and one of them said he would gladly hunt down each and every one of them, until we were no longer forced to live in the same world. I am always afraid of what men will do. I am no admirer of flies, but they too love their lives, the sunlight. People can also be made to disappear; and there are people who would like nothing better than to see us vanish in large numbers. And I remembered, so perfect—

Oh why would you swat them, the poor
things, forever
wringing their skinny hands

I have loved words themselves far too much. Sometimes more than the imperfect and unwieldy things and ideas they represented. After weeks and months of failure, all at once there the characters stood—an unheard-of constellation faintly glowing back at me darkly, with an eloquence and knowledge far beyond anything I myself possess. And in my euphoria and pride, which I had vowed in prayer that very day to vigilantly guard against, I could hardly wait, when young, to show my poem to someone. And I was ashamed. Not anymore. Now I feel a quiet awe and don’t feel like I’m damned or banished forever from illumination. I shrug, I say aloud, Look under my breath, Look what a big important fly I am, and laugh a little, a lunatic. Soon none of this will matter very much, lost in a river of unknown names. I slowly turn my face upward, snow swirling around me. So many poems—a handful are good enough. The very best resemble one of these snowflakes, this one right here, so large I can clearly count its six points it has come to rest on my sleeve a moment after its long bewildering fall, only to vanish.

This snow falling
On my bedclothes—even this
comes to me from the pure hand.


From The Lincoln Review #1, 2020. See also “Issa’s Last Poem,” which ends with the concluding poem, but in prose form, and also repeats some of the preceding prose..