“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” —Henry Miller
With Border Crossings, Ian Marshall sustains the travel and nature writing traditions of authors as diverse as Kerouac, Thoreau, and Bashō. He carries Bashō in his backpack and Thoreau in his heart as he journeys along the International Appalachian Trail. This demanding über-trail stretches north some 700 miles from its highest point at Mt. Katahdin in Maine all the way down to sea level on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula. Border Crossings serves as a tripartite introduction not only to this lesser-known trail and to the author’s day-to-day hiking challenges and rewards, but above all to haiku poetry and its eco-centered appeal—all three paths more rich and varied than some readers might realize.
This book’s exploration of place is both inner and outer, and an in-depth investigation of haiku aesthetics. The narrative unfolds using the haibun form—prose interspersed with haiku—and carries readers along in its curious and joyful melding of contemplation and revelation. These travels, mostly on foot, are ultimately a quest for beginner’s mind, a quest not just to hike this scenic and challenging trail, but to learn, as the author admits so unpretentiously, “to write a decent haiku.” And learn he does, not just from his extensive reading of nature writing and haiku scholarship, which he refers to liberally, but from nature herself—always haiku’s finest teacher. But this lesson is not easily learned, especially when it demands something as challenging as it does—to see freshly.
About halfway through Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig tells the story of teaching one of his writing students about fresh seeing. At first, this student wants to write an essay about the United States. Pirsig, as the narrator, suggests that she narrow her focus to Bozeman, Montana. But she has nothing to turn in when her paper is due—she cannot think of anything to say. He next suggests that she focus on Bozeman’s main street. But still nothing. He complains to her that she isn’t looking hard enough, and then says, “Narrow it down to the front of one building. . . . The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.” And then her creative floodgate opens.
Pirsig reports that the student had been paralyzed and blocked “because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard.” He explains that making his student look at the top-left brick of the Opera House had required her, at last, to be herself and see freshly—producing an essay of 5,000 words when all he had expected was 500. This narrowing of focus to that single brick made it obvious to her, as Pirsig notes, that “she had to do some original and direct seeing.” This was the moment when the student achieved beginner’s mind, and only then could she begin to see freshly.
The book you hold in your hands is all about fresh seeing and paying close attention, looking forward as well as back in the context of haiku tradition. Traveling by foot on the International Appalachian Trail, the author makes his story unique with the haiku he writes along the way—and what poetry but haiku has a sharper focus of attention? As Pliny the Elder has said, “Nature excels in the least things.” Haiku celebrates these least things with its attention to the details of nature’s seasonal flow. Each of Marshall’s poems is like looking at that top-left brick of the Bozeman Opera House, efforts to see freshly that show both the author’s internal and external worlds—presenting what he experiences through his five senses while suggesting what he feels or thinks as a result. More than that, Marshall’s chronicle is an invitation that we too try to see freshly, not just when we might be hiking or sauntering, but in noticing all aspects of our daily lives more closely. By beholding, by paying attention—as Marshall demonstrates—we become changed.
Just as Pirsig’s book is an inquiry into values and quality, Ian Marshall’s Border Crossings explores the values and aesthetics of haiku poetry. This is not the haiku that has too often been taught superficially and even mistaught in North American schools, but the real thing—English-language haiku with a literary intent that takes into account the full range of haiku history in Japan and elsewhere in the world, balancing recent trends in gendai (modern) and avant garde haiku with centuries of storied convention. He discusses or quotes profusely from some of the leading North American and Japanese poets and thinkers on haiku poetics, interacting with their thoughts as he grapples with them, frequently internalizing—and sometimes doubting—what they have to say.
Border Crossings not only traverses the border between the United States and Canada, but crosses borders between poetry, nature writing, and other literary traditions. As already suggested, the narrative in this book easily brings to mind Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which speaks honestly of self-searching and travel, and The Dharma Bums, whose “outsider” characters investigate haiku. As Kerouac wrote in the latter book, “A real haiku’s gotta be as simple as porridge and yet make you see the real thing.” We see plenty of the real in the prose and poetry that follows, and the metaphor of travel manifests itself in Border Crossings as the author learns more about the trail, himself, and haiku.
We also find resonance with Thoreau, a different kind of “outsider.” He once wrote, “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment.” Each poem to come is indeed a nick of time, a here-and-now moment that looks back as well as forward. In his previous book, Walden by Haiku, Ian Marshall dove deeply into Thoreau’s writing to find moments of haiku awareness, demonstrating that the beginner’s “haiku mind” preceded the introduction of this poetry to the West. And of course, it was Thoreau who said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.” Now, with the present book, Marshall presents his own haiku, and his own prose exploration of what it means to see freshly with haiku awareness. He takes to heart what Rachel Carson once wrote in A Sense of Wonder, that “Exploring nature . . . is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.” She reminds us, too, that “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” This, indeed, is how to see freshly, and how Marshall does it throughout this invigorating book.
Finally, Border Crossings echoes Bashō, the seventeenth-century master of haiku whose months of foot-travel described in his travel sketches, especially the Oku no Hosomichi (“Narrow Road to the Interior”), are classics of Japanese literature. As Bashō said to begin his most famous travel diary, “The days and nights are travelers of eternity.” It might well be called the world’s earliest hiking diary. No wonder Marshall takes Bashō along with him to read on the trail. Haiku, too, is a narrow road—not for everyone, but just right for certain travelers. Bashō’s description of his narrow road is also the world’s finest example of haibun, the same form employed in Border Crossings. Bashō once said that “The secret of poetry lies in treading the middle path between the reality and vacuity of the world.” In the pages that follow, you’ll discover whether Ian Marshall finds that middle path, on his own narrow road, and how often he explores haiku’s many side roads.
Ultimately, and repeatedly, the haiku tradition requires its practitioners to see freshly. Without such fresh seeing, it’s impossible to write haiku with adequate depth, resonance, and originality. However, as the painter Robert Henri once wrote, “A tree growing out of the ground is as wonderful today as it ever was. It does not need to adopt new and startling methods.” For haiku, as with much other poetry, it is not simply a matter of “making it new” but, as Jane Hirshfield has said, to “make it yours.” This is a book where the author sees freshly for himself at almost every turn, and where he comes to grips with the challenges of doing so, in the context of a rich history of aesthetic and multicultural exploration. In the end, Ian Marshall does not merely reach Cap Gaspé and the Gulf of Saint Lawrence at the terminus of the International Appalachian Trail, but reaches many other destinations as well.
Michael Dylan Welch
Vice President, Haiku Society of America
In The Poetry of Zen (translated and edited by Sam Hamill and J. P. Seaton, Boston: Shambhala, 2007, 143), Sam Hamill’s translation of an excerpt from Bashō’s The Knapsack Notebook includes the following:
How easy it is to observe that a morning began with rain only to become sunny in the afternoon; that a pine tree stood at a particular place, or to note the name of a river bend. This is what people write in their journals. Nothing's worth noting that is not seen with fresh eyes.
It is exactly this transition from observation to internalization and often interpretation that we find in Ian Marshall’s Border Crossing. Indeed, it is perfectly fitting that Marshall carried Bashō with him on every step of his journey.
—11 June 2020