Bashō (1986)

by David Young [1986]

Tonight, on the other side of the lake,

someone is walking with a lantern.

The changing light on the water

—a blossom, a wasp, a blowfish—

calls me back from desolation

and makes me sigh with pleasure.

How can I be so foolish?


It’s true! All night

I listen to the rain

dripping in a basin . . .

in the morning I have a haiku.

So what!

All these years

and I think I know

just about nothing:

a close-grained man

standing in haze by the warm lake

hearing the slap of oars

and sobbing.


For weeks now, months, a year,

I have been living here at Unreal Hut

trying to decide what delight means

and what to do with my loneliness.

Wearing a black robe,

weaving around like a bat . . .


Fallen persimmon, shriveled chestnut,

I see myself too clearly.

A poet named for a banana tree!

Some lines of my own come back:

Year after year

on the monkey’s face—

a monkey mask.

I suppose I know what I want:

the calm of a wooden Buddha,

the state of mind of that monk

who forgot about the snow

even as he was sweeping it!

But I can’t run away from the world.

I sit and stare for hours at

a broken pot or a bruised peach.

An owl’s call makes me dance.

I remember a renga we wrote

that had some lines by Bonchō:

somebody dusts the ashes

from a grilled sardine . . .

And that’s the poem! That sardine!

And when it is, I feel

it is the whole world too.

But what does it mean

and how can it save you?

When my hut burned down

I stood there thinking,

“Homeless, we’re all of us homeless . . .”

Or all my travels, just so much

slogging around in the mire,

and all those haiku,

squiggles of light in the water . . .


Poems change nothing, save nothing.

Should the pupil love

the blows of the teacher?

A storm is passing over.

Lightning, reflected in the lake,

scares me and leaves me speechless.

I can’t turn away from the world

but I can go lightly . . .

Along the way small things

may still distract me:

a crescent moon, a farmer

digging for wild potatoes,

red pepper pods, a snapped chrysanthemum . . .

Love the teacher, hate the blows.

Standing in mist by the shore,

nothing much on my mind . . .


Wearing a black robe,

weaving around like a bat—

or crossing a wide field

wearing a cypress hat!

From Foraging, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1986. Also in Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times: Selected Haiku of Bashō, David Young, trans., New York: Knopf, 2013. See the poet’s 2013 poem by the same name. See also the author’s website. In Moon Woke Me Up Nine Times, David Young writes the following:

Sometime in the eighties I read Makoto Ueda’s biography of Bashō, and that triggered a poem of my own, subsequently collected in Foraging, which I cast in Bashō’s voice. I still think well enough of it (despite my presumption at putting words in the master’s mouth) that I . . . append it to this collection for readers who may be curious. (xv)