Issa’s Last Poem

by Franz Wright

As they carry me out on the stretcher and set me down on my back in the yard in clear view of my rickety home as it burns, I attempt to recite from the Blessed One: All is burning, all is burning . . . Tears rolling down my cheek as my recent writings change to black ash and blow away in the snow, growing heavier now. New words forming even now. Old and sick, I observe the way the snowflake falls on my blanket. I cannot shed this vanity till death, I still believe it essential to repeat slowly the words as they come to me, again and again, under my breath, in case I ever get my hands on a brush again: speculations of this nonexistent fool, and yet—what was the meaning of it all, what else was I good for? For a moment, each time, suspecting the poem might be just slightly less illusory than all the rest. I was ashamed; but not so much now, now I wonder. But nobody pays attention to what the old with such awful effort are attempting to convey. I raise my head, snow right in my face, so many poems—a handful are good, I think. And the best of them resemble the large snowflake, so beautiful, this one right here, lighting on my sleeve before it disappears. This snow on my bedclothes: like everything else, it has come to me from the pure hand.

From Triggerfish Critical Review #7, April 2010. See commentary by J. S. MacLean. In response to “I observe the way the snowflake falls on my blanket,” MacLean says, “This sentence seems to capture the essence of that faint grasp I have of Haiku. We have prose poetry, why not prose Haiku?” Of course, we do have “prose haiku,” in the form of haibun, which Wright’s piece closely resembles in tone, except for not including any haiku. Yet perhaps the final sentence could be parsed as such a poem:

snow on my bedclothes—

it comes to me, like everything else

from the pure hand

And as it turns out, these three lines (in a slightly different form) are a haiku, part of a longer haibun titled “Haiku Written on the Verge of Death,” published in The Lincoln Review #1 in 2020. Some of the prose is repeated there also. I keep thinking that Wright’s last line could say “from the pure land,” since Issa was a Pure Land Buddhist. Meanwhile, why do people continue to capitalize the word “haiku” as if it’s a proper noun? Baffling—but perhaps not if all someone knows of haiku is but a faint grasp.