Flowers on the Roof of Hell

Previously published in Spring: The Journal of the E. E. Cummings Society #17 (October 2010) and in Poetry Nippon (October 2010 issue, in which I was featured poet) and at Blogging Along Tobacco Road: Poets and Poems, Messages to Issa, the Atticus Books blog, and in Tidepools: Haiku On Gabriola (Gabriola, British Columbia: Pacific-Rim Publishers, 2011). Also published in the Olympia Poetry Network Newsletter 27:9, March 2018, page 4 (but with the last two stanzas omitted). You can also listen to a recording of me reading this poem on the Jack Straw Writers Program audio blog (near the end). Another recording of me reading this poem appears on the Poetic Podcast, about a fifth of the way from the end (at the 12:05 mark in Episode 3 on Anchor FM). It would have been serendipitous if Issa, rather than Bashō, had penned the following poem (translated by Sam Hamill): “How much I desire! / Inside my little satchel, / the moon, and flowers.” See also “Dear Issa.” For more about Issa, please also see my essay “For the Love of Issa.”       +       +


in this world

we walk on the roof of hell

gazing at flowers

—Issa (1763–1828)


Today Issa came over for dinner.

Nothing fancy, just Thai take-out from the place down the road.

He came on foot, carrying a satchel.

I welcomed him at the door, and he removed his sandals.

The low evening sun sparkled

through the tall glass of water I gave him.

He admired it before he drank it in one go.

I showed him to the living room, where he sat on the couch,

almost delicately. Then, as if conscious

of his bare feet, he curled them up under himself.


We talked of poetry all through dinner,

stray noodles landing on the plain wooden table as we ate.

We talked of favourite poets and poems,

and the challenge of writing freshly about old subjects.

We talked of writing one’s joy in a fiercely crushed world,

of flowers on the roof of hell.


When he told me it was time for him to go,

I asked if I could give him a ride

but he declined, as I knew he would.

He had a long way to travel,

but held a finger to his lips and gently shook his smile.

Then Issa took his sandals in hand

and padded off into the dark.


I opened the satchel he left behind.

Inside it bloomed white asters.