Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku

First published in Frogpond 18:2, Summer 1995, pages 50–52. Originally written in April and May of 1995. +

Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku, second edition. Marijan Čekolj, editor. Croatian Haiku Society, Smerovišće 24, 41430 Samobor, Croatia, 1995, 80 pages, 8 x 5½ inches, paperback, perfectbound. In Croatian and English.

In the summer of 1973, I was fortunate to travel with my parents through the former Yugoslavia. High up one remote mountain pass, a local man with a deeply furrowed face and thick accent told us that the road had not been repaved since Austria controlled the region before World War I. Old trenches gouged the earth around the man’s small store at the top of the barren pass. There, not yet a teenager, I found metal fragments of old rifles and rusted bullets by the hundreds, though many decades had passed since men offered their lives in the harsh battlefield below my feet.

Change comes slowly to this part of Europe, and war has too long been a part of it. For forty years, Tito’s communism had stabilized Yugoslavia. Then, with communism’s fall, the oppression of Yugoslavia’s native peoples erupted into war. We have all heard the sad stories of the innocent people caught in the middle, yet still they make do, somehow going on with their lives despite years of atrocities. Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku, by the Croatian Haiku Society, is a moving record of their resolve. As editor, Marijan Čekolj emphasizes in his preface that “haiku is not a political instrument of fight against the war, but is simply the poetry coming from the war (against Croatia) which has happened HERE and NOW as our reality and our everyday life.”

with a gun A sleeping baby

on my shoulder—I forget smiles with lips

my paper and pencil wet from milk

Darko Plažanin Branislava Krželj

Haiku has a great capacity for emotion. As such, it has long served poets in their need to express deep feeling, be it in times of stirring love, rapture with nature, sweet melancholy, or the desperate intensity of war. The tradition of war haiku may be said to stretch back as far as Bashō (here in a translation by Makoto Ueda, from Bashō and His Interpreters, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992):

muzan ya na how piteous!

kabuto no shita no under the helmet

kirigirisu a cricket

Other poets in Japan have penned haiku about war. In English, Nick Virgilio is known well for many moving haiku about his brother’s death in Vietnam and its effects on his family (Selected Haiku, Sherbrooke, Quebec: Burnt Lake Press, 1988). More recently, D. S. Lliteras has given us In a Warrior’s Romance, his personal record in photographs and haiku of his time in Vietnam (Norfolk, Virginia: Hampton Roads, 1991). And poems about the Gulf War appear in Lenard D. Moore’s Desert Storm: A Brief History (San Diego: Los Hombres Press, 1993) and in The Gulf Within, edited by Christopher Herold and me (San Francisco: Two Autumns Press, 1991). These are all valid approaches to war haiku—whether through direct experience, writing from old memory, from stories told by others, or even from the significant impact of television, which launches the horrors of war right into our living rooms.

Bur rising above these books, and perhaps others like them, is Haiku Iz Rata: War Haiku. It is telling that this is a second edition, for this book is written while the war is going on. How much happier if there had been no need for a second edition. These are not poems by concerned individuals moved by television reports of the war. These are not poems by callous soldiers. These are poems of direct experience—poems by victims. From the moment you see this book’s blood-red cover and its stark ink paintings (one even suggests drops of blood), you will feel the intensity of the Croatian war in a way that makes this haiku anthology rise above most others.

Marijan Čekolj, the book’s editor, lives in Samobor, a small town about 10 kilometers east of Zagreb. He and Robert Bobek have translated 187 poems by 42 poets, all members of the Croatian Haiku Society. While some translations may sound awkward to English ears, the essence of the moments recorded rings true. The book is printed in an edition of 1,000—an ambitious number for a haiku book. Its poems are arranged alphabetically by poet (1 to 11 each) in both Croatian and English. Interspersed are 19 nonobjective, energetic ink paintings by Vesna Čekolj—and their very inorganic nature underscores the numbing yet effective remoteness yet nearness of these poems.

I fear that the context of these poems overshadows the poems themselves—and that has already happened in my discussion here, for I wish I had more room to explore the merits of individual poets and their work. Standouts for me are poems by Robert Bobek, Marijan Čekolj, Vladimir Devidé, Željko Funda, Enes Kišević, Tomislav Maretić, Rujana Matuka, Višnja McMaster, Luko Paljetak, and Milan Žegarac. I shall let the poems speak for themselves, with one poem from each of the above poets, in order (down the left column, then the right column):

my best friend died— The army passes by.

some tiny grains of dust A dog barking from the first

on our chess board to the last soldier.

In the bomb crater branches of a locust-tree

slowly falling catching

withered leaf . . . a stray bullet

In the burned-out village into the sunset

a wounded stray dog a soldier on his knees

sniffing charred bones weeds new carrots

Shells falling On the bombed-out

into the river— church tower I still

its flowing . . . look at the clock.

A fallen soldier Above the blacked-out town

How loud the ticking I have never seen so much

of the watch stars in the sky!

In spite of the ongoing death and loss, the poets of Croatia live with hope. Theirs is a beautiful land, and from my visits to Yugoslavia I remember the warm Adriatic, the jagged and rolling mountains, and such highlights as the caves and waterfalls of Plitvice National Park and the centuries-old walls of Dubrovnik. Some of these treasures are gone now, or changed forever, but this book still engages you with a taste of their hope amidst the realities of war. The spirit of haiku is in showing deep truth. With that understanding, these are haiku of the highest order.

Izbjeglo dijete A refugee child

uči letjeti iz gnijezda teaches to fly a small bird

ispalo ptiče. fallen from its nest.

Nada Sabadi