Yesterday in Haiku

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Tried some haiku this morning because I haven’t for a while and think it is a good practice.

It’s really difficult to get that special moment or as Cartier Bresson called it ‘ that decisive moment’.   But I do think it can help if you can write like a photographer. By that I mean is only describe what you see. Of course as a writer you can also put down what you hear, feel, and smell; use all the senses just don’t start interrupting,  explaining …

One last thought. It doesn’t have to be perfect. These aren’t.  I think one is quite good. Bit of a numbers game.

Oh and seeing as I’m talking pictures I thought I’d pop one in up top for colour.

Yesterda in Haiku

Gerald the cat
In his large saucer eyes
A questioning

Standing on the edge
Of a rippling pool
Waving not swimming

The banter
Flying back and forth
In the handball game

Cold water
There’s a bite
To the old girl’s massage

In the cubicle
A fresh old face
Talks temperature

After a cold swim
Taking the top seat
In the hot sauna

In the cafe clamour
The smell of burning toast
Diverts the chatter

The art of being
Sitting inside the mind
Of the home maker

A peace of Bach
And then with wine and beer
Sad songs of Rebetika

Leaves in the sun

Pile of leaves

here the bottom
and across the pool,
reflections

Seated on a plaid blanket in black bathers, he looks East to where the sun rises. We know when he’s been by the offering at the side of the pool. A perfect duck dive, a bare face and then a clutch of rotting leaves.

He’s not like the ‘serious’ swimmers who toil back and forth with measured stops to check their times or take a drink. While they travel in straight lines, he curves in all directions, diving down into the blue box with the shifting glass ceiling.

One morning I ask him how he is. Eyes set in smile crinkles, he tells me that he is angry; angry with the petty incompetence of his working life and the inability of men and women to rise above mediocrity. Most mornings he is gone before I arrive, but I always know when he has been.

beside an empty pool
a fresh of pile of leaves
catching the sun

Yours and mine

Round and Round in the Circle Game

Yours and mine

It was a long drawn out winter and then such a short, late spring. I’m not sure if I saw the blossoms come and go. As the final separation drew closer, so the paperwork piled higher.

nice and pretty
but my hands are old
in the spring snow

Now, after years orbiting one another, deep space beckons; first a man with a van and a handful of friends, then a truck with a crew from the Ukraine.

sorted into piles
our record collection
once more yours and mine

 

The Autumn of My Life

Without knowing love
for one’s children, there’s no truth
in cherry blossoms

(Bassho)

Around four in the morning I am disturbed by my daughter returning from the Purple Turtle in Camden. When I do get up at half past six, my time is taken with packing; one set of clothes to wear, three sets of changes, a sleeping bag and toiletries. In the kitchen I make sandwiches from last night’s chicken and a flask of fresh coffee. No time to meditate but still time to cycle to the Lido.

Diving in headfirst
a machete splitting
the watermelon

Riding through the park, the sky blue with frazzled clouds and a mild breeze, I grieve for a broken marriage and wonder if I will stay afloat. All the while swimming, ‘what have you done?’

Breaking off
I stand and wonder
in this blue pool

Back home I am surprised to find my 19 year old son in the kitchen. Just the day before, he’d taken a coach to Bath to visit a friend. ‘How come you’re back?’

‘Fergal’s being an arse. He just ignored me!’

I give him a hug. I feel so sorry. The hurt and guilt I already feel for shaking up the family becomes more intense. My wife gives me barely a look. ‘When are you leaving?’

So one last check of my list and I hoist the backpack, sling the other bag over my shoulder and leave the house without another word.

Walking to the station, I fall in behind a large Asian man with a beard and pony tail. He smokes and wears his trousers slung low beneath his underpants. Then a young West Indian woman wearing long black tights and bright blue denim shorts. I quicken my pace.

Very ordinary
a middle-aged couple
settle into a shiny car

Is it worth it? Have I thrown away a home, a family and all the security that goes with it, for the love and longing for a younger woman? Don’t do the arithmetic; I think of the torment and try to come to terms with it.

The train journey from Euston to Tywyn on the coast of North Wales is over four hours. It’s a welcome opportunity for study and contemplation. I take a look at Issa’s The Spring of My Life; the opening lines of Chapter Fourteen: ‘It is often said that the greatest pleasures result in the greatest misery.’

This world,
flying by in a train window,
is quite still

In the tunnel there is just the yellow light, black windows and the roar. The couple beside me, a little bit older, chat companionably.

Just one
among many
each passing field

What is this self destructive streak; this desire to take the wrong road? Boredom perhaps or the desire to do wrong and see if it works out better, where nothing is going right!

Full up, the train pulls out of the city, bound for … Change is constant but when you move everything else is quite peaceful and well ordered. Just looking and there is so much not seen from the railway carriage. If I ask for your love, you may cast me aside and leave me bereft. Whatsoever you do to someone else, they will eventually do unto you. That’s a law of nature.

My reverie is interrupted by the arrival of new passengers.

As I lay in bed last night
sucking a humbug
truly …

A lady called Maddie got on the train with her terrier called Scruffy who is sitting under the table. We talked of books for a while and now she is asleep. We’re travelling deeper into Wales, onwards to the west coast and the Irish Sea.

Outside the city, there is nothing much happening but sitting on the beach there is much to discover. I would rather pebbles than all the Queen’s jewels.

The onshore breeze
shapes face and hands
with chilling precision;
rummaging for heat
beneath my coat

Wind all around
the subtle texture
of an orange pebble 

            offshore
rolling pebbles rolling
            onshore

If I kiss the sea for you, I must kneel.

Man on the seafront –
a blue telescope
points at a grey sky

Desolate beach
finding faces in the pebbles
now and then

Later that evening in the snug of the old farm house someone suggests that paintings of rice cakes can nourish. A definition of haiku is shared: the poetry of bent nails. And when I look for my pencil someone kindly asks what I have lost,

‘I’m looking for my pencil!’
‘What colour is your pencil?’
‘It’s red!’
‘It’s behind your ear.’

We start each morning in silence; a half hour’s meditation in the sitting room then breakfast in the kitchen. No longer a smoker, I smell my smoking friend come in. Sitting with others deepens and defines the experience. Like swimming with someone, it provides the third leg to the stool of one’s endeavours. Some time after the bell rings, the room empties.

Wrinkles –
the sofa just the way it is
after the sitter leaves

Apple tart, underdone the night before, then overcooked today; just lovely! Even the burnt offerings are taken with pleasure. Someone notes that perfection is a heresy in Buddhism. The reflection in the spoon is Van Gogh’s sunshine. You hear a lot more in the silence. What a noise! The grain of the wood on the breakfast table! The poet has a pen in his button hole. Shush, the toast is too crunchy.

Silent breakfast
someone keeps ringing
the cereal bowl

Universe
spread with butter
take a bite

After breakfast, we sit and talk while a glorious day unfolds outside.

Our chatter
inside a universe
of birdsong

Beyond the talk
a circle of empty chairs
and dew drops

You can never really retreat from the world. Even as I sit in a beautiful garden in the hills of Wales, cares and concerns sit with me; listening to the bird song; the gurgle of the stream that falls down the hill and the crunch of the gardener’s secateurs.

Walking through the garden
I hear a stone
hit the bamboo
flying into the buddleia
with butterflies

A cloud bathed in golden light rests above the hill beyond the farm; a hill so lush and green with every field and wrinkle pickled out by sun and shade. And that singing bird it takes me back to Granny’s garden at Heather House.

A shady seat
above the sun-drenched path
and a still pool

To keep a travelling until the call of home is heard no more. I can no longer audit and add up who did this and who did that; what is right and what is wrong. If I stayed very still, would I see what is going on? On one side a small pool fed by a mountain brook that cascades down a rocky road to a lily pond. On the other side, a cat sits in a sunlight path that returns to the farmhouse.

Hosai Ozaki was a haiku poet who lived a life of extreme simplicity and poverty:

I cough and I’m still alone

A crow wordlessly flew away

Tongs
a mismatch pair
one whole winter

Someone says that, ‘to be clever enough to get all that money, you have to be stupid enough to want it.’ And someone else says, ‘you have to allow yourself the liberation of failure.’ I say for all of those who cannot or will not strip off and plunge into the warm autumn sea on this brilliant sunny afternoon ‘I do’. My pleasure is tinged with remorse that such a heavenly day should be mine and not yours; my pleasure worth less in isolation. But I swim for all those that won’t or can’t.

Sunny day
when the tide is out
the emptiness

How is it that this day can be so calm and peaceful? In the flood valley, cattle graze. Everything is slow and peaceful, even the distant sound of birds.

Barely moving
upon yon distant peak
the resting cloud

A gaggle of geese
walking into a landscape
beneath a white cloud

Recording gives you the illusion that it all matters. That someone will read it afterwards and understand it. It demands another. Correspondence with oneself seems worthless. So if not with oneself and there is no other, who? Is that why we invent god, the great nothingness; throwing words into the abyss and hearing just the echo or not.

I’m still here
the pipes in the old farmhouse
sing a dawn chorus

Issa writes of the death of his baby daughter from smallpox and while the mother wails he notes that ‘I know her heart breaks but also know that tears are useless, that water under the bridge never returns’ and then:

This world of dew
is only the world of dew –
and yet … oh and yet …

(Issa)

Red Thread Sangha 2011

Over the last while
the puddled ruts have filled
with reflections

We gathered in Jane’s farmhouse at the top of a potholed track on the West Coast of Wales for a weekend of haiku and meditation:

Ken Jones, walker
Melissa Meeks, shepherd
Noragh Jones, spellbinder
George Marsh, cook
Stuart Quine, nurse
Jim Norton, poet
Kim Richardson, bookmaker
Martin Pitt, keeper
Jonathan Buckley, note-taker

What was left of Friday was given over to a simple dinner washed down with a glass of wine, cider or Perry that Kim had brought from the wilds of Hereford. Afterwards there was planning for the weekend and then preparation of porridge, left to cook overnight on the Aga. And so to bed!

Saturday morning dawned in drizzle. After a cold night under the covers, how does one eat one’s porridge and what does the choice of condiment tell you? At breakfast, after a 30-minute sit, some went for honey, others for sugar, and a strong case was made for marmalade. The slow-cooked porridge was ambrosia and required nothing more. Porridge … and then toast!

Haiku Are

Noragh started the weekend’s study with a talk about haiku and its flowering in different national cultures. She quoted Eve Lockering’s belief that haiku arise out of a historical and cultural context; the haiku poet balances on the large boulder of Japanese cultural tradition while holding their own, smaller, cultural boulder above the head.

When did this all start? A first translation of haiku by Wayne Aston appeared in 1877 and another by Paddy O’Hearne in 1904. But it was the meeting of Blythe and Robert Aitken (Zen Roshi and author of Zen Wave) that provided a template for Western poets; a template ‘soaked in Japanese aesthetics’.

Out of a review of haiku in different countries came a discussion about translations and a greater awareness of cadence, rhythm and sometimes, rhyme. How important this is, and how often it is lost in translation, even ‘transcreation’. One haiku deemed an awkward abstraction in English, came alive when recited it in its native Breton.

George underpinned this impression with some academic hard core, noting that the Americans used Chinese poetry as the foundation of their own but diluted it by discarding the rhyme and rhythm structure.

There was general agreement that haiku is about expressing the ‘suchness’ of life in all its forms. Ken talked of ‘the uncluttered presentation of experience’. Wang Wei was cited for ’19 ways of looking at one way’, and there was also mention of ‘the repose of named things’ (Nagarjuna) and a Tibetan saying that, ‘to ride the horse of knowledge you need a good saddle’.

Mindfulness

After Noragh, Kim was interested in explaining the relationship between haiku and mindfulness. He illustrated the challenge with the story of the ant and centipede who sit down for a smoke while out walking. The ant asks the centipede how he can walk so easily with so many legs. The centipede replies: ‘Easy, you just … you just … oh dear!’

Stuart suggested that attention and awareness were different to mindfulness which was ‘more slow motion’ and referential’. Jim cited Abi Dharma and holding attention to the object, inside or out, and made the distinction between mindfulness and awareness with a bit of personal experience: ‘So coming home after a few drinks I am very mindful about taking out the keys and putting them into the lock … but I am not aware that I am trying to get into the neighbour’s house!’

Kim shared a Sufi tradition where mindfulness means remembering that which we knew and unlearning that which we thought we knew. And there was mention of the importance of transparency and the need to be clear of the ‘background speediness’; of creative vacancy and listening … but not too hard. Was it after all about the stillness of the birdwatcher (and poet, RS Thomas) and the ‘emptiness that is able to hold and contain all’?

Please forgive the half-remembered quotes which are due to a poor memory and the quality of the scrawl. I rationalise this with the hope that some people remember lots and digest little, while others remember little but digest lots. Then again, the sangha also talked about reconstruction being the act of remembering and memory being a terrible entrapment; or as someone described it ‘memories with new legs’.

Speaking of legs, we pulled on our boots and windcheaters and went out into the world for a bit of fresh air and communion with nature.

Excursion


The venerable ‘Captain Watkins’ co-ordinated a three car drop-off and pick-up plan that took the group from a small housing estate to a large private estate with an ex-mansion! Taken over during the war, the main building was burnt down by mistake and all that remains is a palatial, but abandoned, dovecote and the allés of trees and irrigation channels that confine the grazing sheep and cattle.

Our walk took us into a field with pedigree black cattle and an enormous bull, knee-deep in mud and snuffling green grass, right next to the path we were walking. Was this a Zen intimation of enlightenment? Two steps forward, a couple back, and then a debate. Where had all the morning’s testosterone gone? Eventually we passed and further on, Jim discovered a pink wild rose, flowering in the long grass.

Sturm, Drang and Karumi

On the table in our sitting room, a flat rock with a round one balanced on top: a haiku cultural reference? Not so. Ken was introducing a measured approach to our discussions and the round stone, the size of a cricket ball, was the conch that would bring order to our discussions. Weighing this carefully in our hands gave our pronouncements a softer more reflective character.

Ken shared two haibun that he had written; the one was a blood thirsty and didactic piece about man’s inhumanity to man, the other, seamed with a thread of black humour, dealt with the author’s experience of, and capacity to learn from, a terminal illness. The second had a sense of playfulness and concentrated on ‘show don’t tell’ that leaves space to experience without feeling pressurised by the writer. The haiku, drawn from another time and place but perfectly aligned to the main theme, provided a Greek chorus, or was it a Welsh choir. Karumi!

The haiku poet
takes his steaming cup
out into the mist

Was Shiki providing photographic snapshots of reality while Coleridge looked to fancy and imagination to reveal the divine source of things? How does language shape and create our world? Is there a difference between seeing and seeing as something? Jim posed the questions, riffed on the answers, and the whole sangha riffed with him.

Melissa talked of love versus desire in the context of imagination: ‘being faithful to the beloved object’. Stuart talked of ideas as a love affair with reality: ‘love does not make demands … not about getting it, but being got by it … no intention to write haiku … allow yourself to be caught and put your life on the line’.

Kim spoke of ‘opening little windows in this dream; let the dreams behind the dreams be awakened in our consciousness. And Ken cited Blake’s London and freedom from ‘the mind-forged manacles of the mind’. Do we sit in completeness … incompleteness?

They know effect and cause are one,
Not two, not three, the path runs straight,
With form that is no form,
Coming and going, never astray,
With thought that is no thought
Their song and dance are the voice of the law.
(Hakuin Zenji’s Song of Zazen)

 

The Cook and Chan Poetry

At some point in all of this Saturday came to an end with dinner around the table, cooked by George with love and finesse; qualities he also brought to reviewing haiku on the blu-tacked sheets to the dining room wall. Time and again, an overloaded haiku was rescued from capsize through the jettisoning of a superfluous word. And the meals were similarly light, simple and surprising.

Cucumber
In the midst of a hot stock
Crunching

On Sunday, George gave a talk about Chan poetry. In the original language, verbs have no tenses or conjugation; verbs, nouns and adjectives can be interchanged; and there is no plural, singular or gender. In translation, the result is a very vivid and pictorial form; some might say random! Stuart described the translations as ‘poetic spells’.

Sunday’s excursion was to the seafront where the book shop was closed and the sea and sky wide open. Far down the beach a kite surfer tore along the breakers, leaping and then floating on the wind as he turned to tack back up the beach. The seagulls hung suspended on the edge of the gale while three large jelly fishes, each the size of a brain, and with a crucifix in the middle of their translucent domes, were settled on the wet sand.

We walked, we pottered, and we leant into the wind and then back out again. And then we returned to the house, armed with the telephone number for the local Balti takeaway, and ready for a final session before the last supper, bed and then departure in the morning. Yes my notes have now come to an end and with them this unreliable memoir. Gassho and Diolch yn fawr iawn to all!

Kim and I were up early on Monday morning and after a cup of coffee we set off in the dark, back to London.

Scattering sheep
From the rutted track
The bouncing headlights

 

 

Road to Nowhere …

In the year 2007, my 51st in this world, I went to work for the Golden Gate Corporation, an American Internet company, which provides the roundabouts and traffic lights on the information superhighway. I was curious to experience life in a large organisation where the matrix had replaced traditional hierarchies of ‘command and control’; making it all possible was the Internet; transcending time-zones and old frontiers.

opening the window
the browser Googles
a flickering image

The European headquarters was a large, glass box in a grey frame that nestled on a grassy bank beside a lake with swans and other water fowl; to the common man it appeared like a shining palace removed from everyday life by a moat.

beneath the surface
steady in the current
three large pike

For the first few weeks I travelled in each day, taking the train to Clapham Junction where for a brief moment I joined the river of humanity on its way to work. I flowed down through the underground walkway and up to Platform 5 and the fast train out to Feltham. Waiting at the other end, a white courtesy bus whisked the black laptops off to work.

life slides by
the morning traffic reflects
on a Blackberry

Meeting me on my first day, the American manager pointed me towards the Virtual Private Network with the reassurance, “Don’t worry if it doesn’t make any sense. At first it’s like trying to drink from a fire hose!’ And for several weeks I did indeed wander lonely as a cloud through the virtual workshop, adrift from colleagues and the tools of my trade.

silent summer’s day
a scatter of tip taps
on the laptop

I worked with people who were somewhere else so I hardly got to know those that shared the ‘drop in’ area. In fact, I liked the anonymity and once I had set up ‘Odyssey’ on my laptop, I was free to work remotely, where and when I wanted. So while most people were rushing to work, I could finish off my email in the home office and then head off to the Lido for a swim.

empty in-box
the soft shiny surface
of an empty pool

My job was to provide ‘messaging’ for the project teams that fine-tuned the sales systems and processes … ‘giving time back to sales’ was the oft repeated mantra. And the process was tortured with every step micro-managed like an American football game. The result was an endless progression of meetings and catch up calls!

Hi … Hi …
can you talk? QQ!
a moment in time

These meetings were held online using a teleconference service which allowed participants to share PowerPoint presentations and send messages to other participants. The whole process was overseen by an automated announcer who counted us in and counted us out: ‘this meeting is scheduled to end in 10 minutes’, the disembodied voice announced.

electronic impulses
flashing across Windows
the squabbling swans

When all was done, participants would ‘drop off’ to make their next meeting: Minds moved but the bodies remained hunched over the laptops, ears pinking from the pressure of the headphones.

cyber whispers
the swans beyond the window
splash down silently

By way of compensation, the life of the technocracy can be a veritable cornucopia of good living. Arriving in the office I would help myself to a banana, a pear and perhaps a plum from the bowl of free fruit. And from 12.30 the large dining area, with glass doors on to a roof terrace overlooking the lake, served a range of hot and cold cuisines to suit the most discerning palate.

sumptuous summer’s day
beyond the apple crumble
cream yellow custard

Back at work, the corporate cappuccino machine whirred and foamed a limitless supply of sharp tasting caffeine and the fridges offered up free fruit juices, bottled water and cold cans of Root Beer, Coke, and Fanta. And if that wasn’t enough, there were always the boiled sweets in reception!

hot summer’s day
the hum of the electric fan
cooling the laptop

‘To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’ goes the psalm and the song. And soon we could see the weather turning; storm clouds on the horizon. In our glass palace we knew that the age of abundance was coming to an end. It was the little things that turned virtual reality into physical proof. First off the boiled sweets disappeared from reception; then the cappuccino button on the coffee machine died and finally the ‘Five Alive’ fruit bowls emptied and were filled no more.

Inbox of messages
a swan chases a rival
around the lake

There were corporate proclamations and the imposition of travel bans and staff cutbacks. First to feel the knife were the contract staff, or ‘red badges’ as they were called; the goal was a 50% saving each month for the quarter. I was a ‘red badge’ and despite the best efforts of my colleagues, some weeks later I was back in the office to handing in my laptop. For two years I had lived inside it, mind everywhere, travelling nowhere! But now it was back to the real world.

dusk at the end
letting fresh air into the office
before closing the door

Wabi sabi and moss in the driveway

Most years a bloke will come to the door sporting a mullet and an earring with an offer to sort out my drive while they are in the area. Keeping the drive tidy is a chore I do every month or so and I sometimes consider putting down weedkiller but never do; doesn’t seem right and honestly I think I would rather the weeds and moss than the paving. In any case these once and for all fixes never really work and deprive you of some honest labour.

There’s a Zen story about preparing the temple grounds; sweeping the leaves, raking the gravel for an important visitor. The young monk has just completed the job when an old monk looks over the wall and tells him there is something missing. ‘Help me over’ he says. Once in the courtyard he gives the trees a good shake. New leaves fall on the freshly swept cuourtyard. ‘That’s better’!

Wabi sabi is a Japanese term. I don’t remember exactly what it means but believe it describes a simple rather threadbare beauty with a hint of sadness. Maybe a minor chord? Maybe the moss and weeds have a tough of wabi sabi and then again they do seems rather too vibrant and vigorous.

And of course they cultivate moss in Japanese gardens so why not in English driveways.

PS:

Clear blue sky
And bright El Paso sunshine
This Tooting morning

Sent from my BlackBerry?? wireless device

Supreme Being

After the meditation session he walked up Piccadilly and took the Victoria Line back home to Balham. Late evening, it was fairly empty and the ride peaceful. He read and made a couple of notes in his diary. When he got home there was a message on his mobile.  ‘Hello this is Najma. I found your diary on the train. Call me.’

‘Wow that was lucky’. He dialled the number. The line was  bad but they arranged to meet at Brixton Tube station at 10 in the morning. In the mean time he wondered who she was: He remembered a couple of feisty West Indian girls and a boy laughing and joking. Was Najma one of them? Next morning he was up early and went for a swim.

Thoughts
Travelling up and down
The cold pool

He was there ten minutes early and hung around in the entrance so he’d not be missed. A policeman eyed him up. He didn’t know what she looked like! Did she know what he looked like? 10 o’clock came and went and then just as he was beginning to wonder if she was going to turn up, a young woman with a halo of peach-coloured curls caught his eye.

“Hello. Are you Paul?”

“Yes! You made it!”

A young woman, naturally beautiful without conceit or self-consciousness. Before setting out, he’d popped a thank you card and a £20 note in an envelop addressed to ‘Najma’. He handed it over with ‘just a little thank you’.

“You didn’t need to do that!” And then reading the name on the envelope: “But my name is Asma, not Najma!”

It was said with such concern that he took it back and corrected it. He was so struck by her beauty. But what man in the final third of his life has not looked upon a rose and lingered to contemplate its beauty and inhales its scent before walking on. Chance had brought them together for a reason! Why had his diary landed up in her hands?  And why did she look at him as if he should have known something?

All of this passed through his mind as he rode back up Brixton Hill. Old fool! He smiled to himself and a young West Indian woman at the bus stop smiled back; or was she just laughing at an old man barely pedalling!

Cycling slowly
Up a long hill
The unfolding smile

Later he discovered that ‘Asma’ is a Moslem name meaning ‘Supreme’.  And he thought of her once more and realised in that moment, he no longer remembered her face.

That face
The fading cadence
Of the bell