Spring Death Poems (Haru no jisei)

Spring is a time of new beginnings, and happiness. But death is an inescapable part of life. The existentialist, Martin Heidegger, said that it is the finality of life that gives it meaning, and in this respect he certainly mirrored a Japanese sentiment of impermanence that is centuries old.

I shared a number of Jisei, or death poems before. As I said then, I will not share my own, mainly because I am not dying, and therefore do not have my own jisei (There was a time in the late 1600’s when I thought I was dying, and I contemplated whether or not I should compose a death poem, but time passed and I never really needed to…)

These poems come from the book, Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and I have kept his translation, unless I felt it could be improved upon.

I will start with the poet, Bako, who died on May 1st, 1751. His jisei is about the hototogisu, a species of cuckoo that is appreciated for its beautiful voice. But it is also considered a messenger of death.  It is actually a summer word, but as I mentioned before, jisei do not always follow the season they were written in:

 

furikaeru

tani no to mo nashi

hototogisu

 

Looking back at the valley

no more dwellings, only

the cuckoo cries

 

The hototogisu does not make its own nest, but instead takes over the nest of the Nightingale, and pushes the nightingale’s eggs out of the nest, to lay its own.

Another one about this bird was composed by, Chosui, who died on April 4th, 1769 (my translations):

 

koki usuki

kumo o machiete

hototogisu

 

dark clouds, white clouds passing

I wait

hototogisu

 

Or this could also be translated in view of the Buddhist tradition that clouds appear in the West when one dies. The post-particle ‘o‘ in this haiku indicates that Chosui is waiting for the clouds, rather than simply waiting as clouds pass:

 

Thick ones, thin ones,

I await the clouds

the hototogisu cries

 

Hoyu died at the end of the 17th Century:

 

namu ya sora

tada ariake no

hototogisu

 

Praise to the skies

alone in moonlit early dawn

a  cuckoo cries

 

Namu actually stands for Namu Amida Butsu, a prayer to Amida Buddha. I could therefore translate this as,

 

Namu!

Alone in the sky’s early dawn light

A hototogisu

 

There is an anonymous poem that was supposedly composed by a prisoner right before his execution. I don’t remember Hoffman including this in his book. But I always liked it:

 

sono ato wa

meido de kikan

hototogisu

 

hototogisu

I will hear the rest of the song

in the land of the dead

 

Chine was the sister of Kyorai, a famous poet.  She died May 15th, 1688:

 

moeyasuku

mata kieyasuki

hotaru kana

 

It lights up

as easily as it fades

the firefly!

 

(Hoffman did not include the exclamation point, but that is what ‘kana‘ implies) After her death, Kyorai composed the following (my translation):

 

te no ue ni

kanashiku kiyuru

hotaru kana

 

In my hand,

sadly,  it fades

the firefly!

 

Chora died May 5th, 1776 (my translation):

 

gokuraku to

iute neburu ya

kaya no uchi

 

“Paradise”

I murmur in my sleep!

in the mosquito netting

 

After his death, his wife responded with:

 

ka no koe mo

kanashiki kaya no

atari kana

 

the drone of the mosquitoes

round the netting, too,

is sad

 

The famous artist, Hokusai, who made the beautiful woodblock prints of Mt. Fuji, died on April 12th 1849 (my translation):

 

hitodama

yuku kisan ja

natsu no hara

 

As a ghost

I will wander

the summer fields

 

As spring unfolded, he clearly longed for the green beauty of summer, when the fields have grown and the undergrowth is thick.

Here is one last one—-Kinu died on March 2nd, 1817:

 

yururi saku

kotoshi no hana no

kakugo kana

 

How leisurely the cherry

blossoms bloom this year, unhurried,

by their doom!

 

As I have mentioned before, the cherry blossoms are always a strong symbol of the temporal nature of life. This is Heidegger’s existentialism–the beauty of the cherry blossom, which the Japanese wait a whole year for, yet it lasts for only a short time, before raining down, petal by petal, in one last final show of beauty before the blossoms decay back into nature.  Heidegger would add that, to be truly human, one must break free from the conformity of the collective consciousness, and to stand out and shine as does the cherry blossom. But in this haiku by the poet, now facing the  certainty of death, the sakura shine on, as if oblivious to their own finality. As they begin to blossom they have their whole life as a blossom ahead of them…

(I added the last comma and the appropriate exclamation point, because the emphasis of the Japanese ‘kana‘ is on the final line).

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One thought on “Spring Death Poems (Haru no jisei)

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