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).

DEATH POEMS (JISEI)

There is another form of haiku that is special in Japan. Well-known haiku poets, the classic poets, and even modern day poets and haiku enthusiasts will produce one of these, sometimes there is some confusion and there may be 2 or 3 such haiku poems—-but the concept is that a person will only produce ‘one’ such poem in his or her lifetime.

 

I am talking about a jisei—a death poem. This is the final poem the artist produces when he knows death is inevitable and soon to be. Fortunately, I am not in that predicament so I will not be sharing my own Death Poem—nor do I even have my own Death Poem. Instead I will share some of the death poems of the classic masters. (These are from a book compiled by Yoel Hoffman, and therefore may be his translations, which I have kept unless I felt it could be translated better).

 

It is Spring now—but we just had a very cold weekend, and plenty of snow—so here are some winter jisei:

 

This one is by the poet Wakyu who died on November 10, 1759:

 

Tsui ni yuku

yuki fumiwakete

fude no michi

 

Heading to the end

treading through heavy snow

way of the brush

 

It doesn’t say heavy snow but that is implied—fumiwakete comes from the verb to step (fumu) and spread apart (wakeru), so it could also be translated as to plow through. The way of the brush, refers to the life of a poet. It implies that the life of a poet is a tough one, but he also suggests that the path he must now go on (death) is also a difficult one.

 

Here is the jisei of Wagin, who died on January 3, 1758:

 

kuse ni natte

nishi ogamikeri

hatsu ashita

 

Its become a habit

bowing to the West

New Year’s dawn

 

Based on Shinto traditions, the Japanese bow to the rising sun on the first morning of the New Years (hatsu ashita–first morning). The West is the direction of the land of the dead, and the Buddhist paradise. As a Buddhist Wagin had become used to bowing to the West. There is a saying in Japan that you are born Shinto and die Buddhist. This doesn’t mean you change religion—if you are born Japanese you are always Shinto, but you also traditionally follow Buddhism. But the Shinto ceremonies tend to be more for the beginning of life—such as numerous ceremonies you take part in at certain ages as a child, or marriage, for example. But a funeral, and the ceremonies on the anniversaries of one’s relative’s death are always a Buddhist affair. But Wagin suggests that he will not bow to the rising sun on New Year’s morning, because he is already ready for the next world.

 

Tojaku, November 8, 1799

 

Mu ni kaeru

mi zo

yuki shimo no itoi nashi

 

Returning to the void

this body!

no longer bothered by the snow and frost

 

A jisei does not neccesarily have to have a seasonal word like standard haiku. In fact it could be a tanka or another form of poem, though haiku are the most common. (I gave an example of a tanka in some of my earlier posts). Here is a haiku without a seasonal word by Toko who died on Feb 11, 1795:

 

jisei to wa

sunawachi mayoi

tada shinan

 

Death poems

are mere delusions.

there is only death

 

Sugetsu died on November 20, 1830:

 

tsumu toshi ni

tabiji e

yuki no kareno kana

 

The years have piled up

on my path

snow on the withered fields!

 

 

The famous Basho, died on October 20th, 1694:

 

tabi ni yande

yume wa kareno o

kakemeguru

 

fallen ill on a journey

my dreams

wander over withered fields

 

Basho’s death occurred after falling ill on one of his famous journeys–his last one—across Japan.

 

Another famous poet–Issho, died December 6, 1688. He was hoping to let Basho, who would soon be travelling through his village stay at his home, unfortunately he did not last that long:

 

kokoro kara

yuki utsukushi ya

nishi no kumo

 

From deep in my heart

the snow is beautiful!

clouds in the west.

 

 

The following Autumn, Basho wrote a haiku of sadness over Issho’s death:

 

tsuka mo ugoke

waga naku koe wa

aki no kaze

 

Move you tomb!

the sound of my weeping

the autumn wind