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三界はやせ犬わしる天のがは
sangai wa yaseinu washiru amanogawa

the three realms arethe river of heavenalong which a skinny dog runs

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Japan was living through the aftermath of war. The country was poor, and the stray dogs and cats were skinny. The ecosystem, however, was rich. We saw bats flying over the town at dusk, and weasels crossing the roads during the day. I particularly remember the beauty of the starry skies of autumn—I would stare in adoration at the shooting stars as I walked back from taking a bath at one of the public bathhouses. Later, the haiku poet Nagata Kōi (1900–1977) took a liking to this haiku and asked me to write it with a brush on a thin strip of paper, which he hung in his study in Suma, located in the city of Kobe.

The expression sangai, literally "three worlds," refers to the three realms of Buddhist existence: the realm of desire-driven beings, the realm of beings with form, and the realm of beings without form. Taken together, this expression can be used as a way to refer to the entire world or cosmos. Amanogawa, translated above as "river of heaven," is the Japanese expression for the Milky Way. One senses my youthful brashness in the verb washiru, used in the place of the more common verb hashiru, meaning "run." [End Page 136]

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秋の水渡りし人も暮れゆけり
aki no mizu watarishi hito mo kureyukeri

autumn water—dusk also falls on himwho has already crossed

One evening in autumn, I was standing on one side of a shallow river looking at a man as he crossed. By the time he reached the other shore, he had disappeared into darkness. No sooner had I realized this than I became aware that I was also surrounded by darkness. Perhaps I was discovering what it is like to perceive time.

This haiku was anthologized as one of ninety poems in Collection of Old Haiku (Kyūkuchō), which appeared in a series of haiku and tanka collections called Fire Pheasant, Water Gardenia (Hi no kiji, mizu no kuchinashi). This series, edited by Masada Kishio, contained commentary by the important tanka poet Tsukamoto Kunio (1920–2005) and was published in 1973 by Yukawa Shobō.

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棹ささむあやめのはての忘れ川
sao sasamu ayame no hate no wasuregawa

I will guide with my pole—the river of forgetfulnessbeyond the irises

I suspect that when I wrote this, I was drawing upon elements from two sources. One appears in the ninth chapter, "Journey to the Eastern Provinces," of the tenth-century classic The Tales of Ise (Ise monogatari), in which the Heian court poet Ariwara no Nari hira visits the Eight Bridges (Yatsuhashi) in Mikawa and composes a nostalgic poem about home while looking at a bunch of blooming irises. The other is the fifteenth-century Noh play Sumida River (Sumidagawa), in which a grieving mother travels with a ferryman in search of her lost son, only to encounter his ghost and learn he had died some time before. The kakitsubata (a rabbit-ear iris, or Iris laevigata), which appears in Tales of Ise here is turned into ayame (a Siberian iris, or Iris sanguinea), while the ferryman guiding the boat with his pole in Sumida River has melded with the image of the traveler from Tales of Ise.

The word wasuregawa, literally "forgotten river," also contains two associations. On one hand, it recalls the word wasuremizu, literally "forgotten water," which flows in small, unnoticed rivulets through fields and other places. On the other hand, it can also mean "the river of forgetfulness," as in the river Lethe in Greek myth. One of my habits in writing is to merge associations from the Japanese classics with classics from the rest of the world. [End Page 137]

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葉となりし桜を愛づる荒サびかな
ha to narishi sakura o mezuru susabi kana

a diversionto admire the cherry treesalready in leaves

Now, each spring when the cherry trees are in bloom, I want to write about the blossoming trees, but that only started when I turned forty. Not a single haiku about cherry blossoms...

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