Sorry for the short absence of posts. My life has been a whirlwind lately. I just got a new (great) job and had to move as soon as possible. I hope this might have given some readers a nice break and others a chance to catch up on some of the recent posts. Now that I am back and “re-connected,” I’d like to present a new Viral I wrote for one of my very favorite haiku. Here’s to new beginnings!
Virals is a section in which one person choses a haiku by another person and comments on that haiku. Then the author of that haiku is invited to select a haiku by someone else and comment on that poem, and so on. For an introduction to this section, see Virals.
O en n s by Scott Metz
a love letter to
the butterfly gods with
— Chris Gordon
Another love letter.
This ku creates its openings for the reader not through juxtaposition, or strong, irruptive/disjunctive cuts or breaks, but with something called “ma”: a kind of “betweeness,” creating realities beyond language and empty places for the reader to enter and imagine (Hasegawa Kai, “Haiku Cosmos 2”). This poem has quite a few: specific details (and the absences they create), the creation of an alternative, mythopoeic world, as well as allusions to Asian philosophy and literature and Western mythology/religion.
This poem is entirely objective. And yet, we feel the strong, knowing presence of both the poet/witness (fascinated and concentrating) and the author of the letter; through their absence, we feel their presence more strongly than if they were both directly in the poem (in the form of “I” or “he/she”). The poem feels both fictionalized as well as directly observed. Who knows though. That’s part of the fun. To quote Haruo Shirane: “Fiction can be very realistic and even more real than life itself” (“Beyond the Haiku Moment”).
The love letter itself it seems must have been written by someone of a certain age with some amount of knowing, intelligence and understanding of the world and language. And yet, the poem has a sincere childlike quality, fascination, imagination and excitement.
Whatever the situation is, there is an intimacy between the poet/observer and the author of the love letter. The intimacy could be personal, someone close to the poet. It could be the actual poet. Or it could be someone they have never met, however they know their life and their oeuvre quite intimately (for example, the novelist and entomologist Vladimir Nabokov whom I can imagine hunched over his writing table, writing out his love letter to the butterfly gods on his famous index cards in pencil).
In a sincere way though, the poet is close to the love letter’s author: the poet knows that the misspellings are purposeful and strategic. The exciting opening for us as readers is to ponder “why”? Why the strategic misspellings? What is their purpose? What does the love letter’s author know about the “butterfly gods” that we do not? What does the absence or addition of letters (the openings) in their spelling tell us about the nature of butterflies, their lives, and their gods? What has been misspelled? Which words? Why? It seems the misspellings have a deep link and relationship to nature itself; that the misspellings are supposed to be a mimicry of nature’s additions and new items (a flower, a leaf, a stone, a spot of sunshine, or the spot of warmth after its has left). If the butterflies are attracted to those additions and subtractions and seasonal fluctuations, then perhaps their gods will be attracted to something similar in a letter to them. In this sense, the absence of an O becomes not only a flower but a magnetic, vortex-like looking-glass to suck them in, if not trick them.
The poem is season-less, and yet “butterfly” is there in the mentioning of their gods (therefore conjuring up a world of spring, traditionally, or summer), who construct not only the “reality” of the human world the letter is being composed in, but also an alternative reality/world/place/dimension.
What do the butterfly gods (plural, not singular) look like? Where do they reside? Wherever it might be, they, at the very least, exist inside the mind and imagination of the love letter’s author—the only place they need to exist. We can only guess, but perhaps the strategic misspellings will attract the but
terfly gods’ attention and make them reappear, become more visible, more active, present, and visit more often, come sooner than later, in order to help the author’s heart/mind/soul which must be experiencing some kind of sadness or pain. With this reading, the season then is not spring or summer, when butterflies are most present but, perhaps, autumn or, better yet, winter. The letter’s author misses them terribly. “I l ve y u. Pl se r t rn s n.”
The word “butterfly gods” reaches into the past in two ways: one toward the East, the other towards the West, working as a kind of super-allusion. This technique is what Haruo Shirane has called the “vertical axis”: “leading back into the past, to history, to other poems” (Shirane).
The poem’s Eastern allusion, of course, links to the rich history of Japanese haiku written on butterflies down through the centuries, adding a strand to the web:
A fallen flower returning to the branch? It was a butterfly.
— Moritake (15th-16 c.) [trans. R. H. Blyth]
You are the butterfly and I the dreaming heart of Chuang-tzu
— Bashō (17th c.) [trans. Robert Aitken]
butterfly what are you dreaming fanning your wings
— Chiyojo (18th c.)
Settled on a temple bell and asleep—a butterfly
— Buson (18h c.) [trans. by Hiroaki Sato]
The butterfly having disappeared, my spirit came back to me
— Wafū (19th c.) [trans. R. H. Blyth]
a butterfly went past after seeing me as an apparition
— Yasumasa Sōda (20th c.)
[trans. Gendai Haiku Kyokai]
These are only a few examples, but a clear thread that ties them together, and many many other examples if shown, is “sleeping” and “dreaming.” As the Bashō example explicitly references, the use of the butterfly more often than not was a literary allusion that goes back even further to Chunag-tzu’s butterfly dream and Daoism in general, a philosophy that was central to Bashō’s poetry and way of life (see Basho And The Dao: The Zhuangzi And The Transformation Of Haikai by Peipei Qiu), in addition to Chinese literature and poetry (see Li Po’s poem, “Ancient Song”; be sure to scroll down). Another dimension is Japan’s indigenous religion/spiritual belief system, Shintōism, and its worshipping of nature, ancestors, polytheism, and animism, celebrating the existence of kami (gods/spirits). In this sense, by connecting to this work through the “vertical axis,” Gordon’s poem not only becomes a part of and an extension of haiku tradition but also, through the examples shown, takes on a dream-like quality.
Reaching into the West, “the butterfly gods” engage with European paganism as well as Roman and Greek polytheism. By not saying “a butterfly” is “a god” or “spirit” but that there are gods, somewhere else—a place we can’t see them, looking over things, making decisions, playing with people/mortals, controlling some strings (heartstrings?)—the poem draws us away and out of Eastern spirituality/religion/literature and into a more Western frame of reference and understanding.
One could go so far as to say that haiku poets in general (East or West) do indeed believe in butterfly gods; when we write of butterflies, in essence, we are keeping the butterfly gods alive by worshipping them with our thoughts and sacrificing words to them. However, in writing about a subject that has been done and done again ad infinitum by haiku poets the world over, Gordon creates something entirely new and fresh again—precisely what modern English haiku should be doing and be about. He not only makes it new, but makes it artistic, deep and rich, as Kaneko Tōta suggests: “create the new in the grandeur of the old.”
As featured poet, Chris Gordon will select the next poem and comment on it for Viral 7.2.
Blyth, R. H. Haiku (4 Volumes) [The Hokuseido Press, Tokyo, 1949], 24.
Aitken, Robert. A Zen Wave (Counterpoint, 2003), 97.
Sato, Hiroaki and Burton Watson. From the Country of Eight Islands (Columbia University Press, New York, 1986), 340.4 Blyth, R. H. Haiku, 541.
Gendai Haiku Kyokai (Modern Haiku Association). The Haiku Universe for the 21st Century (Modern Haiku Association, Tokyo,, 2008), 91.