ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the crafting strategies Japanese haikuist Ban’ya Natsuishi uses to create emotional depth in three haiku collections: Endless Helix (2009), Hybrid Paradise (2010), and Black Card (2013), published by Cyberwit Press. Natsuishi is a professor at Meiji University, Director of the World Haiku Association, president of Ginyu Press, and Director of Tokyo Poetry Festival. His three emotionally evocative volumes of haiku present a variety of themes, including natural and nuclear disasters, which have in recent years devastated Japan.
by Anna Cates
To serious haikuists, Ban’ya Natsuishi may be a familiar name. Natsuishi is a professor at Meiji University, director of the World Haiku Association, president of Ginyu Press, and director of the Tokyo Poetry Festival. Haikuists who’ve submitted poems to the poet/publisher/editor may recall the affectionate “Love ya” with which Natsuishi concludes his professional correspondences. And those who’ve examined Natsuishi’s creative works may have noted distinctive features in his haiku (and/or senryu). His subject matter includes particularly dark and somber themes, such as natural and nuclear disaster, which lends emotional depth to his poetry. This emotional depth is a key element in Natsuishi’s distinctive style, evident through an exploration of three of his haiku collections, published by Cyberwit Press: Endless Helix, Hybrid Paradise, and Black Card. In these collections, the reader will note a remarkable range of emotions from the human experience, from lighter to darker moments, though darker moments, with the inherent sentiments they invoke, are more often featured. The idea of death and disaster can make some feel uncomfortable, threatened, but such themes and their emotional impact are important to explore since they genuinely reflect the human experience.
Endless Helix (2009), Hybrid Paradise (2010), and Black Card (2013) present haiku evoking a wide range of emotions and involving a wide range of crafting strategies that furbish the depth of emotion. From grief and horror to hope and joy, the selections reflect the human condition in their intensity of feeling. It is worth noting, however, that most of Natsuishi’s selections from the three volumes evoke decidedly negative emotions, due largely to the subject matter they concern, such as the Fukushima nuclear accident, precipitated by a massive earthquake and tsunami, as well as the historic atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended World War II. The poet is somewhat unique in his decision to embrace such lugubrious themes in a poetic form often associated with serenity and natural beauty.
Fear & Uncertainty
Fear and uncertainty are two of several feelings Natsuishi incorporates in his haiku:
From a cloud
the silver-haired demon
roars with laughter (Endless Helix 15)
Stylistically, poems of this variety harken back to Japan’s artistic tradition, with painters such as Kawanabe Kyosai (see Figure 1), whose works feature ghosts and demons, depicting human fears difficult to express with words, fears of death and the supernatural unknown.
The poem remains open-ended. It could express a child’s innocent fear of a thunderstorm or the more sinister reality of the nuclear mushroom cloud, the latter theme more directly presented in some of Natsuishi’s other poems. The possibility of the poet depicting a more innocent, childhood memory of his own fear appears in other selections as well:
remind me of my father
dead drunk (Endless Helix 36)
The poet may be sharing with the reader about the difficulties of his childhood: a father who sometimes drank to excess and the unfading memories of the fearful emotions it produced. Of course, the poem may also be read as analogous, speaking directly of a tsunami’s menacing threat.
Uncertainty is another emotion aroused in Natsuishi’s haiku.
The gold and black
in the picture —
which is our future? (Endless Helix 12)
Here, color symbolizes negative and positive outcomes. What does our future hold? Good or bad? Gold or black? The anxiety caused by these uncertainties is successfully suggested through figurative language.
Below is another selection evoking a feeling of uncertainty.
A cloud beyond any shape —
we have lost
our memory (Endless Helix 35)
This selection’s import is highly open-ended. Many different possibilities for interpretation are inherent through association. Might the poet speak of the possibility of dementia in old age? Or does he call to mind our human inability, or belligerent refusal, to learn from the mistakes of our past? Either way, the feeling of uncertainty comes across through diction and imagery.
Tying in with uncertainty, insecurity is a feeling repeatedly evoked in, especially, the disaster-themed haiku of Natsuishi. One may note the sense of insecurity, or futility, captured in the below selection, both deeply ironic and facetious.
A great decision on Monday
blown by a wind (Hybrid Paradise 4)
Here, we get the sense that all our plans, symbolized by the roses, will be lost by upheavals beyond our control. Natsuishi conveys the idea of tragedy subtly through natural imagery. He emphasizes the concrete image of the roses by assigning them a line of their own.
With all the death and disaster that can result from hurricanes, Tsunamis, nuclear disasters and the like, separation anxiety, another variety of insecurity, is another emotion the poet conveys:
Between father and me
and cities of fire (Hybrid Paradise 86)
This selection is another example of significant line breaks in Natsuishi’s haiku. A complete divide exists between the natural world in line two and urban holocaust in line three. The poet continues the naturalistic tradition in haiku, using natural images to convey human emotion, linking human experience with nature.
The same strategy can be noted in the below selection, expressing the feeling of dehumanization, but another variety of insecurity.
Within a Tokyo forest
a stray man runs into
a stray man (Hybrid Paradise 4)
Ironically, the “forest” is the asphalt jungle, where men are comparable to dogs. Natsuishi suggests a regression to our primordial past, a tragic return to primitive, animalistic existence.
The same idea is hinted at in another selection.
During an earthquake
a monkey keyboarding
in Japan (Hybrid Paradise 10)
The impact of natural disasters has dehumanized or devolved us. Nature has put us back in our place. Now, we remain like caged animals:
our language is a cage (Hybrid Paradise 38)
This selection evokes a clear feeling of confinement. Startling colors heighten the emotion inherent in the imagery.
A sense of being confined or constricted emerges in other selections as well, as multiple haiku converge thematically to enhance the emotional impact of each other.
Words and glances:
within this box (Hybrid Paradise 9)
Here, existence following disaster is like living in a tiny box. We are caged like trapped animals; all we do and say is restricted to a tiny space, bounded on every side by impenetrable walls. Line two may hint with more particularity at the nature of the disaster: a raging sea (tsunami). Natsuishi clarifies the experience through the haiku crafting technique of association (Reichhold).
The poet depicts the apocalyptic experience with depth.
Bread and light
an inch away
from a doghouse (Hybrid Paradise 108)
Continuing with the concept of disaster-forged dehumanization, the poet uses irony and imagery to describe a famished human being, inching toward the comfort of a bowl of dog food. The image is startling, presenting one vivid example of the terrible impact of natural and/or nuclear disaster.
The poet uses metaphor to convey the impact of apocalyptic experience.
Violent wind —
a thousand mice
pushing a car of fire (Hybrid Paradise 89)
Once more, humankind, grappling with natural and/or nuclear disaster, is dehumanized into the tiniest of animals, striving beneath impossible burdens.
Horror & Grief
Natsuishi’s haiku also grapple with feelings of horror and grief:
The snake has stolen
the golden grass:
our first unhappiness (Endless Helix 24)
The poet speaks of that unhappy moment we might experience when we find we’ve lost something precious, and we don’t understand how it happened. The golden grass metaphorically presents that precious thing. The snake, harkening back to Christian archetype and myth, is that ambiguous evil that thwarts us.
Grief over loss is also evoked in the following selection:
Where there was a tree
near the pure spring—
the noise of saws (Endless Helix 8)
True, haiku often deals with naturalistic themes so that deforestation itself would amount to a woe worth lamenting. Yet an additional metaphorical level is possible. The tree may represent any element worth preserving that becomes lost through destructive forces.
Another selection that depicts grief, caused more directly by death or destruction, can be noted below:
The word “Hiroshima”
is it heavier
than a butterfly? (Endless Helix 9)
Here, Natsuishi uses the rhetorical device of question-asking to prompt our thinking about an important topic with intrinsic emotional impact. The beauty of the locale before the bombing is captured in the natural symbolism of the butterfly.
Personification and animation are other literary devices Natsuishi relies upon when presenting themes of grief and horror.
bares its fangs
water weeping (Black Card 79)
Here, nuclear disaster is demonized, while human grief is projected onto nature, deepening the emotion.
Natsuishi uses irony and religious allusion to express his grief over devastated nature in another selection:
by plutonium (Black Card 89)
Here, focusing on a single blade of grass, the poet employs the haiku crafting technique of “thinking small” and “looking closely” as an approach to depicting one scene or “aha moment” (Janeczko 52). Also, by employing ironic word choices such as “richly baptized,” which normally have positive connotations, to portray nuclear contamination, the poet enhances the emotional impact of the poem. He makes light of the situation, almost satirically. This is also a poetic technique understood to evoke emotion (Hambrick 1).
Natsuishi employs the same strategy of ironic diction in additional selections.
Accidental festival of anxiety
in front of a station
after an earthquake (Black Card 76)
The poet uses unexpected and fresh word choices such as “festival” to describe the horror. Irony, “when the unexpected happens, or is said,” is another poetic technique known to evoke emotion (Hambrick 1).
In other instances, the poet astonishes the reader to enhance the emotional impact.
Behind a vacant tower
on dog shit (Black Card 64)
The reader is presented with one layer of the grotesque on top of another, as the poet continues to “look closely” and “think small.” He reverses the pattern of shorter line/longer line/shorter line perhaps to emphasize how the disaster has turned the world upside down, which, in turn, emphasizes the horror. This stylistic feature can be noted in other selections by Natsuishi as well.
Natsuishi vividly depicts the horrific power of the tsunami and its emotional impact in the following selection:
A giant tsunami
gives birth to
a waterfall of cars (Black Card 82)
The poet employs exemplification and specificity to deepen the sentiment.
Natsuishi uses the rhetorical strategy of comparison and contrast to liken the disaster’s devastation to the feeling of being unloved.
a giant tongue of waves
licking everything (Black Card 77)
This technique of comparison is intrinsic to haiku. As noted by Betty Drevniok: “In haiku the SOMETHING and the SOMETHING ELSE are set down together in clearly stated images. Together they complete and fulfill each other as ONE PARTICULAR EVENT” (Reichhold).
With vivid imagery and synesthesia, the perception that one physical stimulus is another (Trumbull 101), Natsuishi depicts the grievous tragedy of death.
over the gently sloping road
toward death (Black Card 41)
The poet makes death personal and undignified, describing his father’s private regions:
My father, mouth
and anus wide open —
a shining cloud (Black Card 44)
Vivid images such as these are always emotionally evocative. As noted by Lee Gurga, imagery involves both “an intuitive and emotional complex” (emphasis added) related to the “aha moment.”
Some of the deepest feelings Natsuishi evokes involve a horror over death not specifically tied to any event.
Far from his homeland
the skull is a villa
for a snake (Endless Helix 21)
The poet uses crafting strategies to incite feelings of grief over the loss of a loved one. A personal pronoun, “his,” describes a skull that was once a living being, affectionately held. Compounding and deepening the emotion is the snake; that archetypical, evil enemy of man; who’s taken over and now possesses all that’s left of the deceased person. The living snake writhing in the skull is more horrible than an empty skull alone! This is another selection that may harken back to Japan’s artistic tradition, with painters such as Kawanabe Kyosai (see Figure 2).
Of the three volumes in focus, Black Card (2013) may be Natsuishi’s darkest collection, published in the years following the Fukishima nuclear disaster. Compared to his other volumes, Black Card centers most definitively on urban upheaval after catastrophic events. Black Card employs a variety of poetic strategies to depict with emotional depth, a climate of physical and metaphysical desolation after cataclysm, along with the resultant emotions of grief and horror.
Hope & Joy
However, despite the negative emotions expressed in Endless Helix (2009), Hybrid Paradise (2010), and Black Card (2013), lighter-hearted selections, featuring positive emotions, also appear for contrast. We might note the following example:
With her child
my sister returns home —
a peach tree in full bloom (Endless Helix 25)
In this selection, we find the simple theme of love and family. The child reflects the promise of life’s continuity, symbolized by a fruit bearing tree in full bloom, connected to the child. The poem is uplifting, evoking joy.
Other selections express similar positive emotions and themes:
Cherry blossoms never fallen
in the castle of our heart
here is a path (Hybrid Paradise 30)
The speaker expresses hope and joy, finding within himself something with which to carry on. That life also affords these instances is overtly expressed in another selection as well.
In the middle of jet lag
a great joy
like deep sea water (Hybrid Paradise 63)
Here, the poet expresses that moment in which happiness bubbles up within him for no particular reason. It is a shared human experience the reader can relate to.
Serving as a final example of positive emotions in Natsuishi’s haiku, we can consider the following hopeful selection from Black Card:
Death is not the last answer
a bird singing
behind the mountains (Black Card 69)
Here, the hopeful idea of life after death is introduced metaphorically. The singing bird is like our soul, finding paradise “behind the mountains.” Again, the poet uses crafting techniques to generate the feeling as metaphor is always a device useful toward that end (Ross).
Finally, it is worth noting that some of Natsuishi’s selections include more ambiguous sentiments; for example, longing is one emotion the poet sometimes evokes, and it is neither a positive nor negative feeling. Consider the following selection:
The bird wants
to become a black stone
in the bosom of the moon (Endless Helix 26)
Here, the speaker projects unfulfilled human desire onto the bird. The poem concerns unutterable human longing referenced metaphorically as the “black stone / in the bosom of the moon.” The moon is personified, reflecting the human wish for intimacy.
Overall, in Endless Helix, Hybrid Paradise, and Black Card, Natsuishi showcases, among other themes, Japan’s historical and more recent natural and nuclear disasters. In these volumes the events seem to take on dimensions beyond the physical or natural. A supernatural, metaphysical aspect is embedded in the tragedies, leaving the poet grappling on multiple levels. Using a variety of crafting strategies to foster depth of emotion, Natsuishi gives those lucky enough to not have personally witnessed the apocalyptic events a chance to understand and learn from them. Natsuishi achieves depth of emotion, and a variety of emotions, by employing diverse poetic techniques. “Meaningful poems invite or evoke an emotional response” (Hambrick 1). With their depth of emotion, Natsuishi’s haiku achieve a level of meaningfulness.
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