Friday, June 15, 2012

`As Peaceable as Could Be'

After weeks of quasi-drought the sky darkened, lending the outdoors the dim closeness of the indoors, and my wife and youngest son ran in the back door just as rain and lightning exploded. Leaves and pine needles washed in waves down the driveway. The air was charged and smelled of ozone (from ὄζειν, “to smell”). The terra cotta pots of herbs quickly overflowed and the lights dimmed but never went out. In twenty minutes it was over and by morning the streets were dry. Since I was a kid I’ve loved the volatility of summer, still five days away, and the thrill of its storms. My brother and I hid under the bed with our parakeet and books to read by flashlight, savoring the fright.

On this date in 1763, Kobayashi Yatarō was born to a farming family in Kashiwabara, in what is now Japan’s Nagano Prefecture. He took the name Issa, “Cup of Tea,” wrote 20,000 poems and came to be known as one of the “Three Pillars of Haiku,” after Matsuo Bashō and Yosa Buson. For his delicacy of observation, common sense and devotion to the natural world, R.H. Blyth likened him to Thoreau. In his Dew on the Grass: The Life and Poetry of Kobayashi Issa (Brill, 2004), Makoto Ueda writes:

“In all likelihood he was a boy who preferred reading to farm work, and his father and grandmother let him have his own way. Introverted by nature, he probably had few playmates as well.”

I find two haiku by Issa devoted to summer storms, both concluding with references to the human body, as though he felt it necessary to humble the fury of nature. In The Dumpling Field: Haiku of Issa (Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 1991), Lucien Stryk and Noboru Fujiwara give us this:

“Summer field—
or my empty stomach.”

In Dew on the Grass, Ueda renders this:

“lightning flashes—
in the middle of the field
a man taking a bath”

Of the latter, Ueda writes: “The wooden bathtub is out in the field since it was considered pleasanter to bathe in the open air—a privilege of farmers living in remote areas.” On first reading, the haiku seemed to describe a self-destructive fool waiting to be struck by lightning. Ueda implies the farmer is savoring the luxury of bathing in a storm, perhaps to be rinsed by the rain. In the summer issue of The Threepenny Review, David Ferry’s “Everybody’sTree” recalls the mingled fear and rapture kindled by a summer storm in childhood. It begins:

“The storm broke over us on a summer night,
All brilliance and display; and being out,
Dangerously I thought, on the front porch standing,
Over my head the lightning skated and blistered
And sizzled and skidded and yelled in the bursting down
Around my maybe fourteen-years-old being,
And in spite of all the fireworks up above
And what you’d thought would have been the heat of all
That exuberant rage, the air was suddenly cool
And fresh and as peaceable as could be,
Down on the porch, so different from what it was
My body was expecting.”

The choice of “peaceable” rather than “peaceful” brings to mind this.

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