Favourite Haiku by Elizabeth Smither

How much I desire!
Inside my little satchel,
the moon and flowers!

– Matsuo Basho

How beautifully proportioned and sane Basho’s haiku reads. The satchel, representing worldly possessions, is small and modest: all we can possess is small. And the two examples of desire: one at the feet and one so far out of reach, complement each other, as if the moonlight is touching the flower petals.

Sitting at my desk last night I watched the closing of the yellow gazanias that had been open all day, receiving the sun. All were closed up except for a few at the edge of the bed that were in a last ray of sunlight and were enjoying its beams. They could have been a little shoal of fish or flock of birds, even the audience at a concert, suddenly beginning to applaud.

What a seemingly simple form haiku is and yet one of the hardest. A longer poem might express longing (perhaps the grounds of poetry) but it has time and images at its disposal. Even if it fails in some part it may succeed in the end. But in a haiku everything is as fine as a jewelled Faberge egg.

The longing, the sense of life – ‘How much I desire’ (the childish freshness of it, though a child might not know the word ‘desire’, only act on it from morning to night): and then the objects selected – satchel (container, rather like a heart), moon and flowers (extremes); and above all the immediacy of it as if the world, the face, has been touched by a cloth and received an imprint.

Thinking back to the pottery class I once went to in which the amateur potters, if they produced a few decent pots, at least went some way towards revealing their secret selves. A coarse-spoken graceless woman would produce something delicate; myself, perhaps something like a cow pat. (The vase that turned in stages of collapse into a low-sided dish, then a plate, then did service as an ashtray.) At least from pottery I learned that a pot is either alive or dead (nothing we produced was remotely alive). In a pot that deserves to live, the fire still licks round the clay and, even if it is centuries old, the potter still touches his work.

do not worry.
I keep house casually.

– Kobayashi Issa

When I return to my house, hastily cleaned at the last moment, a few strategic windows, a whisking of the vacuum cleaner, a dabbing at a hand basin, I find a trail of ants on the kitchen bench. The house – it is not only the ants – seems strange. The air smells different, thicker. An ancient cat odour – despite drycleaning – is being released from the flokati rug. What believers cats are in perfume!

I find a can of fly spray and spray the bench, then I open the windows and walk through the rooms. Issa’s spider would feel comfortable with me for I would hardly notice his web and if I did I am more likely to admire its fine weaving than vacuum it away.

And this morning, picking a bunch of pink roses for a friend and setting them down on the dining room table, the water drops they spill – the petals are still full of them – make a pattern that is alive and beautiful. I think that these touches which can never be planned or even anticipated are the very alpha of housekeeping. And even if a sort of perfection was achieved, one of these touches would be necessary to affirm a human lived here, someone who picked flowers, avoiding the ones with unopened or half-opened buds, which need to stay longer in the earth before gracing someone’s table.

                 Do not fight
but help one another
on your way
dear migrating birds

– Issa

The kingfisher is on the telegraph wire again, puffed up against the early morning cold like a schoolboy with a peaked cap pulled down over his eyes and a school scarf tight around his neck. I regard him as belonging to me – how strange if he could imagine an adult inside a house, regarding him as something between a bird and personal omen, harbinger of … what? A solitary bird is one of the most moving things in nature.

Sometimes when I am flying and the plane is making its descent I notice a single bird making its way and feel intensely moved by its solitariness and resolve. Comparing that bird to myself is always salutary. I’m thinking someone will be there to meet me, we will have a cup of coffee before driving off; the conversation will be full of confidences and the need, which human beings always seem to possess, for reassurance. The bird had none: it simply flew on, beating its wings against the wind or occasionally catching an updraft and briefly resting.

So the kingfisher that will not linger long on the telegraph wire, perhaps just long enough to warm its breast, before it plunges in a startling flash of blue, is like a moral check-up: a joy with an underside that is as severe and penetrating as that long beak.

* * *

In 2005 there was a poorly attended poetry festival in Wellington to which a group of international poets were invited. There was Sam Hamill who had turned down an invitation from Laura Bush to read at the White House and then rallied poets against war. At the end of the festival he presented a film called Poets Against War which finally had an audience. There was the Irish poet, John F Deane, and my favourite, Ban’ya Natsuishi, who read a series of enchanting haiku, The Flying Pope.

Flying Pope
visible only to children
and a giraffe

The Flying Pope’s
best friend: an octopus
at the bottom of the sea.

– Ban’ya Natsuishi (two haiku from a series of ten)

Instantly I had a delightful image of the pope flying, not in the papal jet, but high in the sky in mitre and vestments, his crozier tucked under his arm. A lonely figure, outside his papal rooms and gardens; his unlikely friend, the octopus, accompanying him beneath the sea.

We travelled in a minivan which became increasingly disordered; I bought Sam Hamill a bourbon; Tendo Taijin announced each performance with the hyoshigi; Andrew Fagan, not to be outdone, rang a bell to signify the end of each poem and leapt nimbly on to a library table. We stayed at the Home of Compassion in Island Bay where the nuns (closet feminists?) gave me a large room and the men small single ones. In the hallways were black and white photographs of holiday camps, nuns in heavy habits and wimples with wings helping children across a stream on a plank bridge.

Despite the small audiences, we enjoyed ourselves. We looked out on to gardens with red and white camellia trees and white statues of the Virgin and child. The nuns unobtrusively checked we had everything we required; we breakfasted together and made quantities of toast. Yet the famous poets who had travelled long distances – India, Algeria, Mexico, Japan, the United States – must have been bemused by the tiny audiences. However, they were too polite to say and like poets everywhere – almost a vocational requirement – they extracted enjoyment from each day. None of us was as lonely as the Flying Pope.

Editor’s note: The text has been taken from The Commonplace Book by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, 2011) and appears here with the author’s permission.

Elizabeth Smither is a poet, novelist and short story writer, a former Poet Laureate of New Zealand and in 2008 won the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Poetry, worth $60,000. She has twice won the New Zealand Book Award for Poetry. A retired librarian, Elizabeth was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature from Auckland University in 2002 and a made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2004. She lives in New Plymouth, the city of her birth. Her first public reading was in Stratford.

Read an excellent article about Elizabeth, her life and work here.