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Monday, Oct. 9, 2000

From nothingness, a celebration of life

A DREAM LIKE THIS WORLD: One Hundred Haiku, by Nagata Koi, translated by Naruto Nana and Margaret Mitsutani. Tokyo: Todosha Publishers, 2000, 147 pp., 2,381 yen (cloth).

Dream and waking life. Reality and illusion. Where does one begin and the other end? This question radiates at the heart of Nagata Koi's impressionistic haiku.

is my head a hole? -- fallen camellia

Koi's life spanned almost the entire century, and much of it was devoted to a philosophical inquiry into the nature of real and unreal, art and life, matter and nothingness. "I believe that poetry is what changes existence into illusion. Or you might say it changes reality into illusion," Koi writes. And as his haiku embodies this inquiry, it is more quest than conquest.

loneliness -- growing leeks in a dream like this world

It comes as little surprise to learn that Koi's poetic vision is rooted in Zen Buddhism, particularly the work of Dogen (1200-1253), which he studied as a young man. In fact, the Eastern concept of "mu" (nothingness) is at the heart of Koi's poetics, and a sense of calm distance pervades his haiku. Not that there isn't wonder and reverie in it, too.

Koi didn't see Zen as the path to enlightenment, but rather valued the state of never quite achieving satori over some idealized version of satori itself. It's that subtle dance of awe and detachment, enlightened glimpses of a mundane reality, that make Koi's haiku so alive.

a winter crow steps forward the scene steps with him

Koi felt that "nothingness" didn't mean a loss of self; rather, it was a "realm where you can realize your freest self, a cosmic self, not bound to anything." Accepting all of the dual forces of humanity and nature -- yin and yang, light and dark -- is in itself a kind of unity and freedom. This is something Koi tried to embrace in his life and art.

I warmed to him and lost -- the harsh frost

Born in Hyogo Prefecture in western Japan in 1900, Koi grew up near the Kako River along the Harima Plain, playing in the tall grass among butterflies, snakes and dragonflies. These small miracles of the natural world continued to live with him for 80 years, and he wrote of them in his haiku until his death in 1997.

a spring sparrow lifts its tail -- the darkness beneath

Koi began to write haiku in his teens, and it became something of a refuge from his unhappy home life. He married early and worked for 35 years at the Mitsubishi Takasago Paper Mill until he retired. While working, he continued to develop his creative life.

He published 16 collections of haiku, for which he received the Modern Haiku Association Prize and the Poetry Museum Prize. Koi was also a talented calligrapher and sumi-e artist who held 19 solo exhibitions in Tokyo, Kyoto and Kobe. Author of over 10 books of criticism in addition to his autobiography, Koi also published collections of calligraphy and painting, for which he was well-known. In 1949 he founded the magazine Lyra-za, which published its 504th issue the year he died.

"The world . . . is complex and varied and yet at the same time a unified mass," Koi wrote. "I want my haiku to be a mass in which all the contradictions come together as a unified whole. But I do not mean a neat, pretty sort of unity. I will not cling to the beauty of nature. I'd like to believe that human possibility lies in a sense of awe before the laws of nature, and it is there that I want to find myself and my poetry."

an old cat straining, shits -- in such a pose my mother dies in winter

The editors have left no stone unturned in producing this beautiful book, with the original Japanese text of both haiku and prose, romanizations of the poems, beautiful drawings -- some in color -- and an index of first lines. Superb translations by Naruto and Mitsutani capture the crystalline visions of the haiku, which manage to contain chaos and order in their tiny shells. Like the gorgeous ink drawings, which quietly explode from the borders of the frame, the haiku is the work of a master of both realms -- the real and the imaginary.

It's the interstice that holds the most vital energy, the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated things that unifies the world, and that is where Koi's haiku takes us beautifully. "I have long wondered, in my own way, whether haiku might not be philosophy," he writes. "At the same time, I continue to think that haiku is also religion. If the contemplation of life and death is the basis of literature, then we can call haiku religious in the sense that it is always a means of seeking for a way to live, and to discover and express truth, goodness and beauty."

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