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#163: A MISTRESS OF THE ART

#163: A MISTRESS OF THE ART. Recently, while catching up with the work of Masaoka Shiki, the fourth in the canonical line of haiku masters, I was moved to spend a little time online searching for books by the later or lesser-known poets. I’d known of translations of Santoka Taneda, the twentieth-century master, whom I’ve pictured as moving sometime into fifth position in the line of succession; and I’d run across the marvelous collections of Mitsu Suzuki, the wife, later the widow, of the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Other than that, nada. One wonderful exception to this paucity was the book by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi, Chiyo-ni: Woman Haiku Master. Published by Tuttle in 1998, this book too seems to have slipped out of print and to have fallen in with the works of R.H. Blyth as being terrific, even essential to the study of haiku but unobtainable unless you save up your allowance for weeks and weeks. Why haven’t the reprint houses caught up with these books? Idiots.

Born in 1703, Fukuda Chiyo-ni was a second-generation student of Basho’s haiku lineage; but simply as a woman poet her life story has an unusual shape. In her late teens she married and had a son, both of whom died very shortly after; instead of remarrying, she returned home to care for her aging parents. When in their turn they died—Chiyo was fifty-two—she took orders and a religious name (“-ni” in her name refers to her status as a nun). This allowed her the peculiar freedoms afforded otherwise to very few women, mostly prostitutes; several of her closest friends practiced this other profession. We never get much sense of Chiyo-ni as being a rebellious or stubborn personality—as we quickly do, say, with Mirabai, the sixteenth-century Hindu poet—but she must have had a determined streak in her to get done what she did, to have achieved fame in her lifetime and to have left such a body of work. In fact it’s reading her work and life that I think I have best understood Basho’s talk of the way of haiku—poetry as a path of the spiritual, and the form’s connection with the insights of Buddhism, particularly Zen. No other form of poetry so well conveys the Buddha’s experience of all events as being the evanescent and momentary connection of elements—the transitory as revelation, as realization. The “one breath” of Chiyo-ni’s poems is a world entire in a glance.

Donegan and Ishibashi’s work gives an introductory biography and study of her work, translations of a hundred haiku sorted by season, several additional poems, some thirty illustrations, notes, a glossary and bibliography—altogether, a revelation of its own. Good luck with the hunt.

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