FLYING POPE: 127 Haiku, by Ban’ya Natsuishi, translations by Ban’ya Natsuishi and Jim Kacian. Allahabad, India: Cyberwit.net, 2008, 139 pp., $20 (paper)
Ostensibly these two books of poetry seem to have little in common, beyond their red covers (the first an ancient painting of a tiger, claws and face, bordered by green leaves; the second a mysterious gray wing on a red background), but the connections become clearer when we take a closer look, for both come out of Japanese tradition.
The haiku, now so well known around the world, originates in a tradition of linked-verse composition in Japan. This custom of composing verses jointly, with mysterious reverberations between them, surely lies behind the collaborative sequence in the first book, which has two titles, aligned together, because it has two authors.
Yoko Danno, of The Ikuta Press in Kobe, though Japanese herself, has always composed in English. (Her new translation of the Kojiki was reviewed on this page not long ago by Donald Richie.) Usually she writes alone, but this time she has paired up with another poet, James C. Hopkins, who was born in Washington but lives in Katmandu. The poems are interspersed with his black-and-white photographs, but it is the poems themselves that most intrigue.
Each poem, jointly written, is printed on a single page, in two different scripts to distinguish the alternating voices. The first one, opposite a picture of a boatman on a lake in southern Asia surrounded by swimming ducks, is entitled “cold tea on an old boat,” and begins:
“over your shoulder twinkling lights where the city used to be how far we
There are two verses of 10 lines each, which can be read horizontally or vertically, as the reader wishes, and reverberate in different ways because of this. There is equilibrium and balance, but disjunction too. This splendid improvisation is accompanied by music, and can be heard on the CD that comes with the book.
Improvisation too informs the haiku sequence by the prolific haiku poet Ban’ya Natsuishi, who writes in Japanese but publishes frequently overseas, often in a collaborative translation. “Flying Pope,” a long series of short poems, one to a page, owes some of its inspiration, obviously, to the former pope, John Paul II, but fits nicely the global travels of the poet.
The trajectory of his poems also mirrors the shifting modern viewpoint, the randomness of contemporary encounter:
visible only to children
and a giraffe
A rope hangs down
from the collarbone
of the Flying Pope”
The book is bilingual, and contains the original poems in Japanese.
To some extent of course this “Flying Pope” is the poet’s alter ego, a persona that allows him to record snapshots of the world below. Bemused by his own freedom, Ban’ya finds both rest and inspiration:
“Once in a while
he swims in the Galaxy
the Flying Pope”
The meshed lines of poetry by Yoko Danno and James C. Hopkins sometimes approach a similar territory and feeling:
“in our sleepless dreams the trailing
edge of form dispersing into light incandescent”
Here the order of voices has been reversed, but there is stillness and light between them.
For more information, contact the publishers at The Ikuta Press, 1-5-3 Sumiyoshi Yamate, Higashi Nada-ku, Kobe 658-0063, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or at Cyberwit.net, 4/2 B, L.I.G. Govindpur Colony, Allahabad-211004 (U.P.), India, e-mail: email@example.com