Writing From the Present, Past, and Future
When asked why I write haiku, I’ve answered:
Each haiku I write is like breathing out, giving back to the earth recognition, affirmation, and gratitude. I am reminded of how seldom we really notice what is going on around us, and how important the most ordinary things can be. Writing haiku is one way of translating the Earth—honoring what the mountain, the dragonfly, the neighbor, and even the dirt under our feet mean to our existence. Whether we know it or not, we are one with them. The writing and sharing of haiku can bring us together as we celebrate our connections with the larger world that we share, while at the same time affirming the particular times and places of our lives and our human responses to them.
Although I affirm everything I’ve said above as being true to why I write haiku, for me there are other sources of haiku besides honoring the present moment of physical experience. Yes, I have written haiku, haibun, tanka and free verse poems based on the present moment, but also haiku and those other genres based on memories, fantasies, and dreams.
I’ve even written poems from images and connections that come to me when I “tune in” on someone or something I really have no access to—like an ancient Japanese wandering poet or place I have never been—in the flesh, anyway. During those times, perhaps I am tapping into a larger reality that something in my psyche receives and translates: poems from old Japan, for instance, like those I will be sharing from my chapbook of haiku From the Willow. These moments, experienced vicariously but intensely, also feel like I am capturing a particular time and place of my life—one previously unknown but feeling strangely familiar and “true”. I suppose some would call that source of inspiration “the muse,” but I just think that we can all access more than we consciously “know.”
I think of Indra’s net, the Hindu concept carried into Zen, of the interconnected nature of all “reality”—whatever that is. The past (my own and “other”), present, future, actual, possible, remembered, invented—all these are one, simultaneously unique and the same. And all feel true to my experience.
In this essay I’d like to share with you a number of poems that have come from my fantasy and dream worlds, and others that have come through on what I call my “FM channel”— perhaps accessing other dimensions of experience besides the here and now that I happen to be living in.
One can find inspiration for fantasy-haiku from contemplating works of art, dance, music, and other works of literature. Some years ago while I watched Sachiyo Ito, an exquisite Japanese dancer, (http:// www.dancejapan.com/), dance in the performance space at Tenri in New York City, I found myself seeing the following scenes to accompany both the music and the dance:
Listening to Sand
written during Sachiyo Ito’s dance to “Chieko: the Elements” (Chieko: Genso)
from one palm to the other—
from a clam shell, sand
draining with it
carried out above
the sea, sand drops from
a gull’s cry
at the sea’s edge
her feet slap the sand—
listening to sand
she remembers night wind—
dune grasses yielding
Obviously, I was not on the beach when I wrote the sequence above. But I have been on beaches in the past, and as I watched Sachiyo dance, those images began to flow through me, and I wrote them down as they did so, scribbling on the edge of the performance program.
Shortly before Bill [my late husband, William J. Higginson] and I moved to Santa Fe in 2002, I began work on my book Stages & Views, poems written to the woodblock prints of Hiroshige (The Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido) and Hokusai (Thirty-Six Views [of Mount Fuji]). I had experienced a brief satori-like moment in the late eighties, and wanted to write a collection in which “I” got out of the way entirely. Of course I knew that my consciousness would decide what to include and what to ignore in the prints, but I felt the best way to express that momentary glimpse was to write poems with no first person singular in them. And those prints had long fascinated me.
Both sections of the book (“Stages” and “Views”) contain haiku-like short poems. In a renku-like process, I linked the pieces in the “Views” half of the book with haiku, and I also tried to similarly link the haiku to one another. All the poems arose from my meditating on each of the prints—entering them imaginatively, and animating them in some way, starting with the present landscape, then often giving the characters and/or scenes a past or future. Here is a sequence of three poems from “Views”:
20. FUJI FROM GOTEN-YAMA IN SHINAGAWA ON THE TOKAIDO
On Palace Mountain, the cherry tPaul Miller
each bloom laughing
in a cloud of pink.
People have come to laugh with them,
unfurling fans beneath bright boughs,
delighting in one another.
Between two leaping branches,
Fuji’s laughing too.
in the froth of the waterfall
21. IN THE WAVE OFF KANAGAWA (“THE GREAT WAVE”)
A mountain of water erupts from the sea,
thrusts white tentacles toward the sky,
engulfs the small boat angled in its foothills
spews flecks of foam, blanched as the faces
of the frightened sailors.
Among the swells
Fuji is just another wave,
cresting on inky depths.
the cat’s eyes glitter
as the lizard plays dead
in its mouth
22. THE TAMAGAWA IN MUSASHI PROVINCE
A rider stands beside his horse
holding the reins while the animal drinks
from the sunlit Tamagawa.
The river flows swiftly across his tongue.
Beyond a skein of clouds,
Fuji drinks too, slowly savoring
the cerulean sky.
the shadow moves on the watcher’s
Another instance of responding vicariously to visual images, very different from those above, occurred when I watched the first showing of the TV program The Day After, shown in November of 1993. It depicted conditions in the U. S. after a nuclear attack.
For the Days After
the boy stares
at the light
a baby’s cry—
ash settles on
the lips of
the dead child
through the blanket
the barking dog
searching for someone
they used to know
in the lap of
her white dress
near the makeshift camp
the field of corpses
his dead eyes—
Some of what comes through that “FM door” makes me really wonder about the nature of time and spirituality. As I said earlier, I do believe that “it” is all one. I had a compelling dream years ago—one of those dreams one knows is unique and meaningful—a lucid dream, perhaps: I was hovering over a long, narrow table, both ends of which were lost in a kind of misty vagueness. As I looked down on it, I noticed that it was compartmentalized, each of its divisions a slice of reality full of people living a life—so the table, itself, was a pun on the word “timetable.”
And in this dream, I “understood” that each of those compartments represented a time and place—a life that some aspect of “I” was living, as if reincarnation were, indeed, possible —except that these “lives” were all happening at once; I sensed that what we call “time” was an illusion we had manufactured to try to make sense of it all.
Then, a voice in my dream announced, “To die is to move backward or forward in time to be with those you love.” As you might suspect, this dream astounded me and even contradicted my religious upbringing. My dream understanding was that what we call “the soul” is the director of a number of simultaneous lit stages on which various facets of what we call “self” are acting out a life.
So, maybe that’s how I wrote the following sequence when I was reading about the Eleusinian Mysteries while teaching a novel called The King Must Die. As I wrote it, I seemed to be seeing and living it. But clearly the self that I identify with has never participated, thank goodness, in the Eleusinian Mysteries in ancient Greece.
For the Eleusinian Mysteries
after the sacred drink—
of the moon
blood on her bruised lips,
she bends to eat
we swallow seeds—
breaks the wheat—
chaff on his hands
at the mouth of the cave
as we walk naked i
nto the earth,
the smell of water
fire on the mountaintop—
of our feet
Here are two more sequences that just came to me when I opened that door. They feel old, perhaps in an earlier Japan.
the bride bends
to rub her feet
holding his bowl
of fresh-cooked rice
the grandfather smiles
letting the horses go
the servant boy
runs with them
unpinning her hair
the old woman
opens her window
in the garden
his still face
opens his mouth
puddles on the path swept smooth last night
I move the empty nest
to a higher limb
in the garden
above the mud
the dog paddles
toward the hen house
leaves float in on
the rising tide
When I wrote this next sequence, I was meditating on this Buddhist nun, about whose life I knew nothing. And suddenly I felt myself in the monastery, seeing, feeling, and hearing the things I detail below.
For the Nun Chigetsu, 1622-1706
the farmer’s rooster
this misty morning
in the rice fields
under this rock
and my fingerprints
in the garden—
the sun on distant hills
tea cool now
I stare into the dark
the moon on my bed
where you were
my quiet breath
on the way
to the toilet—suddenly
wide blue sky
One night in the early 1980s, when Bill and I lived in Scotch Plains, NJ, he was researching an ancient Japanese wandering poet, one who took to the road long before Basho. There wasn’t much information about him, but as Bill was talking, I closed my eyes and “saw” the following, which I captured in haiku and tanka. Again, these poems detail feelings and experiences I have never seen or experienced in actuality. They became the content of my chapbook From the Willow, published by Wind Chimes in 1983. In the “Preface” to that tiny book, Bill wrote:
As Penny Harter and I sat discussing the first of Japan’s great traveling poets one evening, she picked up a pad and began writing. Over the course of the next two days these poems came to her—given, not struggled for. While they are mostly in the mode of haiku, rather than the waka or tanka in which our subject wrote, these poems speak of things which Penny has never experienced, and contain images more appropriate to ancient Japan, about which she knows very little, than to contemporary American suburbia.
Takechi no Kurohito (700 A.D.) traveled all over the Japan of his day, usually in service to and sometimes accompanying the Empress Jito and the Emperor Mommu. What we know of him derives directly from his poems and the brief prefaces to some of them recorded in the Manyoshu. He is revered as the first of Japan’s traveling poets, progenitor of the likes of Saigyo and Basho. The following is a good representative of his straightforward, highly imagistic waka.
as we row around its jutting beaches
in the scores of inlets of Lake Omi
cranes in the marshes cry
Here are a few of my poems:
beneath the hill
an ancient bell
hanging in strips
from the willow—
beside the road
the dead girl’s
my lame foot
on the grave
of the ancestors
And here are two tanka, not from that tiny chapbook, their images coming from who knows where:
your words in my pocket
cranes fly across
the mountain’s face—
in the distance
in the pass
the roots of pines—
across the stones?
The following haiku make up the sequence “Over the Autumn Gar- den,” published in my chapbook The Monkey’s Face (From Here Press, 1987). Again, these just came to me whole as I sat down to write.
over the autumn garden
the crows’ harsh cries—
no word from you
pulling wild onions
my fingers smell
in the shadows
the child squashing
how slow the moon
from there to here
opening the door—
the visitor’s feet
so much like yours
I scrape the leaves
into my palm
first winter rain—
remembering how long
I’ve slept alone
Sometimes, a piece arrives that has no basis in fact but reflects an emotional truth. I am not clear what I was feeling when I wrote the following haibun. Pieces of the imagery are taken from my some of my own real observations (red warning flashes, icy road, hazard lights, etc.), but I did not lose control of my car on an icy road by a convenience store. In a way, the haibun is a collage of real images in an imaginary context.
The Meaning of Life
I sit in my stalled car by the side of the icy road, hazard lights blinking and all the doors locked. I am savoring the meaning of life that burst behind my eyes as I drove down the highway into the setting winter sun. My pulse beats in time with the red warning flashes. I have not tied a soiled white handkerchief to my door handle. I deliberately let my hands leave the steering wheel, allowed the car to skate sideways across black ice.
half the letters dark
on the neon sign
The following haibun also combines the real and the imagined. Canada geese do settle on the playing field next to my condo complex, and I have crossed that field when they were there. However, I did not do what I have myself doing in this haibun—except imaginatively.
White Goose Dream
Late afternoon. Canada geese wander toward me as they explore a marshy field, their gray feathers mottling the green. Sunlight stoning their backs, they sink into the coarse grasses. At the flock’s edge, a white goose, the only white goose, turns her head to stare at me.
Staring back, I enter the field, lie down on my stomach among them, and begin to make the noise one makes between tongue and palate when calling a cat or chattering back at a squirrel.
Tick Tick Tick, I call to this bird who has singled me out. Come to me. Holding my gaze, she stands, shifts her weight from leg to leg, then lowers her breast to the rank and fecund Earth again and looks away.
stuck to my face
that strand of gossamer
I didn’t notice
Now I want to share a free verse poem that depicts a mythical experience. It reflects my childhood fascination with coming down a mountain road and seeing the lights of a village twinkling in the valley—perhaps harking back to coming down the mountain into South Orange, NJ, where my grandparents lived. And I had the same feeling again and again when coming down from the mountains of northern New Mexico into Santa Fe, which is aptly sometimes called “Fanta Se,” as is New Mexico called “the Land of Enchantment.” I also wrote this one at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts last January.
In That Far Haven
In childhood, I often visited a village at twilight—
a village twinkling in the gloaming sky, floating there
like some far haven of the fae come down to bless us.
I was welcome then, invited to a feast set out on silver
plates, and sat at table with the rest—cloaked like them
in strange diaphanous and haloed flesh.
Mild-faced wolves, curled like faithful dogs at our feet,
laid their silky heads upon our laps as we slipped them
roasted scraps of a wild beast brought in from the dark
uncharted forests far beyond us. Some sacrament was
being acted out in those hallowed rooms, some festive
celebration of the bond between us all—and I, the guest,
craved to stay among their kind, to live forever in that
sphere of light and laughter, drinking ambrosia with the
ancient ones who’d come here long ago—ancestors of
earth, air, fire, water, who deign to come among us now and
then, crossing the threshold of our mortal coil; who kindly
let me join their festal rites—and taught me well.
And here is a section from a multi-part new poem called “Keep,” one of a series in which I am riffing off of words that fascinate me. When I chose this word, I was first thinking of the medieval keep— the stronghold or castle/fort. And while I was writing, I “saw” the following and even chose to question it in the poem:
n. a stronghold, castle; prison, jail; one who keeps or protects
From what memory do I pluck this noisy barnyard,
white fowls running amuck, pigs snorting in the mud,
and I, barefoot, shaking my apron free of dusty grain?
Mountains surround this keep; mated swans
drift in a moat behind stone walls
I wonder whom or what this keep enfolds.
That which bars the other keeps us in.
Who is the keeper of this castle?
Among the most startling series of poems to come through that “FM” door occurred back in the 1970s when I was teaching American literature in a New Jersey high school. I’d been teaching the poems of Emily Dickinson and playing the recordings of Julie Harris reading Dickinson’s letters. I had left class to go monitor the English Independent Study Center off the library.
Immediately, I felt compelled to grab a pad of paper and begin writing. The following poems fell out of my pen so fast I could hardly keep up with them. This might be explained by the fact that I had been immersing myself in her work. However, I don’t know how to explain that this happened on the anniversary of her death (I was not consciously aware of that!). Here are the poems as reproduced on my web site at: <http://www.2hweb.net/penhart/dickinson.html>.
Five for Emily D.
I saw a spirit hover.
It floated on my sill
And whether it was wanting
Or only passing still,
I found the hands were open,
Birds slept upon the hair,
And silver wreaths of moonlight
Descended like a stair
Until a perfect circle
That soul and I were one,
And all the evening’s chatter
Was over with—and done.
If you would seek a fortune
Or plot to pirate gain,
Look upon your neighbor
And seek to plunder pain.
Your fortune will be heavy,
Your take a sorry lot,
But it will shine more sweetly
Than any gold you’ve got!
Yesterday is finished.
Today is bare begun
Tomorrow is a spectre
Upon the circling sun—
All the endless hours
Compressing into one.
Yesterday is fallow.
Today is fruited full.
Tomorrow is the sower
Without a field to till—
All the endless harvests
One farm upon the hill.
The trouble with a wave
Is that it needs a sea
Or rolls the same direction
The trouble with a wave
Is that it needs to be
Connected to another
In fluid harmony.
A wave might push forever,
A solitary wall—
But there must be an ocean
For it to rise at all.
We come from far beyond the stars,
We rise from deeper seas
Than any you have visited
Or sought upon your knees.
And though the mouth be stopt with mud,
the fingers wed to air,
the breath that echoes in the skull
can sing from anywhere.
I believe we are all much more than we consciously know. I am fascinated with the possibilities of parallel and/or multiple universes, multiple dimensions—and with the elasticity of time, psychic energy and our ability to manifest. Here are some free verse poems in which I explore those possibilities:
Some physicists say we are blinking
on/off, on/off, always this rhythm of
here/not-here, here/not-here . . .
whatever here is . . . along with
like we’re foam on a wave
that wants to be particle wanting
to be wave, foam that knows nothing,
only scurries for its life like those
poor blind mice, that trinity made flesh
running after the farmer’s wife
until chop-chop her carving knife—
its sharp blade melting even then
into a stew of tails and gore and gone
and there again.
We sputter into metaphor, mutter words
like universe, quantum, cosmos, chaos—
those spells our tongues have learned to shape
against the thing that has no name
we visit now and then
in the wind of no place where we live
only half our lives, or live out our half-lives,
racing toward some finish line that isn’t
Unknown energy flows from us
on breath we neither name nor measure
as it courses through our flesh.
One must think of heat, the yogis say,
must send it pulsing from the forehead
like a mantra, aimed at the chosen
cloud from that site the ancients called
another eye, a tiny gland buried in a cave
within the skull’s calcium architecture.
Transient vapors, clouds do shape-shift
by themselves, torn pieces of the caul
around this planet, adrift in the camouflage
we’ve named the heavens. Is it hubris
to believe that thinking makes it so—
that one can shift the balance, tilt
the alchemy of star and sea, cause
a cloud to thin until transparent,
or shred to fragments and be gone?
Perhaps we need to practice this
old way of entering the sky, hoping
to learn again what we once knew—
how that rhythm beats behind
our eyes, and how, when focused on
a random cloud, it all dissolves.
The future lives on the other side of the neighboring
field or waits around the next bend—the one with no
center line—at an intersection fixed on a map.
What has already happened there wraps itself firmly
around our flesh like a rope hauling a climber up
the slippery scrabble of a nameless mountainside.
The future is a static landscape—not a spool of flickering
stills, their singularity revealed so fast we can’t decipher
boundaries, but an infinity of the already been there and
done that, which we daily wander through, sometimes stumbling into déjà vu, that familiar shiver raising the fur on our arms and chilling the napes of our necks, as if
ghosts were drifting back into the rooms we call
Now, wanting to tell us how it is or was or will be
since they think they have been there and know.
I believe that we are all more than we consciously know. Whether our inspiration for haiku and/or other poems comes from our actual, physical experience of a moment “keenly perceived” or a moment perceived because we can access other layers of experience, whether imaginatively or actually, from time past or time to come, doesn’t really matter. It is all one, and I encourage those haijin who think that haiku can only come from the “here and now” to reexamine just what the “here and now” really is.