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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #9 (March 1, 2005), page 15.
Beauty from sorrow
Cool Melons ó Turn to Frogs!: The Life and Poems of
By Josephine Bridges
Kobayashi Yataro, commonly known as Issa, wrote this haiku when he was six years old. This is impressive enough in itself, but the reader learns from Cool Melons ó Turn to Frogs! that the little poetís mother passed away when he was only three. "Issa played alone in the woods," writes Matthew Gollub. "He watched for birds and listened for insects. And for the rest of his life, he considered them his friends."
Please donít swat!
the housefly begs,
rubbing its hands and feet.
Issaís life was far from easy. His stepmother believed that he was lazy, that he should help his father in the fields instead of "writing useless verse." She and Issa quarreled for seven years. When he was fourteen, his father sent him away, telling the boy, "Son, you have a gift, but it cannot grow in this soil. Go now, and promise me Iíll see your healthy face again." The young poet traveled to Edo, now Tokyo, where he sometimes found work, but sometimes had neither food nor shelter. "Still," the author points out, "he noticed little things that most people were too busy to see."
A newborn butterfly,
a dogís dish ó a place
to sleep through the night!
When Issa became a master poetís apprentice, his poems found publishers. The master eventually asked Issa to run the academy, but Issa didnít like teaching formal classes. He chose instead to travel, and for seven years he walked around Japan. "And his travels put him in closer contact with nature than ever before."
Issa finally returned to his village and found his father gravely ill. He nursed his father through his final months and honored his one request, that Issa settle in the old farmhouse where he grew up and start a family there. Only by building a wall through the middle of the house could Issa and his stepfamily live there together, never speaking to one another. "At a time when only the healthiest people survived," Issa lost child after child, and finally lost his wife as well. Yet again and again, this poet found a way not only to endure, but to celebrate life and create beauty from sorrow. When he died at sixty-four, he had written over 20,000 haiku.
O wild goose,
how young were you
when you set out alone?
Matthew Gollubís story and haiku translations are flawless. Kazuko G. Stoneís illustrations are charming, but it is her rendering of each haiku in Japanese that gives wings to this marvelous book. An authorís note includes not only the story of how Cool Melons ó Turn to Frogs! was written and illustrated, and wonderful background information on haiku, but also Japanese transliterations of four of Issaís poems and instructions on pronunciation to give the reader "an idea of what the poems sound like in the original Japanese."
Go and do likewise, encourages the author, "Whether you write haiku in the traditional or modern style, thereís no better time than now to listen and observe, and to capture one meaningful moment in time."