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Excerpts from "Fly-ku!"
by Robin D. Gill

"Fly-ku!" is a soon-to-be published collection of what we might call haeku, a pun on hae, or "fly" (in Japanese). I had not intended to make it my next haiku publication after Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! The plan was to publish a trilogy on cherry blossom viewing, centered on haiku but also showing haiku's roots in renga. Such a book would also prove I was not obsessed with odd or even grotesque subjects. But owing to utter poverty, I had to put off buying a computer capable of bilingual expression for so long that the Japanese is not included in the cherry-ku Word.doc. So, I was forced to delay that book until 2005 and do the shorter "Fly-ku!" first. Robert Wilson wondered if Simply Haiku might share a chapter with you. The chapter we chose, Chapter 6, "The Zen of Swatting," lies between Chapter 5, "Kill Them and Bless Them," and Chapter 7, "The Fly That Was Not There."

the zen of swatting:
putting your heart into your hand

hae-o utte tomo ni seishi o karuku sen — Genku (1628-85)
(fly/ies [i/we] swat, together life-death lightly would make)

swatting flies
i'd make light of both
life and death

Since seishi "lifedeath" is a single word, the tomo, or "together/both," draws out the two parts that might otherwise be taken for granted. The sen may be taken in a prescriptive way.

let's play with
both life and death
let's swat flies

A less likely, but not impossible reading takes the tomo to mean both the flies and the poet. Like Montaigne and his cat, they play with each other, but for more serious stakes:

the flies and i make
light of life

Stakes? you remonstrate. The fly may risk his life, but what about the poet? Well, that depends upon which life, which world, is on your mind. The poet was a Zen priest. He probably didn't believe in reincarnation. Then, again, he didn't not believe either. Who knows but that the dead fly turns Buddha and the swatter turns fly?

swatting flies
we forget it's a matter
of life and death

Or, is the poet sitting with an ailing, possibly dying, friend--often the scene of fly swatting? In that case, the tomo becomes the "we" above, meaning the two men, and takes on deeper allusive tone.

gods-R-us with each fly
we swat we play with
life and death

This translation expands too much with "each fly" and only my title keeps it fresh. If folk Buddhism taboos killing, Zen would be above it. Blyth relishes relating stories of cats cut in half for catechism. What could be lighter than that? Is the story true? Do you really want to know? Then, Zen is not for you. While Zen is beyond taboo, Zen priests, like other Buddhists, are more likely to shoo than swat flies. But, it is a good guess that when a Zen priest does swat he swats. "There is swatting and there is swatting" cannot be Japanesed, but Zen comprehends it well enough.

haeuchi ya jôzu ni narishi waga kokoro — Ôemaru (1722-1805)
(fly-swatting better/skilled became, my heart/mind)

swatting flies
my art improves
from the heart

The Zen of Archery or Motorcycle Mechanics is not as bad as the Zen of Fly-swatting. But, like Kikaku dreaming his fleabites are wounds in battle, I suspect a martial allusion for that would be more haikai, more sacrilegious than evoking a religion that enjoys sacrilege: i.e., the Zen of Swordmanship (See William S. Wilson's introduction to his translation of Yagyû: The Life-giving Sword).

swatting flies / i'm better, thanks / to my mind

fly-swatting / some things improve / head-first

getting better / at swatting flies is all / in your mind

Evidently, my mind has not made much progress, for I just cannot settle on a translation of this poem that, itself, does not specify the relationship between "my mind/heart" and the poet's improved swatting percentage. Some of my takes diverge too far from the haiku to be called bona-fide translations. They are what I call paraverses, inspired by but not faithful to the original. As long as I'm sinning, one more:

my mind
marks its progress
swatting flies

If Genku was Kikaku's Zen-master and, judging from the above haiku, had some influence on his philosophical style, Ôemaru was important to Issa and flourished slightly earlier than Seibi, a wealthy Edo merchant who was Issa's main employer and teacher. Their views on fly-swatting seem very similar, and Zen.

haebarai kokoro no hoka ni mono mo nashi — Seibi (1749-1816)
(fly-switch/shooing, heart/mind outside of thing/s not)

shooing flies
we think about
nothing else

In Japanese-English translation, the heart/mind problem means something quite different than it does for philosophy. The single character pronounced kokoro (or, in combination with other characters, shin)--which has been repeatedly voted the most popular character by Japanese--fuses heart and mind, or, rather does not separate them. I am very happy with how I avoided the problem by ditching the mind/heart for a verb in the above translation.


shooing flies
nothing else remains
in the heart

I am not sure what Seibi's intent is. Is it simply to depict the way men chasing flies lose themselves? Or, should we add to ourselves, and that is not a bad thing! Women may go after flies because they feel they are dirty, but that is more a hate thing, or a fetish. Men do not hate flies. They need to lose themselves in aiming at things. Nothing is so relaxing as throwing or shooting at targets, especially if they move. Sighting devices ruin this benefit. Thank God, fly-swatters do not come so equipped. But I cannot get off on shooing flies, unless it is to try to scoop them up and throw them out alive. That is very satisfying, though probably not Zen.


nothing exists
outside of the mind
shooing flies

Since I am often unsure of what my own translation means, it stands to reason that I would have trouble with reading the originals which, for all I know, sometimes escaped the understanding of their authors. One finds Nothingness in Buddhism as the single character pronounced mu; but, for all practical purposes, Japanese lacks the equivalent of the "nothing" so commonly used in English, as if it were something. I mean, can "nothing" ever exist?

emptiness is
the mind of a man
shooing flies

I love aphorisms and when I find the kernel of one in any haiku, turn on the stove, shake it up and turn it into popcorn. For some reason, this reminds me that flies and fly-swatting are, we ought not forget, summer themes. Is there not something of summer in this mindlessness?

summer time
(and the living is easy)

nothing else
in the heart, just
shoo fly, shoo!

But, for all the above, the grammar of the poem suggested a fly switch itself and not the shooing.

no fly switch
in the world outside
of your mind

But Berkeley is too plain for Zen. After writing the above I went back over my notebooks and found that the poem was "made for a picture of a fly switch" (usually animal hair bundled and tied on a stick, properly called a hossu). Trying harder to keep the switch as the unquestioned subject:

the fly switch
hurts no flies but mind
has made it so

That is the fly switch equivalent of a right-wing Zen saying: guns don't kill people, people do. As haiku, it is no better than the last.

Translator friend Mihoko saved Seibi's poem for me by observing it could be read as a praise of seihin, something we might call immaculate poverty, the ideal state in which a wise poet lives. One finds inventories in haibun which might be called proof of poverty, where a poet might boast of owning nothing but a brush, ink, paper, a pot and half-a-sack of rice (obtained as a gift). I suppose poems could be read rather than written down and a poet could eat out.

a fly switch
everything else is
in his mind

It is fun to imagine a poet's hut with nothing but a fly switch--possible in the summer but not the winter--and what is fun to imagine is usually the correct reading of a haiku. My other translations are almost surely wrong. One reason for my inability to guess what was what (if it is what was what) was that my reading of Seibi's intent was influenced by the well-known poem of his that follows.

hae utte tsukusan to omou kokoro kana — Seibi
(fly/ies hit/ting, would exhaust thinks heart/mind tis)

Killing flies,
I begin to wish
To annihilate them all.
- trans. Blyth

Swatting flies
There comes the urge
To kill them all.
- David

This last comes from the internet: "Shiki.archive.9507: Re: "skinny cats" - rules and symbols." David (DL, you by any chance?) introduces it only as " a haiku (loosely translated);" but someone adds that it "is not a haiku, IMHO." My not so humble opinion says it is, for it reflects something Seibi may well have thought while swatting flies, a bona fide summer theme. IMHO does have a point, though. Without the first-person, which is, after all, not explicit in the original, David's translation takes on the nature of an aphorism and a chuckle at the human condition many would call senryû. But, the truth is that there are many old Japanese haiku (by virtue of their being by haiku poets and in haiku collections) that could also be classified as senryû and vice versa. I can't help recall a certain potato chip advertisement and add a modern title:

you can't kill only one

swat a fly
and soon you would kill
all of them

The underused first-person "you" (my term for it) is my favorite way to English an aphoristic haiku. It has the active feeling of the Japanese yet does not really specify the person.

open season on musca maledicta

swat one fly
and before you know it
the sky's the limit

If the government ever runs out of things to do and flies are an endangered species, it could always have us take out yearly licenses with bag limits for flies. Seriously, by bringing in the "season," the haiku quality of the poem increases a bit. But

killing flies
my mind desires total

Maybe there is something else here. The oppressively high humidity of the Japanese summer could create a strong urge to shake off all sweat, all dirt . . . all flies. So maybe the season was there all along.

swatting a fly
my mind would clean
them all up

The verb I translate as "exhaust," tsukusu, is by no means limited to destructive activity. It is one of my favorite Japanese words, for mono-wa-zukushi, or "thing-exhausting," refers to the charming Japanese literary practice of listing types of things, such as "adorable things," " despicable things," "foolish things," etc. This wonderful game of divergent creativity began in China--where it apparently became extinct before it got a name--and forms the heart of the Pillow Book of the outrageously stuck-up diva of good taste Sei Shônagon. Blyth wrote that Seibi describes "a blood-lust," a "tendency in human nature to go to extremes." I prefer to call it an urge to be thorough that in Japan, as mentioned in the foreword, is strongest in cleanliness-related matters.

aki no hae korosedomo nao tsukinu kana — Shiki
(autumn fly, kill [it/them] but exhaust not !/ah/?)

autumn flies
you kill them and still
it doesn't end

Shiki's haiku is unclear as to whether he means that even killing fall flies is not the end of them or whether, for all the swatting that went on all summer long, they were still around in the Autumn. Lacking any indication of number leaves the haiku open to another, singular reading:

an autumn fly
i kill it but they
keep coming

But the larger problem is deciding exactly what does not end. Are we just talking flies? The "heart/mind" is not mentioned in Shiki's poem, but if he is playing off Seibi's poem, he may mean:

no satisfaction

though i kill
the autumn fly i cannot
kill my mind

Before Fall has even filled up her Cornucopia, the poet begins his spiritual hunkering down for Winter.

no closure

i kill
an autumn fly
but still
it's not over

It is hard to amen a world without end. It is also hard to find the Zen in this poem or the last several poems. Seibi confesses to being as far from enlightened as a man can get. And yet, just as an unbeliever-- Recall the Lake Woebegone girl who was "a Lutheran atheist" (because it was a Lutheran God she did not believe in)?--stinks of the believer, Seibi's and Shiki's confessions are ultimately Zen. Would the desire to swat a fly matter to, say, a Christian? I think not.

hae o utsu toki chiisaki kokoro kana — Baishitsu (1769-1852)
(fly swat, when small heart/mind 'tis)

the focus

when swatting
a fly, how small
my mind

To Chinese, a "small heart" is a good thing, for it means to be cautious and the Chinese have traditionally put a positive value on timidity. But the Japanese think a "small heart" is a bad thing, something indicating a lack of courage and what we might call "small-mindedness"--this, despite their alleged tendency to concentrate on detail reflected by grammar that modifies down from large to small in such a remarkable manner (the ocean's island's beach's crab in one poem being the usual example) that even a Korean speaking a tongue with a similar syntax was inspired to write of the "shrinking mindset" of the Japanese (Chijimi shikô no nihonjin: 1984. The English titles Smaller is Better and Compact Culture fail introspection:


when i swat
my heart is as small
as a fly

Like so much in haiku, this introspective attitude goes back to one of the fathers of haiku, Teitoku, whose very name--for all his silly wordplay and risqué poems--has the character for "morality" in it. While the flies are not mentioned, could I leave out the following haiku?

In retrospect, very easily, for all three of my readings failed to find the heart of the haiku, which has nothing to do with Zen, or for that matter, haiku! I leave it for I have found a lesson to peg on the end.

nomi ka o mo korosa de korose waga kokoro — Teitoku (1571-1653)
(fleas, mosquitoes too not killing, kill! my heart/mind)[?]

without killing
mosquitoes and fleas
kill my mind!

The tricky thing here is the subject of the imperative "kill" korose. There is none. If Teitoku were only a Christian, we could make it: "Lord, kill my mind!"

no bloodshed

oh, heart of mine!
kill yourself, not these
mosquitoes and fleas!

Since there are no post-positions (the Japanese equivalent of the preposition found in Indo-European languages), the object could also be the subject. A clear address to the heart is not found in the original, but the subjectlessness of the previous translation, while normal enough to pass unnoticed in Japanese, is just not quite right in English. No matter what the translator does something is betrayed. Let me make one more try, following the improbable reading of korose as an abbreviation of koroseba, "kill-if," which would mean "if I only could" or, by semantic extrapolation, "I would" (Some old songs used ~se where ~seba would seem likely). If you think it correct, call it a translation. If not, call it a paraverse:

'squitoes and fleas
how i would i could kill
without killing!

This reading, where the desire is not killed but admitted, seems less Buddhist but more Zen, both for its honesty and for its koan quality. But even, then, there is a maudlin concern for morality that is not Zen with a capital "Z." Some were written toward the end of his long life.

First, let me set you straight on Teitoku's poem as I have been set straight by a haiku friend, Hagitsuki-san.

too sweet to kill
mosquitoes and fleas, please
kill my longing

As Hagitsuki-san points out, it could mean "you who would not kill a mosquito or flea" or "you who look too sweet to kill a mosquito or flea." Male artists enjoyed depicting women burning mosquitoes. Their expression secretly glimpsed in the light was not what one might expect in a gentle lover. Hence, without any stated subject, we can guess he addresses a woman and has, shall we say, night-time thoughts. In ancient poetry, it was common to beg someone to "kill" one's love/longing (koi). One possible solution has been expressed best in English by Willie Nelson: "If you can't say you love me, say you hate me . . ." More commonly, the love-sick man or woman wanted the other to meet and sleep with them (As a country song not by Willie Nelson puts it, let's burn up our passion and sweep up the ashes in the morning.) and be done with it. Damn. I do not know anyone who has read more old Japanese love poems than me, and I knew well that haikai collections once included sections that were about love and sex rather than seasons, yet I failed to read Teitoku's poem! There is a lesson here: Zen is the Way. Look for it and you will lose it.

haetataki tori kare ichida ware ichida — Kyoshi (1875-1959)
(fly-swatter/s pick up: he one hit, i one hit)


one fly-swatter
he takes a swat and
i take a swat

A healthy lack of concern manifested by not even expressing lack of concern for the life of flies is Zen, right? The smart whacks are indirectly brought out by the simply stated repetition. I assume the he is the bedridden Shiki, for fly-swatting and sickness come together. Here is Kyoshi paraversing himself.

haetataki ni sokushi kare ikku ware ikku — Kyoshi (1875-1959)
(fly-swatter/swatting suitable/instantaneously he/him one poem i/me one poem)


with each kill
one haiku by him
one by me

There is no postposition, the equivalent of our preposition in the original. I was tempted to write "for him" and "for him," as if the poets took a life and received a haiku, but that would be too precious. If Issa, with his folk Buddhist background, came up with a blessing after each fly swatted, Kyoshi reminds us of the Chinese tradition of so many poems per drink and the haikai tradition that changed drinks into blossoms. A fly is far from a peony, but what the hell! This poem reflects Kyoshi's unique sanity and exuberance.


with each swat
he writes one poem
i write one poem

The only verb in the original is the one that does in the fly. There is nothing about "writing" or "saying" or "reading" the haiku--neither is there a postposition. But try to do without a second verb. "He one haiku" " Me one haiku." Nope. By avoiding specific verbs, I came up with yet one more reading I like, though I doubt Kyoshi would have appreciated the title.

swat team

each dead fly
gets one haiku from him
and one from me


each fly swat:
one ku from him and
one from me

I have only had time to quiz two Japanese friends on this poem. The problem is whether it is about swatting flies or the fly-swatter. One Japanese friend thinks it the former, another the latter. The second friend adds that "fly-swatter" would be normal (futsû) and that, even if it were a swatting poem, it would be about fly swatting not each fly-swat event because the idiomatic "~ni soku-suru" is different from the Buddhist usage of soku I am familiar with.

just right for
a fly swatter, us two
each one ku

The Buddhist "soku" indicates the immediate translation of one thing into another whereas the idiomatic phrase means apropos to something. I would like to go with the first friend, but I fear the second friend is right.

poems to fit
a fly swatter: one his
and one mine

The idea of poems that are right for a fly-swatter bears a certain charm, especially if you think of how such poems suit a sickbed. This reading makes it a fine poem of friendship in and through haiku and, thus, probably a better poem than the more exciting one-swat-each poem.

Where is the Zen? I can hear your beef. Unless Zen is about making people chuckle, my translations kill it; and, notwithstanding what I have just written, I cannot shake the suspicion that these haiku (the first, one-swat-each haiku, at any rate) by Kyoshi are self-consciously the opposite of maudlin, the opposite of what he felt giving up that well to the morning glories meant (I think Kyoshi--and, before him, Issa--was dead wrong on Chiyo, but that is another story!). So what would be a pure Zen fly-ku? I think a dozen or two may be found scattered through chapters about various fly-ku sub-themes (In the book I will give poem #'s). Of these, I think Issa's is best. In the standard pocketbook anthology of Issa (Maruyama ed.: Iwanami bunko), it is only treated in a footnote as a variant to his better known "swat 'em and bless 'em" ku. It deserves an encore:

hae hitotsu utteba yama o mitarikeri — Issa (1759-1823)
(fly one strike when, mountain look)

i swat a fly
and look out at
the mountain

Robin D. Gill presently lives in Florida with his Puerto Rican Crested Anole and the ocean breeze.

Previously, he resided in Japan for 20 years and is a well known author in there.

He has six books published from leading houses, including, Hakusuisha, Chikuma Bunko, and Kousakusha.

He has had shows of his etchings and sculpture in the USA, Japan and Korea, and has experimented with free-tension string-instrument-making (one string ), inventing new methods of making music by feel that he hopes to share with the world some day.