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Spring 2005, vol 3 no 1

Book Review ~ Straw Hat, by Tateo Fukutomi
Reviewed by Robert Wilson

A good book of haiku is rare, a great book of haiku, even rarer. Tateo Fukutomi, of Japan, has written such a book. Entitled Straw Hat, it contains haiku written primarily while the poet was working in the grape fields of Delano in Central California as a farming advisor from 1965 to 1966.

The poetry in the book provides a rare glance into the mindset of a Japanese haiku poet, experiencing a slice of American life. Fukutomi worked closely with laborers and their supervisors, following the footsteps of his father, who also had worked in the same fields years earlier.

Being away from one's culture and native country can be a lonely experience. Especially when one is away for an extended period of time.

Groping in a foreign country
an orange has the hollow
of a blood relation

My wife isn't here to see me off
a red bouquet
scatters in the sky

Sunset colors
among crippled pines
encouraging Hiroshige

Fukutomi's haiku are revealing, honest, sometimes personal, even poignant. Intimately, he shares with us his feelings, fears, yearnings, and inner thoughts. Asians living in California during the sixties were looked down upon by some Caucasians, their prejudice fueled by, among other things, America's participation in the second world war and current relations with a hostile Communist China, North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In addition, the grape fields where Tateo Fukutomi worked as an advisor in Delano, also formed a battleground between Mexican grape pickers led by Ceasar Chavez and Caucasian farmers and the companies and market chains they supplied grapes to. The color of one's skin often determined which side of the battlefield one was on.

Glaring sun
a dark clot of workers
in my eye

Grape clusters coloring in spots
the bosses
talk together

With the rising sun flag
on our shoulders
we pick grapes

Desolate hills in all directions
an oily faced man
plays with his gun

Fukutomi's translators, Kate Van Houten and Shelley Dauvillier, did a great job of
capturing the heart, spirit, and truth of Fukutomi's haiku in translating it from Japanese into English. Not all haiku translates well, especially in the context of meter and flow. The translations in Straw Hat breathe easily, and read as if they were originally written in English.

Some are funny:

A cow tied to a telephone pole
gets angry with me
for not having a motorcycle

Others reflect the current events of the era:

Martin Luther King's death
clover flowers softly covering
rice paddies

Still others reflect the feelings felt when reading postcards and letters from home:

My father
looking like an actor
in the window of a large white car

A lullaby
from my native province
grapevines turning red

I won't apologize for calling Tateo Fukutomi the working man's Basho. The haiku in Straw Hat speaks to me, is down to earth, spiritual in an odd sort of way, and helps me to see life through another man's eyes. Eyes that view the world from a unique and fresh perspective. I highly recommend this book. Fukutomi's haiku is modern haiku that hasn't forgotten its roots. They have something to say, are more than pleasant word paintings, and contain multiple layers.

Straw Hat
by Tateo Fukutomi
Printed in a signed and numbered edition of 250
Estepa Editions, Coulimer, France
Drawings by Matsutani
ISBN 2-95211344-0-5

Tateo Fukutomi is a member of the haiku contributions jury for the Miyazaki Edition of the Mainichi Daily News. He is also a lecturer on haiku at the NHK Culture Center, and a member of the Modern Haiku Association and the Japanese Agricultural Exchange Council.


Copyright 2005: Simply Haiku