Simply Haiku: A Quarterly Journal of Japanese Short Form Poetry
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Spring 2007, vol 5 no 1

Cherry Blossom Epiphany
by Robin Gill
A Review by Robert D. Wilson


futokoro ni nete-kaeru ko mo hanami kana

   a child sleeping
in a bosom: that too
is blossom-viewing

Chisen (1712)

If tanka is the soul of the Japanese people, then haiku is its heartbeat. A product of Japan, haiku has permeated this island nation's culture for hundreds of years. It's taught in schools, penned by businessmen, laborers, auto workers, monks, and children. And since the 1950s, it has become increasingly popular as an import to the English speaking world.

Robin D. Gill has written several books dealing with specific subjects expressed in haiku, including Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! and Fly-ku! His newest book is Cherry Blossom Epiphany, a 731 page tome containing 3,000 Japanese haiku about cherry blossoms, translated and expounded upon. As with his previous books, it is an exhaustive commentary, without the academic pedantry indigenous to such works. According to Gill, hundreds of thousands if not millions of haiku have been penned by Japanese poets dealing in some way with the theme of cherry blossoms. Says Gill, "My aim in this book is to present the entire spectrum of experience, from start to finish, as far as possible relying on haiku alone."

This volume is not for those who whisk through reference books in a hurry to uncover diamonds they can share "on the fly" with others on and offline. Albeit joyful to read, Cherry Blossom Epiphany is a shotgun blast to the brain, a university course on hyper-drive.

Gill describes his philosophy of translation thus:

My translations are an open book. I dislike transparent --- i.e., invisible ---translation that allows readers to believe all that matters has been Englished when it just ain't so. Here, you will not only learn what I know but what I do not know, and what I know yet still cannot fit into the translation. In some cases, this otherwise lost information or wit may be re-created with a device rarely seen in haiku, a title, and a more unfamiliar device, yet one I recommend to all translators who work with exotic tongues, multiple translation. You will find I sometimes play with poems. Interesting results are all the justification a translator needs, but let me add that it is precisely because I provide word-for-word translation (an ugly tool, not to be taken for the language itself) and ample explanation, that I feel free to take the liberties I do.

Robin D. Gill's insight is priceless. He introduces readers to a mindset far removed from Western culture and thought patterns, knowing too well that unless we read these poems from a Japanese perspective, we will not fully understand them.

An example:

shiragumo wa ikuyo no hana no utabukuro     Onitsura 1600-1738
(white clouds-as-for [how] many-ages blossoms' song-bag [also frog-throat]

         white clouds                                                         white clouds
song-pouches for ages                                    how long have they held
          of blossoms                                                      blossom poems?

                                          one for the song bag!

                                             blooming clouds
                                    like the throats of ancient
                                                singing frogs

Gill's commentary: "The 'song-pouch' was a container usually tied up to the main pillar of a poet's house into which scraps of paper with drafts of songs/poems were dropped. It also is the balloon-like throat of the frog, a proto-poet according to the preface to Japan's second oldest major poetry collection, the Kokinshu (905). Onitsura may be chuckling: How many generations of cherry blossom poetry have been served by this cloud conceit?"

In providing alternative translations of a haiku, Gill gives readers a deeper sense of the poem while covertly illuminating the difficulty that goes into translating a haiku from one language to another, and in this case, from one mindset to a completely different way of thinking (Eastern and Western thought). In addition, he comments on the haiku he's translated, as if talking to an apprentice, making sure he or she understands the depth and breadth of each haiku and the cultural mindset that shaped them.

I have heard it posited that it is best to stay away from certain subjects when composing a haiku as said subjects have been well covered, if not grossly overused, and, therefore, a poet including them in his haiku runs the risk of overkill or redundancy. Gill's book includes 3,000 haiku, most of which deal with cherry blossoms. After reading through his book, I am even more convinced than before that writing haiku making use of a so-called overused kigo reference word will be fresh as long as I draw my haiku from social context and cultural memory. It is not the subject matter that makes or breaks a haiku. It is the depth and breadth of experience of the poet that can make for a memorable poem.

     cherry blossoms
with the morning moon
        still in the sky

       after sunset
the moon and i toast
      the blossoms

          from the bud
a blossom's mind is set
            on falling

Gill's ability to translate haiku from the original Japanese to English without losing the poem's integrity, metre, and meaning are topnotch. And worth the price of the book, even if one doesn't have the time to study the author's "explications."

Cherry Blossom Epiphany—The Poetry and Philosophy of a Flowering Tree
by Robin Gill
Paraverse Press (2007)
ISBN 0974261866
Paperback; 740 pages
Available online from major bookstores