a small space
between wit and wonder
left vacant

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Dream and Journey

There was a shop near the marina that sold homemade ice cream. Its owners, a couple with three young children, were building a sailboat to sail around the world. Above the service counter hung a banner they’d made on tractor-feed printer paper with the words they’d chosen to urge them on:
The problem was, they were just months from sailing off on the vast Pacific without having learned navigation, thinking it was unnecessary because they planned to rely upon electronics, which were highly unreliable in the salt air. The time arrived. They sailed away. As far as we know some thirty or more years later, no one ever heard from them again.

In May of 1689, Matsuo Basho began his Oku No Hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Interior), a long, arduous journey into the unfamiliar and rugged terrain in the north of Japan. The prologue of his travel journal allows us a glimpse of his wanderlust mindset:

"The months and days are the travelers of eternity. The years that come and go are also voyagers. Those who float away their lives on boats or who grow old leading horses are forever journeying, and their homes are wherever their travels take them. Many of the men of old died on the road, and I too for years have been stirred by the sight of a solitary cloud drifting with the wind, to ceaseless thoughts of roaming."
(Translated by Donald Keene)

Five and a half years and some shorter journeys later, Basho, age fifty, wrote his death verse (d. 11-28-1694):

     tabi ni yande | yume wa kareno o | kakemeguru

falling ill on the journey . . .
in dreams I wander
over withered fields

See various translations of Basho’s death verse [alphabetical: tabi ni]: 

Though their stories are three hundred years apart, both the brief prose sailors’ tale and Basho’s death verse offer a window into a life’s journey; yet reading them at face value tells us little about these life-travelers. That which came before and whatever might have come after have a subtle way of creating a cameo in time. We find ourselves suspended between great unknowns. With this general idea in mind I wrote the byline for my blog in 2011:

a small space
      between wit and wonder
      left vacant

The byline verse is not haiku, but it speaks of something intrinsic to Japanese haiku (and Japanese-style haiku in English) — a gap (ma), open space (referred to as white space in visual art) that allows room for the reader to retreat from the busy world beyond its borders and enter into the realm of a particular experience. The use of lower case also helps to suggest a gap between previous thoughts and these particular words. The final words ‘left vacant’ offer another gap, a space in which to dwell for a time before returning to the world of the ordinary senses. Thus, this saying and haiku exist in the floating world, with an invisible cut by which one enters into eternal space, and another by which we return to the ordinary world outside of the verse.

See also: Basho's 'Yume/Dream' verses: