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Volume 33.1
Winter Spring

book review

A Dream Like This World: One Hundred Haiku by Nagata Koi
translated by Nana Naruto and Margaret Mitsutani


reviewed by Randy Brooks

A Dream Like This World: One Hundred Haiku by Nagata Koi translated by Nana Naruto and Margaret Mitsutani. Nana Naruto, 4-3-6, Toyosumi, Kashiwa, Chiba, 277-0071, Japan. 2000, 148 pp., cloth, $20.00. Add $7.50 for air mail or $4.50 by sea mail. ISBN: 4-924828-65-3.


A Dream Like This World is an elegantly published dual language (Japanese and English) collection of 100 philosophical haiku by Nagata Koi. Nagata Koi, was born in 1900 and died in 1997, and he wrote haiku for eighty years, beginning with a descriptive haiku “dealing mainly with the beauty of nature” which he rejected following World War II. After the war, he pursued a more philosophical and religious haiku based on Zen Buddhism. He wrote haiku like:

     growing leeks
     in a dream like this world

In the preface to the book, Nagata Koi conveys his approach as a writer’s question about the capabilities of haiku. He writes, “I have long wondered, in my own way, whether haiku might not be philosophy. . . . At the same time, I continue to think that haiku is also religion. If the contemplation of life and death is the basis of literature, then we can call haiku religious in the sense that it is always a means of seeking for a way to live, and to discover and express truth, goodness and beauty” (131).

This might seem to be a tall order for haiku—pushing haiku beyond the concrete images of perception into expressions of truth, goodness, beauty, philosophy and religion. In fact, with a rejection of haiku based on nature or perceptions of the natural world, one might expect Koi’s haiku to be abstract—or worse—to become proverbs, intellectual epigrams or abstract miniature sermons. But in practice, his haiku do not preach as much as they mystify. Sometimes Koi’s haiku ask questions:

what to do with
this profusion of red plum blossoms

And sometimes they declare a metaphysical dilemma:

a winter crow
steps forward
the scene steps with him

Other times they just declare a truism:

a cat in heat dedicates himself to love

And sometimes they appear to be little more than statements:

I mistook
B mound of straw
for A

These haiku may express deep religious insights or philosophically significant positions in the original Japanese, but they seem merely inscrutable in translation. Notes on context and allusions to other works would help us appreciate these haiku more.

The notes, for example, that accompany Koi’s haiku about an old cat and his mother’s death help us to appreciate the poetic goals of his work:

an old cat straining, shits—
     in such a pose
     my mother dies in winter

The notes explain that through “metaphysical intuition” the poet connects that which is separated in actual space and time. The haiku is not about a moment, but about the artistic “eyes of eternity” witnessing “an eternal truth.” With the difficulty of imagining the connection between the cat and the mother, we ourselves are strained to bring these together. However in another haiku, Koi expresses a more conventional image in the following death haiku:

last years—
     soul flying through cherry blossom clouds

Liberated from the physical perceptions or haiku on beauty and nature, and not tied to imagistic language, Koi writes from the spiritualistic soul’s perspective. My favorites are also somewhat inscrutable, but fun haiku based on a laughing catfish:

the catfish in the pond laughs
someone on the shore laughs, too

Could it be? Perhaps that laughing catfish is none other than Koi himself, laughing at how serious we become over our haiku and haiku poetics. Get a copy of this collection and be mystified, puzzled, surprised. There’s a clever catfish waiting in the pond for you to join him.




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