No wonder dreams of journeys are so often associated with death. We travel to leave our lives behind—the familiar workaday parts, anyway—hoping to arrive in a paradise where our eyes, ears, tongues, maybe even our hearts, will be startled awake. What we really want is a new self, but what we often find and bring back is more stuff—samples of a regional cuisine, eyefuls of great art, tidbits about Kafka's life in Prague, opinions, trinkets. Traveling
becomes grazing on a global scale. The Essential Basho
translated by Sam Hamill
(Shambhala, $25) We find a different pathway in Sam Hamill's newest collection of translations, The Essential Basho. Here for the first time in a single volume is the essence of Basho's work: four travel narratives, including the well-known "Narrow Road to the Interior," and 250 haiku returning us home to a dailiness transformed by awareness and attention. Whether the poet is on the road or at his own brushwood gate he seeks, instead of new acquisitions or excitements, an honest encounter between world and mind. These two entities were never separate to begin with. So although Basho's travelogues seem to record his treks on foot through 17th-century Japan, they're actually journeys into his own true nature, the heartland within, where self and circumstance are one: Very early on the twenty-seventh morning of the third moon, under a predawn haze, transparent moon barely visible, Mount Fuji just a shadow, I set out under the cherry blossoms of Ueno and Yanaka. When would I see them again? A few old friends had gathered in the night and followed along far enough to see me off from the boat . . . I felt three thousand miles rushing through my heart, the whole world only a dream. I saw it through farewell tears. Spring passes
and the birds cry out—tears
in the eyes of fishes. With these first words from my brush, I started. Those who remain behind watch the shadow of a traveler's back disappear. Carrying just a few necessities along with friends' farewell presents, which he can't bear to part with, Basho lets each event on the way speak the language of its particular life. At a farm he asks directions, but they're so complicated the farmer just lends Basho his horse ("He knows the road. When he stops, get off, and he'll come back alone.") The horse takes Basho to a village and then turns around, a gift from the poet tied to his saddle. Farther on, Basho observes peasants wearing black formal hats for ancient rites, speaks with prostitutes on a pilgrimage, sadly leaves to his fate a child abandoned by his parents, retreats from a three-day storm into a shack: Eaten alive by
lice and fleas—now the horse
beside my pillow pees. At a mountain temple "I crawled among boulders to make my bows at shrines. The silence was profound. I sat, feeling my heart begin to open." Elsewhere, hearing distant villagers clap wooden noisemakers to scare deer from their fields, he feels "the utter aloneness of autumn." A stranger asks for a poem ("Something beautiful, please") and Basho writes a verse about the cry of a cuckoo that arrives, just then, from across a field. Basho's words flow spontaneously out of each moment lived. Instead of giving us tours or mementos of the world, he helps us open ourselves to its presence and thereby discover who we are. Through his haiku we sense the wholeness and sufficiency of an early frost, the seed of an eggplant, "Mr. Seagull," a hangover, a nest of mice, a bean-floured rice ball, tears in the eyes of fishes, and ourselves, alive and new again. Hamill frames The Essential Basho with essays on Basho's life and work that are scholarly enough to educate a student of haiku or Japanese culture and lively enough to engage any reader. Their depth and ease testify to the virtuosity Hamill has achieved as editor of Copper Canyon Press, director of the Port Townsend Writers' Conference, author of over 30 books, and translator of poetry in several languages. Travelers like me have carried tattered copies of his pocket-size Basho (Narrow Road to the Interior, now out of print) around the world. We'll treasure this fine new volume silkily sleeved in Hokusai's portrait of the poet on the road again.