tarai kara
tarai ni utsuru

- Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827)

Tub to tub
The whole journey
Just hub-bub!

- trans. Lewis Mackenzie

From one tub until moved into the other – it’s all double Dutch to me

- trans. Max Bickerton

From washing bowl
     to washing bowl my journey –
           and just rigmarole

- trans. Harold G. Henderson

     From one bath-tub
To another bath-tub, -
     All stuff and nonsense.

- trans. R. H. Blyth

This haiku is the best of several that have been thought of as the death poem of the great haiku master Kobayashi Issa. It probably was not written on his deathbed, nor was it his final poem, but it seems terribly appropriate that we regard it as such, just as we see Tennyson’s "Crossing the Bar" as his final poem.

Show, don’t tell, as the saying goes, and Issa brillantly sums up his life’s journey in two simple, parallel images: the bathing of a newborn infant and the ceremonial washing of a corpse. In both situations, as in much of life, you lack the cognitive powers to grasp what is happening and events are out of your control.

The poem turns on the meaning of the word chimpunkan, and I’m not qualified to fully explain the connotations, nor do I probably understand them all myself, but you can get some idea from the various ways it’s been translated. Bickerton chose "double Dutch" as a clever reference (perhaps too clever, distracting from the thrust of the poem) to the Dutch enclave in Nagasaki, where Issa had heard their tongue.

What Issa meant when he describes life as nonsense or gibberish is ambiguous. Is life itself meaningless? Are the works of the living pointless in the face of death? Or is life nonsense to us because we can’t grasp what it all truly means?

All this in seventeen little syllables. Issa was a genius.

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