Welcome to re:Virals, The Haiku Foundation’s weekly poem commentary feature on some of the finest haiku ever written in English. This week’s poem was
Almost as high As the crumbled statue, The heated air shimmering From the stone foundation. — Matsuo Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, (trans. Nobuyuki Yuasa, 1966).
Garry Eaton envisions a mirage:
First of all, a big shout out to Danny Blackwell for his efforts in making this Haiku Foundation feature work, week after week!
A broken or crumbled statue in art is almost universally recognized as a symbol of human imperfection, so it’s not surprising to find one in a Basho haiku. What makes this haiku unique, I think, is Basho’s brilliant observation of the heat shimmer rising from the pedestal of one such monument. Similar to mirage, heat shimmer is another atmospheric phenomenon that can illustrate impermanence, and Basho places it just so, making it subtly suggest an apparition of the original subject, composed of heat and light, quickly come, and quickly gone.
Nancy Liddle feels inadequate compared to the master:
When I first read this, only recently new to Basho, it affected me with the apparent simplicity of the image. Now I find it’s very hard to use my own words correctly to respond to it clearly, to say what I actually want to say adequately. And Basho used 17 sound units only. The day is hot, the place holds a crumbling stone statue, the air in the grounds is heated again by the stones of the Buddha statue, more so than by the earth.
The air is made alive and moving by the heat emanating from the crumbling but still forceful statue — so that the air is transformed and also the statue is transformed into spirit — the statue’s soul is seen as the spirit hovering around it. And two wanderers are the witnesses. Basho travelled with companions. So, a decrepit statue is breathing and two travellers are standing in awe. And the message is secret but for this haiku.
My words are clumsy against the master’s. And yet I hope I understood at least a little of this haiku in the first instance. And the answer to that is “probably not”.
Lorin Ford finds merit in Yuasa’s translation:
Those of us who don’t read Japanese must rely on translations, but which to choose when there are several translations? No doubt there are more, but along with Nobuyuki Yuasa’s, I’ve found these two:
jooroku ni kageroo takashi ishi no ue
Almost as high
As the crumbled statue,
The heated air shimmering
From the stone foundation.
(Tr. Nobuyuki Yuasa)
sixteen foot Buddha:
heat wave rising
from the stone base
(Tr. David Landis Barnhill)
Reaching almost to
the broken statue’s height,
heat waves rise from stone
(Tr. Sam Hamill)
In Oku no Hosomichi (Records of a Travel-Worn Satchel) Bashō introduces this haiku with an account of his visit to the site of the ruins of a specific 12th century Buddhist temple which had been razed by fire. The details in Sam Hamill’s translation, “Green moss covered the tall Buddha, leaving only his sublime face exposed. A statue of the founder stood alone among broken pedestals . . .” complies with Nobuyuki Yuasa’s and seems to be historically correct, so we can disregard the Barnhill version which seems to inaccurately show the great Buddha statue as ‘broken’ or ‘crumbled’ rather than that of the temple’s founding priest.
In Bashō’s original, kageroo 陽炎 (heat shimmers) is a kigo for ‘all spring’, according the Dr. Gabi Greve. (She adds, as footnote: “In American English, they are sometimes called “heat waves” or “heat haze”.) Bashō ‘s deft touch (filmic, long before the film industry was born) is that these rising heat shimmers cannot but bring to mind by association the rising flames of fire that had ravaged the temple long ago. The historical past becomes, for a moment, superimposed upon the present. This effect comes across in both the Nobuyuki and Hamill translations.
Which do I prefer? The shimmering air, that phenomenon which always seems to me to be on the verge of becoming a mirage, does it for me much better than “heat waves”, which in my region simply means extended periods of very hot weather. As I became used to Nobuyuki’s rendering of his translations over four lines I appreciated the clarity of detail. In a delightfully unconstrained, hard-hitting essay Kenneth Rexroth wrote:
“Nobuyuki Yuasa, like almost all Japanese translators, expands and explains in translating. This is usually disastrous. In his case it is done with dignity and taste and by and large is illuminating, not degrading.”
Christina Pecoraro muses:
In four short lines, strategically placed, the master haiku poet Matsuo Bashō captures the drama of the collapse of a colossus. The story he evokes, which Victorian poet Shelley will later recount in his poem “Ozymandias,” predates 17th century Basho by hundreds of years. Like Shelley’s famous sonnet of that title, it takes us back to ancient Egypt and the Pharaoh god-king Ramses II.
Giving voice to the immense figure replicating Ramses, Shelley writes:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
In its intact state, the same giant statute that Bashō’s haiku brings to mind emerges from a “stone foundation.” The word “high” which Bashō places in the first of his four lines signifies not only the physical measure of such a one, but his perceived greatness. Rendered in stone, this immortal god-figure is thus thought to be further immortalized.
That such a one can end up “crumbled,” then, astounds. For crumbling speaks of vulnerability, of downfall, and even of disintegration. It is, in fact, the very antithesis of what such a monument to might was fashioned to be.
In Bashō’s stunning rendering, the vacant hugeness which is left though, is not empty. It is shockingly filled by a veritable tsunami, not of sand or water, but of “heated (desert) air,” the waves of which can be seen and felt or readily imagined. But note: the fact that insubstantial “air” should replace the once solid stone figure, and that its “shimmering” should reach “almost as high,” these are perhaps the cruellest cuts of all.
What it tells, it seems to me, is that illusions of grandeur—including our own— are destined ultimately to meet a like fate.
If there is a saving factor in Bashō’s haiku, perhaps it is this: when all else shatters and turns to dust, our own “foundation,” will remain. That, at least, cannot be obliterated. Or can it? But that is musing for another moment.
Cezar-Florin Ciobîcă feels the wabi-sabi:
I’m sure the reader can see the ruins of a temple covered with moss where the statue of a very important deity (Buddha), though crumbled, still stands erect and attracts attention; the glory of the past has clearly disappeared but unexpectedly seems to shine forth as in former days due to the ‘heated air shimmering’ that gives the image a special aura and brings to my mind the Fata Morgana mirages. It’s interesting to notice too that the glittering air cannot exceed the height of the effigy on the platform/pedestal. What does it mean? Nothing is above a God/deity. Even the light. We can also speculate that the ‘heated air shimmering’ resurrects the spirits of the ancestors and connect them with us.
The wabi-sabi fills the atmosphere within the poem and one can feel the presence of Basho, who travels, observes and writes down attentively offering us brief snapshots, genuine charcoal sketches of a lost world.
The ‘stone foundation’ in the last line invites us to reflect on the irreversible passing of time and on the legacy of the past.
As this week’s winner, Lorin gets to choose next week’s poem, which you’ll find below. We invite you to write a commentary to it. It may be as long or short, academic or spontaneous, serious or silly, public or personal as you like. We will select out-takes from the best of these. And the very best will be reproduced in its entirety and take its place as part of the THF Archives. Best of all, the winning commentator gets to choose the next poem for commentary.
Anyone can participate. A new poem will appear each Friday morning. Simply put your commentary in the Contact box by the following Tuesday midnight (Eastern US Time Zone). Please use the subject
header “re:Virals” so we know what we’re looking at. We look forward to seeing some of your favorite poems — and finding out why!
The old rooster crows . . . Out of the mist come the rocks and the twisted pine — O.Mabson Southard, American Haiku 3.1 (1965)