Table of Contents

This issue is the third in a series devoted to text/image interactions other than haiga as strictly defined. Over the past year we've done concrete poetry, found poetry, and now ekphrasis: a poem in response to a work of art. With every issue, as its content takes shape, I begin to ask myself: what would be a good theme for it?

The genesis of this issue's theme, Wild Geese, began over a decade ago when I found a copy of Harold Henderson's An Introduction to Haiku (Garden City: Doubleday, 1958) in my local used bookstore. I was still fairly new to haiku and Henderson's book was my introduction to the old masters. As an art teacher, I was particularly taken with this Buson poem he included, with the following interpretation:

Into a line they wheel
the wild geese; at the foothills
the moon is put for seal

The word gyo here translated as "line" usually refers to a line or short passage of writing, which in normal Japanese would be perpendicular, or nearly so, and which, when put into a painting, would usually be in the upper part. This shows that the geese are not flying horizontally, but have turned and are coming downward, though still above the foothills and the moon. . . The subject is a favorite one for artists, and the picture would easily be visualized by almost any Japanese, complete with foothills and the mountain or mountains they imply. Buson, however, has suggested the idea of a line of writing, which in Japan is almost used as the equivalent of a painting, so that the scene may be visualized in more than one way. In any case, however, the moon is where it belongs, at the bottom of the long-hanging scroll. . . Buson has not said clearly who it is that uses the moon for seal. That question is left for the reader.(Henderon pp. 96-97)

Various translations may be found online at Terebess Asia, the World Kigo Database, and the "Yosa Buson Study Group" on Facebook. The most quoted seems to be Robert Haas' version with its wonderful first line that emphasizes the analogy to brush painting:

Calligraphy of geese
against the sky--
the moon seals it.

Utagawa Hiroshige,
"Wild Geese across the Moon, 1834-39
(source: Ukiyo-e Search)

Haas draws out the analogy to painting but inexplicably replaces the mountains with sky, moves the cut to line 2, and loses the image of the moon, just rising and red. Henderson's translation is too archaic, but to my taste Haas has perhaps been a little too free with author's intent. Closest to the original may be this translation by David Coomler, whose reading of the painting's composition keys in on the color contrast of black in and red seal:

Ohara Koson,
"Eight White-fronted Geese", 1920s (photo source: WikiArt)

A line of wild geese;
Above the foothills,
The moon as seal.

Buson is likening a passing line of wild geese on a moonlit autumn night to a vertical scroll on which there is a line of black writing, and he is likening the bright autumn moon above the foothills to the reddish-orange round seal mark of the painter. He thus pulls the mind of the reader in two directions—one a real scene, the other the work of a calligrapher-painter. . . It leads, as I have said, not only to artificiality, but it also does not allow a thing to simply be what it is, to stand on its own merit and power. ("Fog and Thinking", Hokku, November 8, 2009)

Coomler dislikes the poem for the same reasons that first attracted me to it. I don't read the image as a "real scene" that is being compared to a painting. Like all good art, the poem is open. It could be describing the painting itself, or could be simply what it purports to be: wild geese at moonrise, realized in the artist/poet's eye as a synthesis of art and experience. In other words, ekphrasis.

In Henderson's book, I was delighted to find another geese-and-moon haiku by Shiki that obviously referred back to Buson's:

railroad tracks; a flight
of wild geese close above them
in the moonlit night

The book gives it a title: "The New and the Old", which underscores that the poem is about tradition and the dislocation of modernization as Shiki experienced it in late 19th century Japan. From Gabi's entry in the World Kigo Database I've learned that the first railroad opened in Japan in 1872, which helps to date the painting. To probe deeper into it, though, you also have to see it as a tag on Buson. In its own way, it too is ekphrastic. Shiki's artist friends were were enamoured of Western style painting, with its very different concept of pictorial space. His haiku presupposes a picture plane and a vanishing point marked by those railroad tracks. The moon is high, and now it's the geese that are low. In Kenneth Yasuda's translation they're "taking flight"—as if startled by the train.

Was Buson writing of a painting he had seen, perhaps an old Chinese scroll that had made an impression on him? Was it one of his own paintings? An imaginary painting, conjured wiith words? Or a "real scene" that this master painter/poet is letting us see with his artist's eye? Whichever, it is what it is: an experience of migrating wild geese and a rising cinnibar red moon. All in the space of one breath.

Through the translations and an online dictionary to parse the kanji, by now I know the poem much more closely than when I first encountered it in Henderson. Could there have been a better poem to theme our ekphrastic issue than this? Wild Geese it is.

I think, though, that I'd prefer a mash-up of the translations:

ichigyoo no kari ya hayama ni tsuki o in su

calligraphy of geese--
above the mountain's edge
the moon for a seal

Enjoy our Wild Geese issue. Welcome!

Linda Papanicolaou