The smell of haiku

The power of scent to raise a memory has been scientifically proven, as has the link between scent and emotion, one that perfumiers strive to tap into. This article in The Harvard Gazette explains the science: Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odours go directly to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory – and the oldest parts of the human brain.

And although we list taste as one of the five senses, science says that everything we taste is by way of being smelled. No sense of smell, no sense of taste.

Here are some haiku I think convey the sense of smell very well, even if they almost all use the word ‘scent’! I hope you’ve enjoyed this four-part look at haiku that engage with the senses beyond sight, I’ve had fun putting it together.

fallen eucalypt …
the scent
cut into stove lengths

Jo McInerney
from naad anunaad: an anthology of contemporary world haiku
(Viswakarma Publications, 2016)

gentle rain
scent of the seedbed turning
a deeper brown

Katrina Shepherd
from Before the Sirocco (NZPS, 2008)

yellow roses
at Uji the fragrance
of roasting tea leaves

Basho, tr Jane Reichhold
from Basho: The complete haiku (Kodansha, 2008)

The translator’s note to the haiku, written in 1691, is that as yamabuki flowers (Kerria japonica) have no fragrance, they must borrow smells from the roasted tea.

Uji was once one of the most important tea-growing areas in Japan. Read more here. It’s interesting to note that although the yamabuki plant is not a rose, its name is often used to mean ‘yellow rose’ in Japanese literature!

migrating geese –
her scent finally gone
from my pillow

Stephen Toft
from another country: haiku poetry from Wales (Gomer, 2011)

in the alleys
orange blossom scent . . .
the rest escapes me

Luci Cardillo
from Autumn Moon 2.2 (2019)

otoko kite heya nuchi suisen no nioi midaru

a man enters
the room, disturbing the scent
of daffodils

Yoshino Yoshiko, tr Makoto Ueda
from Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women
(Columbia University Press, 2003)

two boys giggle
as he enters the bike shop …
onion seller

Alan Summers
from Stepping Stones: a way into haiku (BHS, 2007)

family reunion
bad breath
has a name

Roberta Beach Jacobson
from H Gene Murtha Senryu Contest, 2019

summer breeze
setting aside the book
to smell her hair

Makarios Tabor
from The Heron’s Nest 22.1, 2020

 

The touch of haiku

The sensation of touch – whether we’re touching something or someone or we’re being touched – is often an unrecorded sensation. We’re much more likely to respond strongly to taste or smell. But from the moment we’re born our vulnerable skin is wrapped in a textile or fibre, and we do that until we are dressed for the final time and our earthly remains commended to the elements.

Our skin is our largest organ and is constantly absorbing and classifying contact sensations. As I type this only my face and hands are exposed and I realise that I haven’t for a long time considered how my fingerpads feel the keyboard keys and what messages they’re sending to my brain. Given that I’ve been using typewriters and keyboards for more than 40 years, I might be forgiven for falling into non-observance but it’s a timely prod that I could well do to examine this facet of my haiku writing.

feet up
toes spread wide
I catch
8 tiny summer breezes

Anita Virgil
from Montage (The Haiku Foundation, 2010)

cat’s tongue
licks the Atlantic
from my damp skin

Doris Lynch
from Another Trip Around the Sun (Brooks Books, 2019)

summer morning
the riverbed stones warm
beneath my feet

John Barlow
from Stepping Stones: a way into haiku (BHS, 2007)

yu no nagori koyoi wa hada no samukara n

tonight my skin
will miss the hot spring
it seems colder

Basho, tr Jane Reichhold
from Basho: The complete haiku (Kodansha, 2008)

The translator’s note to this haiku, written in autumn 1689, is that the poet gave the haiku to Toyo, the son of the innkeeper, as he was leaving the hot springs resort at Yamanaka, near Kanazawa. In her introduction to this section of haiku, Reichhold notes that Basho had become ‘infatuated’ with the young man.

drafty temple –
only the buddha
not shivering

Stanford M Forrester
from Montage (The Haiku Foundation, 2010)

mother’s ashes
the mountain wind
on my hands

Meg Arnot
Morika International Haiku Contest, 2019

my thumbprint
on this thousand-year-old pot
fits hers

Ruth Yarrow
from Montage

haguki kayuku chikubi kamu ko ya hanagumori

gums itching
the baby bites my nipple –
spring’s hazy sky

Sugita Hisajo, tr Makoto Ueda
from Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women
(Columbia University Press, 2003)

summer haze
on the small of my back
the feel of his palm

Patricia Prime
from Wishbone Moon (Jacar Press, 2018)

Paulownia – the haiku tree

The paulownia trees are flowering just now – they always catch my eye because the purple flowers seem such a long way up. We used to have one on a boundary with a neighbour but it’s not so much the flowers I remember from that tree but the sound of sparrows rattling the seed pods.

Paulownia (empress tree, foxglove tree) is named for Anna (1795-1865), the daughter of Tsar Paul 1 of Russia (1754-1801). Courted by many, including it’s said Napoleon Bonaparte, she married the future King William II of The Netherlands, who stayed with the Russian royal family for the best part of a year before she agreed to the match. In The Netherlands, she was known as Anna Paulowna, which gives us the tree’s botanical name. Read more of this story here, as well as some botanical background.

Just about past, the blossoms of a paulownia tree. Photo: Sandra Simpson

The faintly perfumed wood is traditionally used in Japan for clothes chests, particularly kimono, as it contains a natural insect and mould repellent, and is slow to burn (a big consideration when everyone lives in wood and paper houses). Read more about Japanese traditions associated with the paulownia here, including the planting of a paulownia when a daughter is born.

Underlining its treasure box status is the fact that in The British Museum is a set of four calligraphy albums featuring haiku by Basho – one album for each season and each album stored in a paulownia box.

I wasn’t able to find any haiku about paulownia blossoms – only the tree’s leaf fall in autumn which has significant, and ancient, connotations for Japanese and Chinese poets.

hitoha chiru / totsu hitoha chiru / kaze no ue

a leaf falls
Totsu! A leaf falls
on the wind

– Hattori Ransetsu (1654-1707), tr William Higginson
The Classic Tradition of Haiku: An Anthology (Courier Corporation, 2012)

The notes with the haiku say this (in part):

The term ‘one leaf’ in a Japanese haiku is code for paulownia (kiri in Japanese).The fast-growing tree’s leaves drop throughout the year and symbolise loneliness and connote the past. The large, purple flowers are deeply associated with haiku because they hold 3 prongs of 5-7-5 buds, respectively. The blooms and their bracket of leaves form the crest of the Empress of Japan. Totsu is an exclamation uttered by a student of Zen Buddhism when enlightenment is achieved – it is also said to be the sound a paulownia leaf makes as it hits the ground upon falling.

Sourced from the Old Pond Comics website.

鳴蝉も連てふはりと一葉哉
naku semi mo tsurete fuwari to hito ha kana

with a singing cicada
softly…
one leaf falls

– Issa, from Haiku of Kobayashi Issa website.

David Lanoue’s notes say: The phrase, “one leaf” (hito ha), specifically denotes a paulownia leaf in the shorthand of haiku. Shinji Ogawa notes that naku semi mo tsurete means “together with the singing cicada”. The falling leaf has a passenger!

The footnote to another poem amplifies the power of ‘one leaf’: Shinji Ogawa comments: “In a Chinese book, Enanji (in Japanese pronunciation) published in the early third century, it is written that when a paulownia leaf falls, the world’s autumn is known. The ‘world’s autumn’ implies the changing of the dynasty. Since paulownia leaves are the crest of the Tyotomi family that ruled Japan in the sixteenth century and was ruined by the Tokugawa, the word hito ha (“one paulownia leaf”) implies a sort of sadness.”

imperialgarden3

The symbol of the Japanese empress – three paulownia leaves – is seen on a roof tile in the Imperial Palace, Kyoto. (The tadpole-type symbols on the other tiles are apparently water drops that act as a ‘charm’ against fire.) Photo: Sandra Simpson

 

making sure we know 
that autumn is here, a leaf
from the empress tree

– Den Sutejo (1633-98) tr Makoto Ueda
Far Beyond the Field: Haiku by Japanese Women (Columbia University Press, 2012)

Plum blossom season

“Blossom” is synonymous with spring but, traditionally, “plum blossom” in Japanese haiku is a signifier for late winter and, as that’s where my part of the world is at, it’s timely to shine a small spotlight on this flower.

Probably my best effort at plum blossom. Artwork: Sandra Simpson

Several years ago I joined a Chinese brush-painting class where we worked through the “four gentlemen”, starting with bamboo before moving on to orchid, chrysanthemum  and finishing with  plum blossom.

Our teacher, Sally, had a magnificent scroll painting of plum blossom she had bought in Hong Kong. It was enormous and masterfully done. Painted images of plum blossom often show snow on the branches too, reinforcing the late winter season.

billingtonplum - Copy

Billington is the first plum variety to crop and these blossoms were out with the magnolias in a Tauranga garden. Photo: Sandra Simpson

home village
all the potholes
patched with plum blossoms

– Ernest Wit, Asahi Haikuist network, February 1, 2013

捨扇梅盗人にもどしけり
sute ôgi ume nusubito ni modoshi keri

abandoned fan –
I return it
to the plum blossom thief

– Kobayashi Issa (tr David Lanoue)

Read more of Issa’s plum blossom haiku.

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Plum blossom in Japan. Photo: Sandra Simpson

I visited Japan in April 2012 and while the cherry blossom was opening in the lower areas, in the higher country we were still in late winter. This photo was taken in the Fuji Five Lakes national park (Fuji-Goko).

Gabi Greve, writing about plum blossom on her World Kigo Database website, says plum blossom viewing was a popular pastime, particularly in the Heian period (794-1185), but was done more on an individual basis than by the big groups who undertake cherry blossom viewing – red plum blossoms  remind the viewer of the coming spring, while white blossoms are a reminder of the snow that may still be about or still to fall.

plum blossoms everywhere …
I should go south,
I should go north

– Yosa Buson

While looking for haiku for this post, I came across this one in Haiku Before Haiku by Steven D Carter (Columbia University Press, NY, 2011):

plum branches –
umbrellas taking shape
in the rain

– wife of Mitsusada (1583-1647)

A note with the haiku says the wife of Sugiki Mitsusada was “often called the first female haikai poet” … so I did a little online research and found this from Far Beyond the Field, Haiku by Japanese women, compiled by Makoto Ueda:

The earliest documentary evidence for female authorship of haikai is  … Enokoshu (The puppy collection, 1633), which collected verses  written by poets of Tei-mon, the oldest school of  haikai. [It] contains works by a person identified only as “Mitsusada’s wife”. Of the 178 poets represented in the anthology, she was the lone woman. That statistic, and her being listed under her husband’s name, suggest the kind of status to which women were confined in haiku circles during this seminal period.

Read a sample from the book.