Books by Scott Watson and Taneda Santōka
The poet-monk Taneda Santōka (1882-1940) lived his life in the tradition of the classic Zen sage poets, on the open road across Japan, living hand-to-mouth by wit, luck, and the generosity of a culture that, still in the early part of the 20th century, saw such a life as valuable, despite family left behind. It's been suggested that perhaps, because of his family history, he might have been manic-depressive; he was certainly an alcoholic. He became a Zen monk after a failed suicide attempt landed him in the care of a Zen monastery. For whatever reason he was a non-conformist, living the life given him, the road before him, certainly under a Dionysian cloud, but with a steady view of the "right there," the Zen "just this." His work, in the 20th-century free-form haiku tradition is boldly individual, filled with quick illuminations, and sometimes painful emotion.
Scott Watson who has lived, wrote, and taught in Japan for many years and is a married to a Japanese woman, calls his translations versions, taking Santōka at his word that tradition shouldn't hinder poetry or enlightenment. This is the third of Watson's published works of Santōka poems. Next to Ikkyu, another rebellious Zen poet-monk, Santōka is my favorite haiku poet. It's the crankiness I like, the eccentricity, and the shear boundless imagination and off-centered way of looking at things that appeals. I like the poems most that stretch the haiku form, styles, and themes. Santōka is a master poet and Watson's masterful versions capture the spirit of Santōka's work. Here are a few:
calm, calm, cold, cold, snow, snow
whatever it all is it all is blossoming
briar flowers / let's become one with this / earth
as with rock so with grasses: wither
heart-to-heart snow falling little birds' love
an owl is an owl, and I am is an I am unable to / sleep
the crow has flown time to cross this water
These display a mind, a being, deeply aware of the crack in the world, but unafraid of it. A mind eager to understand and experience whatever it confronts.
Watson has the same kind of mind, which gives him easy access to creating versions of Santōka, Basho, Sansei, and others. But it also gave him the ground from which to keep a startling and personal account of the weeks after the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis of March 2011. I was one of his circle who received, once he had electricity again, daily reports of life in Sendai after the tsunami destroyed the lower part of his town.
Watson didn't set out to create a literary masterpiece, although it will certainly become a classic. He set out to keep his friends informed of he and his wife Morie's struggle to get by and their no nonsense approach to taking each day as it came despite the loss of some family members, friends, students, and routine. Each day holds an epiphany. Watson, never one to bear fools gladly, and skeptical of government and corporate intentions, holds nothing back. A century from now this diary will engage readers not only because of the story of the quake and tsunami's shattering of lives, but will also eyewitness as well as Pepys' account of the Great Fire of London did to the society lived in.
There's joy when a package finally gets through filled with powdered milk, chocolate, dried fruit, tofu, paper towels, and soy milk. There's the luck of having filled up their bathtub with water right after the earthquake, before the water stopped flowing. The happiness when an old student finally manages to get in touch to see how they are. The 77 emails from around the world when the internet finally is back up again. Whether to feed the birds (Should we keep apples for ourselves? I set out half the usual portion). Concern about the postponement of Morie's cancer radiation therapy, and joking about her baring her breasts outside to absorb the radiation from Fukushima's nukes. Watson's hackles rise a little at emails suggesting to do this or that to protect themselves: Is that yoga teacher [in Australia] even aware of how hard it is to get even regular food here, that people have to stand in line hours just to buy a bag of rice? . . . It will help if the helpfully intended advice people send is sensitive to what is available here . . . The problem is that many don't know what is available here, even in non-disaster situations. Cultural differences. On March 13: We eat early and go to bed early, just like humans of yesteryear. Roughing it. With the ever present rumbling, it is as if we are riding an old time train. Ever present danger and our own response to it. Ride and ride. Rumbling along through the night. Jarred now and then.
Watson closes his diary on April 2 with a ironic chant and rap, a rant for Peace, for diversity and togetherness, and against corporate greed and nuclear threat. His last sentences: Racist chauvinist fascist pig the nukes. Luddite the nukes? The revolution will not be televised ludicrous offense to life in all forms the nukes. Boycott electric power put solar paneled windmills on our roofs the nukes. Speak Truth to power the nukes. Breathe in, breathe out long and slow the nukes.
Since then Watson has continued to advocate the end of nuclear power, particularly in Japan. As he will continue to write his own personal poetry of self-awareness, pointed cultural criticism, and daily life. Quake Notes is an essential document of a recent tragedy, well worth the price.