Trigger of Light

John Brandi

I live in the spare, high desert of the American Southwest, a land of apparent and often illusory emptiness, a blinding bowl of light that triggers one to write with an economy of words. The eye follows winding arroyos, mouse tracks, and blowing seed. The breath gathers momentum along ridges, faults, and prehistoric waterlines. Fossils scatter at the feet, clay shards glisten after a sudden rain. With the sun’s return, the abstract configurations and anthropomorphic designs on the shards dry into muted colors. Pinched fingerprints in the clay reveal the hands of a vanished artisan. I am reminded of Sappho’s poems. Fragments. Mysterious and striking to the eye. Missing something essential, but somehow made more essential because of what’s missing.

Several haiku poets find home in this arid American desert, among them Elizabeth Searle Lamb, who writes in the demanding style of the ancient masters:

a raven
that dark guttural sound
his shadow

Under sharp skies, within dancing heatwaves, between ghost imagery of shifting mirages, the body becomes still; unnecessary baggage evaporates. With lightness the eye takes hold. Or is jarred into place by the sudden realization of the obvious. I penned this one after a fierce sandstorm left a mobile home overturned not far from a weathered barn, which remained standing:

So many boards missing
the shed stands easily
in the wind

Such poems — loosely referred to as haiku — attempt to express a moment of surprise, with its afterglow of insight, by using only a few brief words, usually arranged in one to three lines. Haiku aficionados working strictly within the bounds of the original Japanese form disparage the idea of breaking the rules that call for the inclusion of a seasonal word, or demand that one write in a seventeen-syllable format. But haiku, like Zen, is transformed as it is passed to new continents and cultures. Its essence is embraced, but its form mutates. Its shape depends on the new host.

My introduction to haiku came during my late teens, long after my parents provided me with enough early ventures into the natural world to set the background. In Los Angeles, browsing Chinatown one summer, I discovered — in a dim sandalwood-scented shop full of painted vases and antique scrolls — a book by D. T. Suzuki: Zen and Japanese Culture. It was a substantial hardback, printed on milky paper with a hefty scattering of illustrations: insects on withered leafs, brush-painted tigers, peach blossoms in snow, monkeys peering from bamboo, cloud-hidden huts of meditation masters. In the shop, a few joss sticks burned in a ray of light. A cat napped under a red and gold altar with antique photos over it. Tangerines glowed in their porcelain bowl on a carved mahogany table. The world seemed suddenly very old — and very new. In awe of the book’s content and illustrations, I purchased it (probably the most I’d ever spent on the printed word) and eagerly devoured every page.

The book smelled of incense every time I opened it. As I drifted in and out of its many striking passages, one remained with me, from a chapter entitled “Love of Nature”:

Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
The ten-thousand things and I are of one substance

Those words evoked my exact boyhood feeling when standing in a lost grove of giant sequoias or before the showering waterfalls of Yosemite. I was from a Catholic family, and early on learned the rituals as an acolyte, chanting in Latin, waving a censor of smoking frankincense in a humble church of Mexican design. But those feelings of mystery at the darkened altar did not match the uplift, the immeasurable feeling of oneness that overpowered me in the ever-shifting world of shadowed forests, snow-capped crags, and crystal rivers.

Suzuki went on to explain how most people do not know how to look at a flower; how they stand away from it, never grasping the spirit of it. “They have no firm hold, they are as if dreaming of a flower. The one who beholds is separated from the object which is beheld.” He was referring to the gap that exists between the eye and what the eye sees. To be human is to be stuck with a mind relentlessly occupied with definition, categorization, passing judgment, making sense. Suzuki pointed out that the myriad forms of heaven and earth, ourselves included, come from the same root, a root that “must be firmly seized upon so that there is an actual experience of it.” In this way we let go of the subjective ego and experience the essence of the flower — not a counterfeit flower produced by the mind. In so defining this process, Suzuki prepared me for what was to be the most important chapter in the book, “Zen and Haiku.” In it was a poem by Masaoka Shiki (1869-1902):

Among the grasses
an unknown flower
blooming white

I’d seen that flower — lost in a meadow, nameless, high in the sunlit grasses above the Kaweah River, in the California Sierra Nevadas. It was insignificant, it was everything. As I pressed my eye toward it on hands and knees, it was every bit as large as a redwood. Lost in its whiteness, I was inseparable from it. If, at that instant, the poet in me had been at work, my task would have been to net the jewel of that oneness, that feeling of is-ness.

Then I read Suzuki’s footnote:

The human mind is generally found to be chock-full of ideas and concepts. When a man sees a flower he sees clustered with it all kinds of associated analytical thoughts, and it is not the flower in its suchness. It is only when prajña-intuition is exercised that the flower is red and the willow is green.

“Prajña-intuition” refers to being in the world just as you are with your own breath. This is a state of being at-one-with: the world is received as is with each breathing; the mind not busy analyzing the flower or comparing it to a star; the ego is not focusing on the similarity between the “loneliness” of the flower (how can a flower be lonely?) and the emotional state of the perceiver. In haiku the mind doesn’t play with metaphor, look for comparisons, go to a botanical text for names. The mind isn’t; the flower is. Experience is primary, anything intellectual is residue. Analysis can be done in a laboratory with the specimen plucked and dead, but it shouldn’t happen down on your knees in a meadow, nor should the fingers be busy counting syllables. The haiku is already written before the hand picks up the pen. It is in the breath, carried for a while like a song. It is a gift originating not from the muse but from self and flower as one.

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the revolutionary father of haiku, put it this way:

What is important is to keep your mind high in the world of true understanding, yet not to forget the value of the low. Seek always the truth of beauty, but always return to the world of common experience. Learn about the pine only from the pine, or about the bamboo only from the bamboo. When you see an object, leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself; otherwise you impose yourself on the object, and do not learn.

Along with Suzuki I read John Muir, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, who embraced the American continent with a direct seeing exclaimed in poetry and prose that did not bow to European predecessors. As for haiku, I was too much in awe to write it. The ideas opened up to me in Suzuki’s book were so compelling that all I could do was close the pages, lie back, and be impressed that halfway around the world was a very old and introspective culture that celebrated a way of seeing the world with which I identified.

Years passed. Between studies in college art and anthropology, I signed up for a creative writing class, but soon discovered that the professor took a dim view of haiku, diminishing it as an over-popular Japanese pastime. Disappointed, I returned to the visual works of painters like Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Emily Carr, Albert Ryder, and Charles Burchfield; I savored the woodcuts of Hokusai, “Old Man Mad about Drawing;” I read with delight the Japanese poets Yosa Buson (1716-1783) and Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), whom I discovered in R. H. Blyth’s Haiku, an elegant four-volume set printed in Japan on tissue-thin pages. Through some of the poems you could see, as if through a veil, miniature ink-brush paintings reproduced on the underlying pages. Blyth, the pioneer who introduced Japanese haiku to English-speaking readers, described haiku as “an expression of a temporary enlightenment, in which we see into the life of things,” a form having seventeen syllables, a seasonal word (kigo), and a strong sense of place.

Suzuki, Blyth, Hokusai, the American iconoclast painters, and the Japanese haiku masters suited my temperament. They perfectly complemented my increasing forays up the wind-blasted coast of California’s Big Sur — home to writers like Jaime de Angulo, Henry Miller, and Robinson Jeffers; the photographer Edward Weston; the painter Emil White. The sublime and craggy sea cliffs were charged with the deep roll of Asian wind. I once found a hand-blown glass float from a fishing net that had traveled across the Pacific from Japan. While beachcombing, my keen eye was often convinced it was seeing the tip of Hokkaido through mists on the horizon.

Camped in coastal redwood canyons, I tried a few imitative haiku, but the dripping trees said it better. Counting syllables, worried whether the kigo was there, concerned that my haiku were rigidly dictated by rules not my own, I abandoned the form. Several years passed, and then two incidents rekindled my flame. The first was the discovery of the Japanese poet Santoka Taneda (1882-1940) — a haiku writer who broke the rules I disliked. Second, while living in the Sierra Nevadas, I met the poet Steve Sanfield, who was writing his own haiku. What was important, he reminded me, was to show the season of the heart and to realize, like Whitman when he disregarded European influences to embody the new rhythms of his continent, that haiku needn’t clone Japanese predecessors in style or content.

The lid was off! I no longer had to be Japanese but could write from where I stood, wept, slept, exalted. I could pursue haiku as the spontaneous leap of nature into my consciousness. Or I could catch myself bumbling in those quick-flash snippets of awkward human folly which the Japanese wrote down and called senryu. During this time, along with Santoka, Issa became one of my favorite haiku poets. Blyth referred to him as “a poet of destiny who moved with the movement of fate.” He was concerned with the little creatures in nature, lost among brambles and dewdrops: fleas, frogs, sparrows, mosquitoes, scarecrows — and man, the feeble angel.

Issa, perhaps the best-loved poet in Japan, is the person most responsible for opening up a democratic approach to haiku. He believed anyone could write it, no matter what caste, path, gender, or background. Priest, prostitute, vagabond, scholar, child, grown-up — all are moved by a sudden rainbow or a single star rising and falling in a boat’s wake; all share the poignancy of a solitary table darkened by a passing cloud or experience a dizzy, lonely joy over something small and undefinable. The following are four haiku by Issa:

Long autumn night—
Fleas, you too
must be lonesome.

How lovely
through the torn paper window
—the Milky Way.

It begins
from the cicada’s song
The gentle breeze.

In the village
where I was born, the flies
bite deep.

In these haiku there is a feeling of sabi, the Japanese term which implies, in English, a kind of inherent loneliness. Not an emptiness but a presence, a rustic unpretentiousness where each jewel in the net of creation is celebrated as is: awkward, not made perfect by standards of art — yet inexplicably endowed with beauty. The unexpected, early spring violet poking up from a crack in the sidewalk has sabi; so does the unplanned, funny-looking gourd rambling from the compost pile. But there is no sabi in the unforlorn full-blossoming, well-tended flower garden in a picture-postcard spring.

Sabi itself is not easily defined. It has been variously translated into English as seasoned, unrefined, born of humility, graced with spiritual economy. In reviewing Issa’s poems, we find sabi in all of them, especially the Milky Way poem. The poor man’s torn window enables him to witness the splendor of the night. There is fragility here: in the paper stretched fine enough to tear; in the webbed light of the galaxy swimming through space in night’s solitude; in the person who wakes between the thin wooden walls of an unheated room to bear witness. Issa’s frail silhouette before the vastly-greater expanse of the Milky Way represents a moment in which the poet opens his eyes to a world — much like van Gogh’s Starry Night — where everything arrives in a dizzy, overpowering swirl; then disappears just as suddenly into the evaporative realm of eternal return.

Santoka wrote poems in a spirit similar to Issa’s:

For once
both the futon and the night
were long enough.

In the grass
trampled by the horse
flowers in full bloom.

Today again
no mail
dragonflies here and there.

The first poem subtly acknowledges the revelation that bed and darkness were at last accommodating. With just these bare details, the poem reveals much about Santoka’s poverty. His life was unadorned; likewise his poetry. He enjoyed no permanent living quarters or conveniences. He was a wanderer, always between this world and that, a mendicant, often sick and penniless, perpetually on the move (it is said that Santoka walked more than 28,000 miles as a traveling monk).

In the other two poems Santoka indicates season by using “flowers in full bloom” and “dragonflies.” The flowers endure despite the beast that unintentionally crushes the grass. In nature all goes on without blame or interruption. Calmness, strength, action, passivity, destruction, creation, is-ness — all exist simultaneously in this poem. The third haiku powerfully expresses a contrast between empty and full. There is an absence of mail, nothing to hold or read; yet life is replete, the nonhuman world alive and brimming. The poet sees the hovering dragonflies, and human emotion effervesces. The dragonflies are timeless, ever transient, as in a sumi brush painting: transparent, elusive.

Here are two modern American haiku by Steve Sanfield:

Long after
the call to prayer
the bell rope swaying

Winter rain—
the shape of a heron
perched on a post

One poem skillfully embodies the presence of absence: Zen practitioners have disappeared into the hall to sit in zazen. The sound of the bell has quit, but the rope continues to evoke both the bell’s sound and the scurrying half-awake students answering their morning call. The other poem is true to the Japanese tradition of including season, but the imagery is that of the poet’s geography. Nothing imagined.

Everything as it is. The eye sees only the rain at first, then slowly, with surprising reckoning, the bird is there — as it was all the time.

Such a big world to explore in these small poems. It would take a book, not an essay, to reveal how much is really there when a poet says:

The crane’s legs
have gotten shorter
in the spring rain

I go
you stay—
two autumns

Just as he is
he goes to bed and gets up —
the snail

morning glory—
the well-bucket entangled
I ask for water

The poem by Lady Chiyo-ni (1703-1775) exemplifies the delicateness of her life approach. Instead of removing the tangled vine that has crept around the water-fetching bucket, she halts with the realization that this simple flower is an equal in her world. The morning glory has found an unexpected home in the well, and in her heart. Rather than disturb nature, Chiyo-ni inconveniences herself and borrows water from a neighbor. Her poem paints a picture with hardly a word said, and with no philosophic elusions. Everything is fragile and ephemeral in this world of flowers and humans. Like the morning glory, we come, we go. A similar recognition of life’s impermanence is expressed in this Aztec verse:

The body makes a few flowers
then drops away withered somewhere
Our house on earth we do not inhabit,
only borrow briefly.

We write poetry to stay alive, to see where we’ve been, and to give clearing for the next step. The feeling of awe, the sudden revelation of the everyday mystery of things, that is what is important. Haiku is not concerned with lasting beauty, but with the significant moment amid everything transient, a split second in which things are profound, yet without meaning. In a blink of an eye we are returned to our dragonfly nature, our morning-glory nature, our heat-of-day nature, our heron-in-the-mist selves. Three of my own:

Parting storm
pinned to the cactus
a dragonfly

Clearing the table
except a square of light

Now that fallen leaves
have buried the path
the trail is clear

Poems bloom, rise on a breeze, glitter on a leaf, soak into the soil, explode from a seed, renew the universe. Haiku are not great works of art but small secrets of a fleeting reality. A morning breeze begins not only a new day but a new world. The sound of water dripping from the eave, a gardenia petal brightening the table after an argument, a raven’s shadow crossing the mud wall, a nightgown over the chair still warm from its wearer: what is familiar is suddenly renewed. The sameness, the difference, are one. Haiku expresses the ineffable magic of this unity. It captures and releases the light of a transient world, one that disappears as quickly as it arrives.

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John Brandi

Author's Bio

John Brandi is a poet, painter, essayist, ardent world traveler, and haijin. John Brandi grew up exploring California’s Sierra Nevada mountains and the Big Sur coast. After receiving a BA in art and anthropology, he joined the Peace Corps, worked with Andean farmers, held odd jobs in Mexico, drove a truck in Alaska, pruned vineyards north of San Francisco and lived in a miner’s shack above the Yuba River. In 1971 he moved to New Mexico, built a cabin in a remote canyon, raised two children and began teaching as a poet in the schools. His numerous books of poetry, travel essays, and haiku have earned him a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, the White Pine World of Voices Poetry Award, and several teaching grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry.


‘Trigger of Light’ first appeared in KJ 50 (Transience) in 2002.