seasonal words by Harry Gilonis: A review

seasonal words, Harry Gilonis, Coracle, 2021, 300 casebound copies, ISBN 9780906630648, €25.00

seasonal words is a handsomely produced collection of 100 translations of Japanese haiku, each original transcribed in Romanji with the translation facing on the verso. The versions were originally distributed to friends of the translator by email between 17th September and 24 December 2020, more or less overlapping the Japanese autumn and winter seasons, and a large chunk of the Covid lockdown period in the UK and the US presidential election. This information is provided in a note at the end of the book that begins ‘This is supposed to be one of those books you pick up and read, so I’m not going to burden you with prose.’ While this may be a refreshing approach as compared to volumes of translation that hide the poetry behind the explication, it is a challenge thrown down to the poor reviewer who has little option than to burden you with said prose. Add this to the difficulties inherent in reviewing translations from a language you’re not familiar with, as already discussed on this blog a number of times; who’d be a reviewer?

Gilonis covers as wide a chronological range as it is possible for a haiku anthologist to manage, from the 15th century poet Iio Sōgi, whose inclusion reflects the form’s roots in renga, to a number of still living poets, such as Yumiko Katayama. One question that immediately arises is what it might be, apart from language, that connects these poets across almost six centuries; in other words, what is haiku? For me at least, this resolves to a consideration of the nature and function of analogy in poetry. Western readers will tend to think of poetic analogies in terms of simile and metaphor, the comparison or identification of disparate ‘things’ in order to illuminate some commonality, in both forms, a ‘thing’ is considered in terms of some other ‘thing’; the ship is a plough, the sea a field.

In haiku, as I read them, things are considered in their own terms in as much as the mediating nature of language allows; their haecceitas is fully respected. The analogy is created by placing things in themselves in juxtaposition to create moments of apprehension. Consider what may be the first haiku written in English:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd:

Petals on a wet, black bough.

Faces and petals are held in a relationship that is neither simile nor metaphor. They exist independently but their juxtaposition creates a kind of suspended analogy that, for me, is the essence of haiku. The haiku poet isn’t telling us what we might feel or think, they are inviting us to ponder.

None of which should be taken as a reading in which haiku are seen as isolated fragments. In fact, they are often created in response to other poets, as responses to other aspects of Japanese culture, such as paintings or Noh, as parts of sequences or embedded in prose haibun. To take one example, Gilonis translates a famous Buson poem thus:

yanagi chiri 
shimizu kare

willow leaves are gone
clear water dried to petals
scattered here and there

Even casual readers of haiku will be familiar with the 5/7/5 struture, thought of as syllables in English thought in Japanese they are strictly speaking morae, or units of syllable weight. Gilonis is unusual among English haikuists in following the syllable pattern strictly. This can often result in a certain stiffness. One exception to this is Richard Wright, who handles the strict form with great flexibility. The same is true of Gilonis; in these versions the adherence to form becomes almost invisible. This becomes evident in those versions where the originals have lines with an extra mora, jiamari lines, where this is reflected by the addition of an extra syllable. The formal fidelity is part of a wider faithfulness to the originals in almost all the versions here. Here’s an example, a haiku by Basho, with two other well-known translations for comparison:

kono aki wa

nande toshi yoru

kumo ni tori       

now  in this autumn

how it is  feeling older

a bird among clouds (Gilonis)

This autumn,–

Old age I feel

In the birds, the clouds. (R.H.Blyth)

this autumn

why getting older is like

a bird into clouds (Jane Reichhold)

The Reichhold version is marred by that intrusive, unwarranted ‘like’, a slippage into a Western form of analogy. The Blyth seems a little confused in the final line. What Gilonis brings is a fidelity to both the words and the intent of the original. The autumn and the solitary bird illuminate the process of aging by simply being there in the poem and the inserted spaces in the first two lines serve to slow the reader at crucial points.

I said ‘almost all versions’ because there are a small number of poems that are marked as being ‘after’ the originals. These tend to have a word or two inserted to reflect the circumstances in which the versions were originally made and shared. For instance, in this version after Kakuta Chikurei, the word ‘halved’ is included as a nod to mask wearing:

ikiteiru ki no   
kao bakari     
all eternity
that’s how long a lifespan looks
all those halved faces

Sometimes the original fitted the context like a glove, as in this version from Ishibashi Hideno that was first shared on the day of the 2020 US presidential election result announcement:

wakuraba no
uzu ni nori yuku        
that leaf blotched with blight
carried off in an eddy –
how quickly it’s gone

In the note, we’re informed that another poem was available should the result have gone the other way.

It’s pretty much impossible to do full justice to the pleasures of this book in a thousand or so words. If you already love haiku, then this is an invaluable addition to your library. If you don’t know much about the form, then its an equally invaluable introduction. It’s also a fine addition to the corpus of Gilonis’ work as poet/translator. In my review of his selected poems, Rough Breathing, I wrote ‘[t]he Poundian injunction to ‘make in new’ includes the imperative to view time not as a straight line, but as a cycle of recurrence, so that apparently distant historic moments become contemporary with, and illuminate, each other, as the Ranters illuminate the need to protest the injustices of the now.’ This ability to make the past alive in the present is very much in evidence here again.

Finally, I would like to congratulate Coracle on the production of this book; from the bright yellow cover to the ample white space afforded each poem and the very readable font, it’s a physical as well as mental pleasure to hold.