The Art of Haiku | Ewa Mazierska

There were four brothers in their family. Because there were so many of them, they divided themselves into pairs, and Jim and Jack constituted one such pair. This was because they were the two oldest and they had similar interests, which were different from those of the younger pair. They both liked reading and listening to music and were interested in politics and history. They were also searching for spirituality, which was not unusual among those born into secular society, one that did not want to renounce the metaphysical residue from itself. The other two, although far from being philistine, were more pragmatic. They knew they couldn’t change the world so tried to adjust to it as best as they could.

Jim and Jack’s interests were similar but not identical. The closeness made them always seek each other’s company; the difference afforded them a sense of individuality. Jim in fact did not care about his individuality, because he had too much of it. For Jack, who was one and a half years younger, this was crucial. As a teenager Jack suffered from what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’ in relation to his brother. He blew these differences up in search of his path out of Jim’s shadow until he discovered that the differences were in fact huge.

When Jack turned sixteen, which was in the late 1970s, he decided that drugs might be the answer to two of his problems: asserting his individuality and touching the deeper levels of human existence. After some research on the influence of different substances on the human brain, he settled on LSD, which was also the favourite drug of some of his school friends. He was impressed by its effect, although it did not act as his pals described it; it did not take him to a different reality, but allowed him to see the world more clearly. In fact, he couldn’t close his eyes – he had to see what was there to see. Jack’s first ‘lucid dream’ lasted from the late afternoon until the early hours of the morning. It made him happy yet exhausted. He knew he couldn’t embark on such a journey more often than once a week, and not only because this would interfere with school, but because he couldn’t take so much lucidity; it scared him. He took the drug on Friday evenings, listening to Pink Floyd or Joy Division. Thirty years later, his son teased him about how mainstream and predictable his taste in music was, but he didn’t mind not being original because his experience was authentic to him.

When Jack started his LSD trips, Jim often visited the nearby Catholic church to commune with God. He was initially dismissive about Jack’s fascination with drugs, but in the end curiosity and solidarity prevailed. However, rather than LSD Jim chose the plant morning glory, the variety known as Heavenly Blue, as he didn’t like the idea of stuffing himself with chemicals. Like Jack, Jim was greatly impressed by what drugs did to him, but for a different reason: when taking Heavenly Blue, he was able to step outside of himself.

‘How did it feel? How did you look from the outside?’ asked Jack.

‘I was naked and running somewhere,’ replied Jim. ‘But it was a disjointed run, as if somebody had cut out pieces of the celluloid tape on which a film was recorded. First I was thinking that I didn’t see these missing fragments because my sight was impaired, but even when I exerted myself and managed to see clearly, I still lacked fragments of myself. I realised that it wasn’t a matter of watching, but of seeing what was there. I was not continuous, but like a character from a silent film, partially destroyed.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘I don’t know yet. But if I’m disjointed in the moments of greatest lucidity, how disjointed must I be in real life?’ asked Jim, rhetorically.

Jack laughed, although he wasn’t sure whether this was because of the thought of having a brother in fragments or because he didn’t know what to say. But after a while he replied:

‘Maybe the more lucid you are, the more fragmented you are and everything else. The world does not stick together, we only delude ourselves it does, to navigate through this mess, to survive.’

‘No,’ said Jim. ‘God wouldn’t create the universe this way.’

Jack left it like that since, although he was young, he already knew that it made no sense to argue with religious people, as they always had the last word.

For Jim, the period of his most intensive drug-taking coincided with his most intensive religiosity; he kept going to church almost every day. Jack wondered if he did so to balance his fragmented persona with the wholeness which the Church promised or to decide which type of self suited him better.

The search for unity and meaning left Jim little time for ordinary life, but he had to make a living. Jim applied for a job at the council planting flowers and sweeping streets. Jack regarded such job as demeaning and at the same time was envious of his brother’s disregard for social status, as he himself was worried about ending up doing something boring and poorly-paid, which was their father’s predicament. Jim, however, seemed to be content. He told Jack that he liked the fresh air, the soothing monotony of the work, and the opportunity to observe people and on occasion also animals, such as rats returning to sewers and foxes crossing the streets, taking advantage of the last hour when they are (almost) invisible and safe – one does not normally see fellow passers-by properly. There was also a certain rhythm to his work. At home Jim tried to imitate this rhythm on instruments he and his brothers accumulated in their vain attempts to make a career in music. It inevitably didn’t work because what he got was a bare, mechanical drumming that he couldn’t fill with anything meaningful. There was thus less music in what he tried to extract and process from his work than in what he was hearing when he was actually working.

Eventually, his inability to process his work in a creative way put Jim off sweeping the streets, although for the lack of better options he stayed in the job for almost three years. In the meantime, Jack started studying English Literature at Kent University. Although Jack described his experience there as underwhelming, Jim decided to follow in Jack’s footsteps and also enrolled in the same course at the same university. At the time Jack stopped taking LSD, in part because it interfered with his studies and his relationship with his new girlfriend, and in part because he was scared of what he saw during his trips.

Jim liked his studies at Kent more than Jack, especially the course in poetry where he learned about the different types of poems, each classified according to their structures and length. He particularly liked the shortest poems: haiku and tanka. He realised that their patterns mirrored the rhythms of his work as a street sweeper: haiku of his ordinary days and tanka of the days when he was particularly elevated or agitated. In a wider sense, their structure reflected the way he lived his life. Haiku’s 5/7/5 structure matched his slow starts, followed by his attempts to be bold, and then retreating to his initial position (albeit with a belief that at the end of each experience he learned something important). Tanka, with its structure 5/7/5/7/7, reflected the situations when he achieved some real progress, despite setbacks.

After reading thousands of haiku and tanka, Jim started writing these short poems himself. He discovered that haiku suited him better than tanka, because the form was more difficult and better reflected the idea of sustainability, which appealed to him the more materialistic British society became (all this happened in the 1980s, at the peak of Thatcherism). The more people around him tried to grow, progress, and accumulate, the more he wanted to stay in the same place, only to see and better understand his surroundings. Fittingly, his haiku were about nature, with the first line presenting initial observations, the second moving slightly further from the scene, and the third line describing again what he was saying, but with greater precision or wit. To write his poems, he had to leave the city and go to woods and riverbanks, where birds, insects, and small mammals kept their secrets. Or rather he made these expeditions for their own sake and poetry was their by-product, as he told Jack. He kept in contempt professional poets who subordinated their life to writing. He even wrote a haiku about it:

No life, no poetry

Keep living, keep writing

No poetry, no life

or something to this effect.

Jim could observe nature for hours without being bored. Indeed, on occasions he got so preoccupied that he lost the track of time and missed a bus, a train, or could not find a road back home. But he didn’t mind it, as he carried a sleeping bag with him and if it wasn’t very cold, he just fell asleep under the friendly trees and returned home the next day full of thoughts.

Jack also tried his hand at haiku but decided that it wasn’t for him. He wasn’t able to contain what he wanted to say in three lines, most likely because he didn’t know what he wanted to say in the first place. At this stage he preferred to read novels, as he liked to immerse himself in other people’s lives with all their details. Moreover, although he understood that each literary form was valuable because each responded to a particular human need, with the passage of time he grew suspicious of haiku. For him it was the art of the disengaged, of those who refused to see the world in its vastness and preferred to see only tiny fragments and to reduce its complexity to banality. This observation was confirmed by Jim’s own account of the history of British haiku. For most haikuists, haiku was only a stage in their literary career; from haiku they moved to longer poems or fiction and philosophy. Only a handful of the most dedicated poets remained faithful to this form all their life. Jim was one of them and in due course he even set up a haiku society and a journal, the first of its kind in Britain.

On the one hand, Jack was happy that his brother had a passion and achieved success, as nothing for him was more miserable than life devoid of passion. Yet, there was also something unsettling about Jim’s commitment to this art, namely his rejection of cause and effect, instead seeing only the synchronicity of things and their harmonies and disharmonies. For Jack, such attitude equaled eschewing responsibility, because responsibility is based on seeing people as inexhaustible labourers continuously fastening strings between things and events. The poignant example of Jim’s haiku approach was his attitude to his marriage, which lasted less than two years. One day he decided to terminate it simply because he saw a need to retreat to the first stage in his ‘haiku-life’, to ‘5’ after going through ‘7’. When Jack told Jim that he shouldn’t have married in the first place, Jim simply shrugged his shoulders as if saying that it was just an event, without any causes or consequences. Ironically, twenty years later when Jack himself was about to divorce, he looked at his marriage the same way.

Despite various abrupt changes, Jim’s world held together. He managed to finish his studies with a first-class degree, largely on account of taking modules devoted to poetry and his dissertation about the differences between the Japanese and European tradition of haiku. However, in the last year of his studies his behaviour became more erratic, moving in a short period of time from anxiety to cockiness. Then came a time when he was meant to look for a job, as he had to support himself. He would have been glad to return to sweeping the streets now that he’d discovered the art of haiku, but for such jobs he was overqualified. At the same time, he was rejected for jobs in publishing, didn’t get a grant to do a PhD, and there was no chance of him making a living from writing poetry. Dealing with rejections and the consequences of the divorce was exhausting, which all led to a mental breakdown and a spell in a psychiatric hospital.

When Jack visited Jim there, his brother appeared to be fine and had many ideas for writing; his small table was covered with sheets of paper filled with words written in his neat hand. The doctor with whom Jack had a conversation about Jim’s state was far less enthusiastic. He told Jack that there were serious grounds for concern as Jim was suffering from schizophrenia. Most likely he would need to be on medication for the rest of his life. The alternative was being a regular patient at a psychiatric ward and taking even more medicines. Jack suggested that it could be a one-off experience triggered by high level of stress. The doctor responded that indeed this could be the case, but more likely stressful experiences allowed Jim’s illness to reveal itself. The point was thus to avoid stresses and keep to the routine as much as possible.

‘How to ensure it?’ asked Jack.

‘You will have to help him. Keep him close, but don’t make him feel your breath on his neck. Looking after schizophrenics is an art. Few people can do it well, but I guess you can.’

Jack suspected that the doctor had said such things to many people before him, as psychiatrists are good at being convincing without giving the impression of doing it. Still, the doctor’s words made him aware that he had to look after his older brother, which was in fact something he had already done by this point, although without fully realising it.

After Jim left the hospital he returned to the house of his parents in London. This spell in the hospital did him good, as it calmed him down and streamlined his thoughts without rendering them more obsessive. During the time of his recuperation he read several biographies of writers, including of Franz Kafka. This gave him the idea of working as a clerk and he started to apply for such jobs, both in private and state companies. After sending out over a hundred applications he found a position as a clerk in a tax office in Preston. It turned out to be a perfect place and position for him. Although he lived most of his life in London, the northern town attracted him by its matter-of-factness, it not being more than a town to go about one’s business. He liked the unpretentious restaurants and take-aways serving simple food, with each place offering something different from all the other places, unlike in London where food for poor people all tasted the same. Jim’s thoroughness, politeness, discretion, and a lack of ambition to get promoted made him very popular among his colleagues, including females, who mistook his unwillingness to brag about himself for selflessness. He ended up having sex with some of them and his lovemaking skills were appreciated by his partners, who praised him for giving them his full attention rather than being distracted as men were these days, always looking at their watches or mobile phones rather than into their lovers’ eyes. Jim laughed, replying that ‘he doesn’t know how to get distracted’. He also kept expanding his haiku circle and during holidays traveled to meet fellow enthusiasts. He was even invited to Japan as a leading scholar and promoter of this literary art form outside of Japan and met there the most famous Japanese haikuists.

The jobs, the trips, the city where he lived, and the right type of medication kept Jim balanced and almost happy. Indeed, Jim seemed to be more at ease with himself than his younger brother who, following his studies, was unable to settle or even establish a direction which he wanted to take. On occasion Jack  felt a pang of remorse in his heart due to being less of assistance to his brother than he wanted, as this added to his belief that nobody needed him; his life was superfluous. The situation changed again when Jack got married and got a job at the university in Preston. Jim and Jack were close again, seeing each other several times a week and occasionally going for long walks. For Jack, such walks were a source of pleasure, but also of frustration as they made him realise how much he changed since his early LSD trips. He was now preoccupied with work, money, and family to such an extent that when the brothers returned from their expeditions in the woods he was unable to remember what he saw or heard, except that he saw a wood, which was generic and blurry, the type of wood drawn by a person who never stood a foot in such a place. In the past the contours were so sharp and the colours so vivid that they hurt his eyes. While Jack betrayed himself from his youth, allowing the circumstances to reduce him to an average citizen, even a stereotype, Jim remained his old self. He was able to live for the moment and be completely taken over by simple natural phenomena, such as rainbows, drops of rain on flowers, or birds singing. When he noticed them it felt like the entire world was reduced to this specific event. Jack thought it was haiku’s way of living life and Jim agreed; he was a haikuist through and through.

However, there were also days in Jim’s life when the world did not condense and crystallise but expand. He suffered because he wasn’t able to master such shapeless matter, like a plasm erupted from a volcano and because it caused him an aesthetic distress. It was partly its image, but even more its sound, which caused him pain, like a never-ending scratch made by pieces of metal rubbing against each other. The attacks of the noisy plasm were most ferocious on weekends. Jim asked Jack to spend such weekends with him, but it was  difficult, as by this point Jack had two small children and his wife expected him to share their parental duties evenly. On top of that their father was very ill and whatever time Jack managed to spare he was obliged to use for travelling to London to see him. There were just weeks when Jack saw Jim only briefly, although he tried to phone him regularly, typically in the evening.

One evening Jack’s call was not returned. He drove to Jim’s home and opened it with his spare keys. There were remnants of food on plates and an unfinished coffee. He knew that in other circumstances these were signs that the occupant would return soon, but with Jim it was the opposite; neatness was a sign of him being nearby and in control. Jack sat in Jim’s apartment for a couple of hours looking at the notebooks filled with his brother’s writings. There were thousands of haiku Jim wrote over the years, but also longer poems, short stories, and even an attempt at a horror novel about a haunted house. First Jack was surprised by the wealth of literary styles his brother had tried, but then he realised that Jim was always searching, even when he knew that he already found what he was looking for. When Jack finally returned home, he phoned the hospital and the police and started to wait. About a month later Jim’s body was found near the Ribble Way in a wood.

Jack was put in charge of the funeral preparations, which included ordering a headstone. He agreed with his brothers that it should have an inscription, something which would celebrate Jack’s life and he chose this poem, even though it wasn’t a haiku, but a tanka:

too much light
in the darkness
and not enough silence
in the quietness
of a winter night

Jack’s brothers claimed it was a great piece capturing Jim’s life and death, although Jack wasn’t sure whether they said it out of politeness or because they really thought so.

Ewa Mazierska is a historian of film and popular music who writes short stories and creative nonfiction in her spare time. She published over forty of them in The Fiction Pool, Literally Stories, Ragazine, BlazeVox, Red Fez, Away, The Bangalore Review, Shark Reef, Toasted Cheese, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Verity La, and Mystery Tribune, among others. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books). Ewa is a Pushcart nominee and her stories were shortlisted in several competitions. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire in the United Kingdom