more death poems — Basho and me

Untittled, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, © Belinda Broughton
untitled, acrylic and mixed media on canvas, © Belinda Broughton

Sick on a journey,
my dreams wander
the withered fields

© Basho (tr. Robert Hass)

‘Journey’ as a metaphor for life, would be considered a cliché today, but Basho did a lot of travelling. His life really was a series of journeys that he turned into art. He said he wanted to die travelling and he did. This is his death poem. Because he had fallen very badly ill, his students suggested that perhaps he should write a death poem and he refused, saying, ‘Any of my poems could be my death poem.’ But four days before he died, he called his students around him and wrote this last poem.

. . . . .

A number of poets wrote death poems while they were still healthy, saying that, given it is one of the main poems people remember, it had better be good. However when these (rather egotistical?) poets were close to death, they almost always wrote a true death poem and, as is the case with so much poetry, those written in the truth of the moment ring with it, have a poignancy, immediacy, and heart that is not present in the preempted poems.

But now I will present some of these desk-death-ku, to coin a phrase.

Here is one I could have written at age 17 (if I wrote haiku then) when I very nearly died of peritonitis from a burst appendix. I was in the old Townsville Hospital with a view across the water to Magnetic Island.

sea and sky
all of the space
that is blue

Or, should I die tonight, perhaps I am about to write my last poem. (And that, I suppose, is what Basho meant when he said, ‘Any of my poems could be my death poem.’)

rain again
my essence begins to seep
into the earth

. . . . .

Note: This post is inspired by Carpe Diem Haiku Kai. I chose Hass’s translation though, because I have been attached to it for years.

More translations here on page 7.

30 thoughts on “more death poems — Basho and me

  1. This is a fascinating post Belinda. The haiku wrote at 17 is so powerful – it sent shivers down my spine. The sadness of the last one weeps like rain.

      1. Ah – it sounded so immediate I thought you had written it then. I imagined you keeping journals of haiku since your teen years. Why clear up the mystery. It’s a good one 🙂

  2. I now write a death poem I should have written a few months ago when I knew I was dying. But I was too sick for poetry then:

    this pain cannot last
    when shall we two dance again?
    my husband’s wet eyes

    Or this:

    alone in the night
    black pain my only beacon
    make it till morning

    Thanks for the inspiration.

        1. Ah, Alice–I must have gone back to sleep…missed that…so sorry, but now so glad.

          if anyone could dance
          the toes off Mr. Bones,
          it would be you…

          I’ve got bone-poems
          and bread-poems,
          proofing as I write…

          A giant I once knew
          told me that bones
          make good bread…

        2. JCC,
          This is a lovely poem you’ve written. As a (self-proclaimed) bread person and a passing dance partner of Mr. Bones, I truly appreciate what you’ve done here. It made me smile. I’m glad to see your poetry. 🙂

  3. Each day is a risk. Some believed that when we slept we died. I was watching a program about a scientist… who only slept two hours out of twenty-four, I wonder though if in his inventing he was living his dreams.

    Glad you recovered. I have a family member who almost had the same medical issue – but I think they caught it before ‘it’ burst. Still a very scary scenario.

    I still have much living to do, I could not write a death poem… for myself… yet.

    1. I wondered if it was bad magic to write one, Jules, but I lived through the night!
      I have a poem that starts, ‘living as if death doesn’t matter or as if it matters a lot’. I will post it today. I think awareness of death makes us live more fully. which is pretty much what you said with your last sentence of the comment above!

  4. There are many superstitions. One is to never where a dead persons shoes. But if you have no shoes and get them from the charity shop so you can at least walk to your job… I think that would negate the ‘curse’.

    There have been a few times that I was near a person who was dying. The best I could do was hold a hand and hope they could let go when they were ready. Since words were too hard to express.

    There were two things in the local news recently. One a teen given months to live. She said she wouldn’t go without a fight. I think she has given more encouragement and support than she could ever receive with her determination and spirit.

    And another was a terminally ill boy who for his fifth birthday just wanted cards because he liked opening envelopes and he could read his name. I called the radio station to get the address of the boy and sent him a card pop-up card that I was saving for a family member. I think they won’t miss it and the little boy will have a big smile when he opens it.

    Life matters. Death isn’t bad, it is just a different ending to a new beginning. At least that is what I would like to believe.

    I made a note to look for your poem tomorrow. Thanks. ~Jules

    1. so sad and beautiful, these things you share with me. How lovely for the little boy. yes, as I’ve said before. youth seems the wrong time, but you are right how such young people can be such an inspiration to us all.

      meantime, good health to you and yours

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