The Haiku Master

By MARILYN SIDES

 

At first, I did not recognize the Haiku Master standing in the porch light so late at night. Who was this old man, so tall and frail he might any second tip over, fall slowly, stiffly, lightly like a hollow tree?    

I did recognize the white shirt the Master wore. A style of shirt you used to see worn by men in the Southwest, shirts of thin cotton, short-sleeved, pin-tucked up and down the front, two pockets, square-cut bottom. And then I remembered all the members of the Master’s haiku circle wore this shirt, a uniform of sorts. The same shirt I myself was wearing, one of my father’s. The day before, a month after my father’s funeral, I had left my husband behind and driven down from Denver to Cortez to clean out my father’s house—couldn’t put it off anymore. I found a bunch of these shirts in the back of his closet and put one on. The gesture a combination of nostalgia—the shirts reminded me of my father when he was younger—and the ruthless practicality required after a death. Good cleaning clothes, then good dust cloths, then I’d throw them out. 

The Master took my wearing of the shirt as an invitation, it seemed. He stepped inside the door, stooped slowly to put down his small black suitcase, then straightened up equally slowly and clasped his hands. The slack skin hanging from his cheekbones and nose-ridge tightened slightly. His short white beard quivered itself into a point. His eyes, with their watery red rims, closed; only slivers of albumen white gleamed. He greeted me in a quavering voice:

This white cotton shirt—
Even the bindweed’s flower
Lifts its head tonight.

My father said haiku was “good for picking up and looking at things right at hand,” for paying attention to details. Like my white shirt. Like the bindweed strangling the rosebushes by the front door with its twining green vine. Bindweed, that lowly member of the morning glory family, whose little trumpet is white and furls shut at night.

I returned the greeting:

The bindweed flower
Turns and returns for the sun.
Vine travels how far?

marveling, in the instant of my utterance, at my ability still to summon seventeen syllables and marshal them into three short lines of five, seven, five.

The Master’s big head bobbled, an effect made strange by the stiffness of the rest of his tall thin body. He had been on his way to Santa Fe, he said, to meet some old disciples. “Got a late start. Getting dark… remembered Cortez. Still had address, telephone number. Called… phone still worked. Came over.”

(Had the Master always talked in sentences of a haiku-like compaction?)

The phone in the house had rung a while ago. I didn’t answer, for who could be calling except telemarketers or public radio? Although my father never had close friends, he got along all his life, in a formal, courtly way, with people in the neighborhood, people at work, people at church, people mostly dead by now; the rest had attended his funeral.

I had left the phone connected because sometimes I liked to call at the time I always used to call my father. When my mother was alive, if he picked up first, he’d quickly say “Do you want to talk to your mudder?” and pass the phone to her. For the three years after her death, we had a bit more of a conversation about his yard and house projects—he was going to have to sell the house someday, had to keep it up. Now I dialed his number to hear his voice. His invitation to leave a message was short and to the point, as always—no real comfort there, except, still, the voice, still alive. When I finished emptying out the house, my last act—disconnect that voice. 

The Master shifted his gaze up and to the side, as if he expected my father to loom up behind me. This slight turn of his head revealed a large waxy growth almost overflowing the cup of his left ear, a cauliflower-sized pinkish yellow growth, “cauliflower” wrong, something more succulent, the skin stretched so shiny and smooth. I stared at it, fascinated and repulsed.

 

The Haiku Master! 

After all this time, was the Master still in the poetry business? Still traveling cross-country in his old wood-paneled station wagon (making his rounds like the Fuller Brush Man, whom now I recall in his suit and tie unlocking his bristling suitcase for my mother’s inspection)? Still visiting his disciples (yes he called them disciples, yes the disciples called themselves disciples, yes the disciples called the Master Master), the disciples who all seemed to be men living in biggish towns like Santa Fe or smallish towns like Cortez, who ran banks, insurance agencies, sold cars, or taught school, men who, the Master seemed to believe, had some something in them ready to be summoned forth? Did the Master still arrange and judge haiku contests? Settle quarrels between his devotees over the results of those contests? 

The haiku poets had certainly been a jealous bunch. The Master would visit his disciples in a town or on their farms and, to the great consternation of the rejected ones, settle down for a while with a certain disciple whom, the Master would declare, understood his current “principle” or style in haiku, variously and often dichotomously “the wide,” “the narrow,” “the low,” “the high,” and so on. The Master constantly shed poetic skins. The Master and the favored disciple would make a round of poems, which the Master subsequently published as exemplars of his latest style. 

One summer my father became the Master’s favorite.   

My father had always taken pleasure in crossword puzzles and must have taken up writing haiku as just another kind of puzzle to work out. While my mother and I cleared the supper dishes, my father sat by himself and composed poems at the desk where he paid the bills. Soon he subscribed to the Master’s haiku magazine, more like what we’d now call a newsletter. It came in the mail, sheets of purple ink, stapled together, smelling of mimeograph, the smell I learned to love at school and I find so hard now to describe, sweet and pungent—nothing in print smells like anything anymore. Disciples mailed in their poems, and the Master printed his selection. My father, at first, liked to read everyone else’s poems, write his own, and put them away in his desk drawer.

Then the magazine announced that the Master had discovered “dryness.”

My father had written haiku on many themes before, but the Master’s discovery of “dryness” made my father discover his own gift for “dryness.” The Master must have understood “dryness,” like his other themes, as some special poetic element, I don’t know, some Zen atmospheric quality of the soul. But my father was literal. He knew all about “dryness.” After all, we lived, as he liked to say, in a “semi-arid” climate. He saw plenty of dry stuff every day at his job in Mesa Verde, right outside of Cortez, where as a park employee he patrolled the canyons and kept an eye on Anasazi ghost towns tucked into canyon walls. Twisted juniper roots uprooted, bleached bone-white by the sun, and stranded on a dry rocky creek bed. Those dry creek beds themselves, the dry scrape of stones underfoot. Tinder trees in a summer drought. Dried deer and rabbit droppings. Mummies in the mesa’s hiding places, dusty black tufts of hair still gripping an ancient skull.        

My father sent his “dry” poems to the Master.

That summer—June, it was—the Master showed up at the front door. He stayed two weeks.

My father took the Master along to his job. There they both rejoiced in “dryness” as they walked and talked haiku in the canyons. 

After dinner, my father exchanged his park service uniform for the shirts he’d found in Cortez, just like the Master’s. Then, those evenings and on the weekends, he and the Master sat down face-to-face for long sessions at the glass table on the side porch framed by the thick purple clematis my mother so carefully watered. 

My mother kept to the kitchen or weeded the garden on the other side of the house.

The Master fascinated me, tall and big-framed, short hair combed back atop a long face, the jaw and chin outlined by a pointed short beard, his skin already weathered even then, so that his eyes disappeared in the deep wrinkles. He sported a faded bandanna tied tight around his neck. Thick sandals. And he had one ear pierced, with a tiny turquoise stud. No one I’d ever seen, except pirates in movies, had just one ear pierced, and the Master did seem a bit piratical in the way he swooped in and took our “ship” by storm.

I knew (how did I know? some cue from my mother?) to keep out of their way, but although thirteen then and too old for the swing set, I spent a lot of time swinging, and from the high point of each swing I watched my father and the Master wrestle with words in the full heat of composition.

Strange to see my father talk so much, and sometimes even throw his head back with laughter (or was it joy?). My father, that silent column of harder rock carved out from softer stone by the desert wind, somehow suddenly flexible. Instead of his usual military measured step, he even seemed to lope like the lithe Master when they walked together in their bright white shirts.

Two weeks after the Master left, a new edition of the magazine arrived filled with the “dry” poems the Master and my father had composed. My father enjoyed rereading these poems and, of course, the poems subsequently shot off to him by jealous disciples, poems they claimed to be even “dryer.” These poems, my father declared with a pomposity that I never heard him exhibit before or after, were truly not “dry” enough. 

The next issue of the Master’s magazine announced that the Master had made his way to the Northwest, discovered “damp,” and moved in with a new disciple.   

My father tried to move in the direction of “damp.” He tried out “damp” in rain poems, dripping poems, and even fog poems—a stretch for him, living where we did.  Here is the only “damp” poem of his I recall (and in fact the only one of his haiku I can recall):   

Picnic lunch, then piss—
Flash flood carves canyons ’round rocks,
Geologic time.

But still something too “dry” here, my father worried, made you think not of “damp” but of “the hiss of the piss” as it hits the hot desert dirt and evaporates. Probably that phrase “the hiss of the piss” made the poem stick in my adolescent mind.    

My father kept writing haiku. However, not only was he unable to overcome his essential propensity for “dryness,” but he had lost his capacity for pleasure in haiku as a silent and solitary pursuit. So he taught me haiku to have someone to share a session with—that is, to alternate writing poems, each one playing off an image or a word in the previous poem, writing the poems down in sequence as they were composed. My mother had refused—no head for numbers, she declared. (Although she closely calculated my allowance for chores around the house and the cost of a prom dress.) I grew clever at framing the seventeen syllables in three lines and pretty good at the volley back and forth of poems with my father.

For the rest of the summer, I certainly liked becoming my father’s close companion in a way I never had been before and, now I realize, was never again afterwards. He in his white shirt, I in my white T-shirt, we sat on the porch face-to-face with pencil and paper to record our sessions. On Sunday afternoon excursions into the desert, while my mother read her magazines at the kitchen table, my father even let me drive his truck so he could scribble down our compositions. We bumped along, our poems following up on the Master’s subsequent discoveries of “lightness” and “gravity.” My father’s poems were still on the “dry” side, though that sometimes had the effect of “lightness.”    

When school started up, however, my attention turned to more conventional preoccupations and verbal constructions. Clothes, boys, long conversations about sex with my girlfriends who had had sex and the sex I had only read about in novels, fights with my mother over I can’t even remember what now—but so intimate they brought us close again. My father went for drives by himself, while my mother and I shouted at each other from one end of the house to the other.    

I dropped haiku. One time, though, in college I had to compose a poem, any kind of poem, in an English class. The three lines came so quickly—like the sudden flick of flame from the cigarette lighter I affected then. Right in front of the class, the instructor declared me a “born poet.” She had no inkling of the endless syllable and image drills to which my father had subjected me.

When did my father stop haiku? I don’t remember precisely. Only that, once more, after dinner he just paid bills at his desk or did crosswords, looking up from time to time at the news on the television angled so he could see it from where he sat. The volume he turned up loud enough for us to hear in the kitchen (or to drown us out?) as we washed up. On summer nights, when I drove off in my mother’s car to be with my friends, my father and my mother sat on the porch together, reading in the glow of a lamp. 

The haiku magazine stopped coming.     

                                                                    

I made myself look away from the Master’s ear. After I told him that my father had passed, the Master, swaying slightly right before me, looked down at his suitcase.  Nothing for it except to invite the Master to stay the night; I couldn’t let him drive this late at night, propped up on the steering wheel, a danger to himself and everyone else on the road. Looking at him, you would think that driving even during the day on the winding roads to Santa Fe was a kind of death wish, except the Master seemed so pleased to be expected by his disciples there. 

I picked up his suitcase, as my father had done when the Master turned up so long ago. I led him down the hall to my old bedroom, where the Master had slept that summer while I slept on a cot in my parents’ room, my mother and I going to bed early, my father coming in sometime after.   

(I now remember lying in my cot, supposed to be sleeping, my mother reading in bed, facing the bedside lamp with her back to me. I had often puzzled why my parents were together; they seemed so different—one so outdoors, the other so indoors. They never held hands, but they never fought. That night I pop up and laugh and ask if my father is in love with the Master. So embarrassed am I by the stupid thing I have just said—back then no one ever said a man loved another man—I pull the covers over my head. My mother says sharply, “Go to sleep.” Did my mother even turn her head?)

My old room is a little girl’s room. My mother had fixed it up for my girls’ visits, dragging down from the attic my old dollhouse and the little wooden kitchen. After my mother’s death, my father didn’t change anything in the house, except he bought some small oriental carpets cheap at a going-out-of-business sale and put them in the kitchen, said he had always wanted oriental carpets in the kitchen but my mother wouldn’t have it.

I put the suitcase down. The Master glanced around the room and turned to me:

After many years
Dolls still get dressed, still get fed—
In bed summer night.

I threw this together: 

Dolls lose their hair, shoes
Fall off, arms too, yet still loved—
How many more years?     

Pretty bad poem. I hurried to offer the Master something to eat. Didn’t have much food in the house, for this week of sorting out boxes and drawers was a week away from my family, and that meant a blessed week away from the stove. My plan: eat a big lunch in town to break up the day, put together something easy and light in the evening. 

I had some hard-boiled eggs. Good bread. Slice a tomato? The Master said that would be nice. He washed up and joined me in the kitchen.

But the Master hardly touched his food. Instead he talked. Like a long-lost family friend catching me up—that struck me as funny—on how he had finally gotten married to a woman with two children, a son and a daughter. They lived in the small house his disciples had bought him years before.

(Did my father send the Master money for the house? Did my mother know?)

How strange to find out that the Master had a family. For the Master’s poems, which my father made me read to get the feel for haiku, were so full of solitary nights and solitary journeys—except for the sometime company of another haiku poet. I had wondered for a long while, with a kind of curiosity and anguish, if my father were secretly ashamed to have a family and a home. Maybe all those disciples, infatuated with the Master, dreamed of donning their white shirts for good and driving away with him, watching their wives and children grow small in the rearview mirror.

At first the Master stayed home to help with the kids. Later, the Master’s wife had been ill on and off for about the last ten years. He had nursed her at home. So not much travel. Then his wife had died. Restless, he took to the road again, this summer.   

I talked about the difficulty of deaths, with particular feeling—after all, I, too, knew all about that. Very soon, however, the Master closed his eyes, drooped down in his chair, in fact my father’s chair, just like my father used to do in his last years, droop right in the middle of a dinner, fall asleep, his bony shoulders hunched up near his ears like an old bird.   

I carefully collected the Master’s plate after securing his fork’s position so it didn’t clatter. As I bent down I had a better look at the growth in the Master’s ear. The slightest curve of space separated the mass’s edge—like the rounded rim of a rose-yellow mushroom—from the whorl of softer ear flesh. Up close I saw the growth’s capillary veins threaded through it, feeding it. I couldn’t help haikuing to myself:

Old ear, ripe swelling
Blooms, the blood must beat faintly.
Tiny veins—listen?

Dishes done, I touched the Master’s shoulder. He shook himself into mimicry of straight posture and picked up right where he left off. Those two disciples in Santa Fe had begged him to come, when they heard he’d started up again. They had kept up a haiku circle all these years, imagine that?

I cut in. “You’ll want to get an early start, I bet.” 

He looked at his watch and said, “Yes, get to bed.” He pushed away and up from the table, faltered for a moment, put the tips of his fingers on the table to steady himself. 

Still he had some juice left. He fixed me with those saggy red-rimmed eyes.  “How about a session tomorrow before I go?”

The impromptu haikus were one thing—they made me recall those times in the truck with my father, and that was a gift. But this invitation for a sit-down felt like crossing some sort of line. “No, no, no,” I laughed. “I’m two for two with you. I’ll quit while I’m ahead.”

“We’ll see about that tomorrow.” As the Master headed down the hall to his room, he had a peculiar way of walking, I noticed now, of picking up his feet and knees rather high up and stepping forward, like someone gingerly crossing a stream. 

He picked his way back to the bedroom, one high step at a time.

I locked the front door, turned out the lights. Just in case the Master wasn’t joking about a session tomorrow morning, before I went to sleep I texted the real estate agent handling the sale of the house—‟Call me Ann,” she had insisted—to see if we could move our appointment up to nine the next morning. Then I got into my parents’ bed and listened to the Master snoring. Both peculiar and moving to think that long ago my mother and father lay here listening to the Master’s breathing, listening to my breathing.   

                                                         

At seven-thirty I heard movement; at eight the Master appeared in the kitchen in his white shirt. I wore another haiku shirt, too—had grabbed it from the pile next to my bed.

I offered him breakfast, and added I had this appointment at nine. He got the hint, wanted only coffee and toast and to make a phone call. “Better call Jim. Might be worried about me. In Santa Fe. Staying with him. Ben won’t like it… wanted me to stay with him. But… Jim’s the one I want… work with.” Oh, such pleasurable rumination over the prospect of quarrelling disciples! The fat growth in that ancient ear struck me for just a moment, suddenly and too easily, as the grotesque manifestation of the Master’s swollen vanity. Instinctively my fingers itched to root the mass out.

A half hour later, he picked his way to his car, an old dusty sedan. I carried his cheap plastic suitcase—just like the Master not to have anything fancy, the white pin-tucked shirt and “Master-y” thrifty affectations. As he lowered himself into the car, I put the case in the rear seat and stepped back to wave goodbye. He started the engine. Then stopped the engine. The window rolled down, and he angled his head out. To catch what he said, I had to step closer and lean down.

The Master coughed, fumbled with his right hand to wipe his mouth. The Master wheezed, “Father… death poem?”

Startled, I stared at the Master. Then I did recall that my father, in fact, had composed a death poem before he stopped haiku. Part of the haiku tradition, the Master declared to his disciples, required having a death poem ready, a final word. The first time my father recited his death poem to me, I got scared. My father was going to die? Then, as my father tinkered with his death poem, I grew blasé about the notion of death, found it tedious. Death—merely a literary convention and subject to infinite revision. Certainly, as he was dying, my father did not recall the exigency of having a death poem. With each shallow gasp, death itself was the exigency, the “thing right to hand.”

I never thought of his death poem as I waited for my father to die at the hospital—which he weirdly used to call the “horsepital,” to make a joke—his long body folded up on his side, tubes sprouting from his nose, from the pale underside of his arm, tubes burrowing under the blanket, all wriggling like the white thready roots of a bulb just uprooted. I mostly stared out the hospital room window at the road running out of Cortez towards the red sandstone mountain, a road that literally runs out on the rough slope of red rock. Maybe that road did not just end, but continued, a dirt road, a track, a trail, a path indicated by the slightest indentation of the repeated stepping of deer hooves?

Before I could even say one thing or the other, the Master spoke again. “On this trip, I…. On every trip… new death poem. In my head. Driving. What I’ve got so far…. New style… ‛lost and found.’”

Afraid he’d try out his latest death poem on me, I threw up my hands and pretended an attack of memory. “Wait, my father did have a death poem.” I straightened up, stared at that ear, and did the best I could to be, one more time, my father’s daughter: 

Scrub-oak stand, no leaves,
Ancient stumps of ochre brick—
Sand blows back to you.

The Master grimaced. “Pretty ‛dry,’ even at the end.”   

Call me Ann pulled up behind the Master. He saw her in his rearview window, started his car, waved, and slowly rolled away.

I walked back to the front porch to wait for the agent and started tugging at the bindweed’s cocoon spun around the rosebushes—the bindweed’s small narrow leaves with their sharp points like lethal arrowheads, a deformation of the morning glory’s heart-shaped leaf. Stripping out the bindweed was a much-hated “job” my mother assigned me every week of every summer when I was a kid. How she loved these roses, always called them by their funny names: Garden Party, April in Paris, Royal Highness.

The Haiku Master hadn’t once asked me about my mother.

Standing there, fists full of bindweed, I was tempted to cry—fresh grief upon grief. Then I suddenly began to laugh, couldn’t help but laugh. For on his way to Santa Fe, the Master would roll right by my father and my mother, the two of them lying side by side under the bright green lawn of the Cortez cemetery, watered every dawn of every summer day by automatic sprinklers.

 

[Purchase Issue 15 here.]

 

Marilyn Sides is the author of a collection of short stories, The Island of the Mapmaker’s Wife and Other Tales, and a novel, The Genius of Affection. Her short essay “We Lived in the Desert, Then” can be found at The Common Online. She teaches at Wellesley College. 

Flavia MartinezThe Haiku Master

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