|Posted by Susan Shand on January 9, 2013 at 8:35 PM||comments (4)|
sitting up I see
lying down I see
how wide the mosquito net
How are we to approach this haiku? How do we approach any haiku?
We could just skim read it and pass on, in which case we see someone sitting up then lying down, then the wide mosquito net. It is an observation haiku about the wideness of the net from two perspectives. It might be about sameness. Moving on…
Wait a minute… Let us think about that mosquito net a little. It tells us that the writer lives in a hot country where the mosquito is a problem which causes Malaria. Mosquito nets are used at nightime, draped over a bed so that the sleeper is protected from the biting insects whilst they sleep. As the net is up and in use that suggests that it is night, in a time of year when the insects are active. So not winter or early spring, more likely to be a hot humid night in summer then. Maybe there are insect noises in such a night, or the calls of nocturnal animals and birds? Perhaps there is a hot breeze wafting the net? Or a cooler one in the early hours.
These nets are usually made of fine white cotton. To sleep beneath one is to feel less exposed, enclosed as though in a tent. The writer seems to be in the bed, under the protective covering of this white tent of fine netting. So we are indoors in a comfortable space which is rich enough to own a bed and also a fine mosquito net for protection. There is enough light to see within the netting, and perhaps through its diaphanous folds something of the room beyond. We might think it was moonlight, but the writer isn’t seeing the moon.
The writer’s sleep is restless, sitting up/lying down… they are not sleeping peacefully in the night. Their thoughts are concentrated on the wideness of the net and no matter how they compose themselves, that wideness occupies their seeing and their mind. Why would that be?
Nets are time-consuming to make by hand and even machine-made ones are comparatively expensive items to own. They tend to be only as large as necessary to cover the bed and tuck underneath, so there are smaller ones for single beds and larger ones for double beds. If the writer were in a single bed they wouldn’t be remarking on the ‘wideness’ so they must be in a double bed. Why though would the wideness be an issue to consume them in this way?
The writer doesn’t mention the companion who shares the wide bed. We might assume that the companion is their marriage partner or lover. Perhaps the wideness of it is remarkable because the lover is not there?
So now we also see. We see the writer restlessly tossing and turning at night in the discomfort of a bed which contains the absence of the loved one. That absence is intensified by the wideness of the space in which there would ideally be two people but now there is only one. That wideness contains the absence and it is the absence which is consuming. There is nothing so empty as a bed filled with absence. There is only the restless up and down of a mind which sees only the wide net and feels only the up and down of their emotions.
This poem was written by Kaga no Chiyo (1701-1775) an 18th century Japanese woman from a comfortable middle-class family. It was written shortly after the death of her husband, when she was only 27 years old. With that knowledge, and knowing that in Japanese culture white is the colour of death and funerals, then we can add to our knowledge of the haiku and what it transmits. The room fills with tatami mats, paper screens, and a futon mattress on the floor covered by the net hung from the ceiling and tucked beneath to form a pyramid within which Chiyo sits alone. The whiteness of the net takes on the meaning of mourning, beneath which and within which she is enclosed. The wideness of the net presages the narrowness of the single bed in which she will most likely spend the rest of her life, remarriage being unlikely. The restlessness carries not only her loss and grief but the uncertainty of a future suddenly changed from all expectations by the uncertainty of life. Even the enclosing safety of the mosquito net has not protected him from illness and death. Now it cannot protect her from her own future, especially not when it is so wide in its emptyness.
We also now know that we must be seeing this haiku in translation. So we are reliant on the translator to have transmitted the nuance and feel of the original. Yet even without reference to the original we can see so much more in this haiku (and indeed in any haiku) if we just stop for a while and allow it to speak to us.