Arsenic Lobster poetry journal Issue Twenty-six
Summer 2011
Ted Deppe

At seventeen, after reading Narrow Road
to the Deep North
, I enrolled in Japanese class,
planning to retrace Basho’s walk.

Failing to learn his language, I re-imagined
my journey, hiked instead a circle around Ireland,
though Basho came with me as guide.

I got off the Rosslare ferry, reciting his lines,
“With a bit of madness in me which is poetry,
I plod along like Chikusai among the wails of the wind."


Forty years later, living in Ireland now, I dream
I trek into a village where I’m met
by dancers in Japanese costumes. Music
of pipes and drums, multicolored fans

that flutter like wings, as sparrow dancers
fly around me. My dream-self lifts
two or three feet above the street and realizes,
“This is a gift. This is the journey I didn’t make.”


For decades I’ve looked for a poem
Issa may have written, though maybe
bicycling no-handed to Japanese class
I wrote it myself. If somehow I am
the author, it must be my finest poem:

           Sing and fly, sing and fly,
           all day long—so much to do,
           the busy little sparrows.

Last night, searching the Internet
for the elusive poem, I found
Issa’s name hidden in Missa Solemnis,
Renaissance, and croissant.


After a week of writing about Japan, I wake
to news of a 9.0 earthquake near Sendai.
I try to reach friends in Donegal
whose daughter is in Japan, then wonder
if they’ve already left to visit her.

Checking my journal for 1970, I find
I’d planned to fly to Tokyo,
and then—because the modern city
has swallowed the first stages of Basho’s walk—
take a train to Sendai, begin my journey there.


Basho wrote, “We crossed the river Natori
and went into Sendai. It was the day
when people hang blue irises beneath the eaves.”

On television, a 13-foot wave of water, mud,
and burning buildings engulfs Sendai’s airport.
Faced with the loss of so many,

it doesn’t matter that the road I might have walked
has vanished —or the road Basho did walk,
in new sandals with iris-blue straps.


An explosion in a nuclear reactor in Fukushima.
In 1970, I’d have passed there traveling from Tokyo to Sendai;
today, four trains are missing.

After Sendai, I’d have come to another landscape
that’s devastated now, Matsushima, which Basho called
Japan’s most beautiful place. Trying to describe
those 260 tiny islands, some crowned
with a single pine, he wrote:

           Matsushima, ah!
           A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
           Matsushima, ah!


Then we’re in St-Rémy-de-Provence, celebrating a birthday,
while the situation in Fukushima grows much worse.

We visit the hospital where for over a year Van Gogh lived.
At the entrance, irises, and a traffic mirror

where a sparrow keeps flinging itself
at a reflected sparrow. The only other tourists at the hospital

are Japanese. Usually so animated, today
everyone looks half here, half ten-thousands-miles away.


Even the blossoming almond tree in the hospital garden
with its white impasto petals against a vivid blue sky
seems both itself and a memory of a tree painted here once.
Out of sight, beyond these flowering branches, grief beyond measure.

Back at the hotel, looking again for Issa’s busy little sparrows,
I find instead:

           Beginning of spring –
           sparrows at the gate
           with their little faces.


Woke at 6, thinking this poem must be written in sixes,
for the sixth of August, or threes, for the Trinity test site,
and rising to find a pen, startled my wife. I said

I’ll be right back up, which made her fear I was disoriented
since our room is on the ground floor.
Don’t worry, I told her, though I was thinking of the world’s end.


A five-minute Internet clip, filmed by a student who’d reached
safety on a hill, shows the tsunami entering Nakatsugawa City.
People are still down there, fleeing for the wooded slopes as the torrent

surges towards them. Constant shouts; some run ahead, some
stop to help each other, and one figure goes back towards those
who are delayed. You don’t need to know Japanese to understand.


I’ve reached our friends, who were indeed in Tokyo
when the quake hit. The subway closed,

so they walked the crowded, snowy streets toward their hotel,
and when they stopped to rest, an elderly shopkeeper

offered his coat to their daughter and her five-week-old child.
In Galway, these sparrows. Their little faces.

In Japan, whole towns are gone,
and a second, maybe a third reactor is on fire—

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