The Death Haiku of George Swede

 
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Robert Hirschfield

Art by Channing Sánchez

 

“My biological father died when I was two or three. My adopted father, Arnold Swede, died of TB when I was ten. My half-brother committed suicide.”

George Swede was born into the death poem.

I re-read
my brother’s
suicide note—
tomatoes ripen
on the sill

Swede, Canada’s haiku master, age 83, a retired psychologist, has been writing death haiku for the almost fifty years he’s been writing haiku. But not, he points out, with thematic intent. As a haikuist, whatever the moment brings into consciousness is what he writes about: the ground beneath his feet, the impulses that move the mind, an empty baseball field, a fat green frog, a displeased wife, the crisis of the planet (the game with / seven billion players / one ball), the crisis of aging on the planet (full moon nowhere to piss), the crisis of leaving the planet (falling pine needles / the tick of the clock).

Israeli translator, the late Yoel Hoffmann writes in his book Japanese Death Poems that the first Zen-infused death haiku began appearing in the sixteenth century, and became widespread during the progressive Meiji restoration (1868–1912).

Swede surmises that the precursor to the Western death haiku may possibly have been the epitaph. “The word epitaph in ancient Greek simply means ‘on the gravestone.’ Such text honoring the deceased is usually brief because of space limitations on most tombstones or plaques.” He offers several illustrations of a plaque poem, including the one dispatching German physicist Werner Heisenberg, famous for ”the uncertainty principle”: I lie somewhere over here.

Humor and irony are often the blood and bones of the death poem, Eastern or Western. This haiku is by Moriya Sen’an, who died in 1838:

Bury me when I die
beneath a wine barrel
in a tavern.
With luck
the cask will leak.

Lacking the lyrical range of a W. S. Merwin elegy (Every year without knowing it I have passed the day / When the last fires will wave to me…), Swede’s death haiku, like most death haiku, live within the subtle and unfathomable flow of movement that shapes the present moment, gathering to itself all moments. Its beauty lies in both its ordinariness and its mystery.

Spring breeze
my dead grandfather’s rocker
creaks on the porch

 
 

In writing about his grandfather, whose kindness when he arrived in Western Canada at seven stretched a second layer of loving skin over his unfortunate first layer, the poet has, you feel, the presence of the dead in the life of an object activated by a breeze. Grandfather, his rocking chair, and the spring, are all brought seamlessly together. Death is wrapped around life. It is there, together with the uncountable transmuted elements that make up the eternal moment.

Ruth Franke, in her essay “American Death Poems” (Blithe Spirit, 2007), speculates that the Transcendentalism of Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson, together with Zen, may also have contributed to the postwar popularity of the death haiku. While Swede kept his distance from Zen (part of his aversion to all organizational packaging), he embraced the Transcendentalists: “All three emphasized the immediate moment in their different ways.”

Like the Transcendentalists, he is put together by an unshakable individuality.

the holocaust
grafted onto my rootstock
the temperament of trees

Similar to the tree, he patiently watches the way the human seasons go about destroying life as they create, or help protect, new life.

after the abortion
she weeds
the garden

These days, with ill health limiting mobility after a lifetime of world-traveling, teaching, and social interacting, Swede concedes, “I think of my mortality every day.” To which his most recent death haiku attest. It’s as if they have taken a gigantic leap over a collapsing fence, landing in a sweat deeper inside himself than he would like.

In Japanese Jsei, Hoffmann states, “Historically, most death poems have been in tanka form.”

(Tankas are the traditional five-line, thirty-one-syllable poems dating back to the seventh-century Imperial Court of Japan.) Many of Swede’s most recent efforts are in keeping with that ancient tradition. His e-book Arithmetic (Snapshot Press, 2020) contains several tanka, edgier by far than what readers of Swede’s early work may be used to:

three best friends dead
before they reached sixty
an ankle vein
pulses faster than my
watch’s second hand

The poet ends his “barber shop” tanka with these lines:

my hair invisible
on the white apron

All that remains: the need for removal.

 

Spring / Summer 2024



Robert Hirschfield

Robert Hirschfield is a New York–based haiku poet and freelance journalist who writes mainly about other writers. His work has appeared in Hanging Loose, Lit Mag News, Modern Haiku, Salamander, Jewish Review of Books, Parabola, and Teachers & Writers.



Channing Sánchez

Channing Sánchez began creating quilts as objects d’art after watching his husband make conventional quilts with a quilting group in Santa Fe. Inspired by antique Japanese textiles, Sánchez put his own spin on them with an array of textured fabrics and colored embroidery threads, as opposed to the traditional white thread of Sashiko (literally “little stabs,” a form of decorative reinforcement stitching from Japan). What began as patches sewn upon patches like that of Japanese boro (a class of Japanese textiles derived from the Japanese boroboro, meaning tattered or repaired), and often enhanced with buttons, glitter, and paint, they’ve become more complex over time.  



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