I have known Peter since 1975 when I arrived in Tasmania to join the Department of Modern Languages as tutor in Japanese. Peter was tutor in German at the time and I remember the many lively literary discussions we had, centred around Dr Wojtowicz and other literature staff in the department. Peter impressed me as very well read in literature and theory even then, so when, years later, he decided to study Japanese language and classical and modern literature, his sensitive erudition was a great plus for us in our classroom discussions. Our friendship is one of many decades.
I feel very privileged to launch Peter’s beautiful haiku collection, Oil Slick Sun. It reminds me so much of the days when we were able to lose ourselves in the fine detail of the language of Basho or Buson or Issa in the classical Japanese literature classes.
Thinking about where Peter’s poems might stand in the vast pantheon of haiku poets, I feel that the aura of old Japanese poets and some of the twentieth century ones can be found throughout Peter’s poetry. I would like to trace that aura in several of Peter’s representative poems.
To begin, Peter’s affectionate, compassionate identification with tiny animals remind us of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827).
lying in the long grass
listening to the water
and the much-too-busy flies
A few flies and I
keep house together
in this humble home (trans Jean Merrill)
Peter’s snail poem brings us eye-level with the snail, encouraging its efforts over days and praising it for its success:
almost up to the sill today the snail
In fact Issa’s poem while welcoming the snail doesn’t get quite as close
Right at my feet- when did you get here, snail? (trans David Gerard)
Another of my favourite of Peter’s poems which indirectly allude to the many haiku by the old masters about workers, inn-keepers and other ordinary people at their daily tasks:
smell of peppermint
old trees collapse quietly
council worker says
In this poem Peter recognises the workers’ conscious or unconscious sympathetic identification with the trees, as they relate to the trees’ experience. At the same time Peter celebrates the generosity and forbearance of nature, exuding the beautiful, healthful aroma of peppermint even as it is being destroyed.
Peter’s poems have a soft resonance of resignation, a quiet recognition of the beauty of things past, and pointing to the aesthetics of death in a secularly spiritual way, which perhaps the ancient masters could only do through a Buddhist veil. The striking white on white on white of the following poem layers symbols of passing and death (salt, shell and sand) in a beautiful scene:
on the dune
a white fan shell
Saigyo (1118-1190), the great tanka prince turned poet-priest at the age of twenty-two, also wrote poems about shells on the sand. Like Peter’s shell, Saigyo’s shells symbolised time past and death. Peter’s shell is the beautiful remains of a shellfish while Saigyo’s shells symbolise the remains of the great Imperial court, whose destruction in 1183 he had lived through. Unlike Peter’s shell, these shells were above all Buddhist symbols of the sin of the courtly world of ambition, greed and consumption that caused the ordinary fisher-folk living by the seashore to commit the sinful act of killing the oysters for their pearls.
Aftermath of treasure (trans Maria Flutsch)
Another poet, who, like Peter, paints delicate portraits of the simple, ordinary everyday scenes and events which only hint at the inner life is Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902). Perhaps Shiki’s moon haiku points to possible understandings of the moon other than the traditional Buddhist ones imbuing most Japanese moon poems:
The silent black sky
Reveals another side (trans Janine Beichmann)
Peter’s moon poem can be interpreted as a much more personal revelation of an inner state of mind:
waiting for the blue moon black sky
One ubiquitous feature of Japanese haiku, and of all ancient Japanese poetry and prose forms, is the counting or listing of things. These lists celebrate the mental freedom and serenity that perceives the one amongst the many in the abundance of nature. At the same time they can also exhibit an eremitic loneliness as Shiki’s poem, from his invalid’s bed, reveals:
Fourteen, no maybe fifteen
Blooming over there (trans Janine Beichmann)
Peter’s poem sets a similar scene:
one rose at a time
Even more minute observation in Japanese poetry originates in the Buddhist tenet that "A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust - each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed." (Miao-lo). However, Shiki’s fine vision in the following poem, is secular:
I see it through a hole
In the shutter (trans Janine Beichmann)
while Peter’s lovely view of nature’s extravagance through a tiny opening provided by nature has a Buddhist tinge:
through a hole in a leaf leaves
Many of Peter’s poems remind me of Taneda Santoka’s (1882-1940) intensely personal haiku, although Peter’s poem are always tinged with hope and a sense of personal growth. Santoka became a Zen monk and haiku master in his early forties, after experiencing much tragedy in his childhood and adult life.
Peter’s psycho-analytical poem below recognises that the past, however difficult, informs and gives meaning to the present, and through this recognition, some detachment and calm can be achieved:
white on the rocks
By contrast, Santoka’s waves teach him nothing, reflecting only his sense of a meaningless, illusory life:
All day -
Without a word,
Waves crashing (trans Hisashi Miura, James Green)
I’d like to finish with my favourite poem, which perhaps encapsulates Peter’s gently hopeful spirit of acceptance of the sadness and loneliness of our ephemeral existence in the symbol of the scattering dandelion.
Santoka saw the scattering dandelion as a reminder of the final departure from this world of his mother’s spirit, when he wrote this poem on the forty-ninth anniversary of her death:
My mother’s death
Incessantly in my thoughts (trans Maria Flutsch)
Peter’s poem is also about his mother’s passing. However, this poem has a delicate glow of hope in the evening sun whose gentle, glowing warmth consoles him every evening with the hint of his mother’s presence, light as the breeze.
a dandelion disappears
into the evening sun
Thank you, Peter, for inviting me to launch your lovely, enriching and moving collection. I have enjoyed reading, studying and meditating on your poems. They speak to and for all of us in our life experience.