To Swat or
Not to Swat

Robin D. Gill
(Paraverse Press, Box 399
260 Crandon Bl., #26
Key Biscayne FL 33149)
Once, when I was going bananas (yet again), I slept in a communal house in a room next to the communal, often crowded, kitchen. In the night, I would be wakened by jittery speed-freaks making coffee (to make them more jittery). In the early morning, my thoughts circled around (like flies) and wouldn't shut up.

But, in the mid-morning, there'd be company: house-flies would join me on the bed, and, because I had nothing better to do --- in that time I could not fancy reading nor writing --- I would open the window next to my bed and shoo them out. In a few minutes, they would circle around to the back door and join me once more, to bask with me in the sun. I would, sooner or later, open the pane, to send them out to circle around like my thoughts yet again.

Flies, in reality, or even in print, bring back memories of a hot summer and a jumpy mind. For the Japanese poet Sanki, flies arrive from another season, speak to him directly,

a winter fly
whispers its last words
in my ear

La mosca may remind other writers of prison, a bother, an inquest, or a dying love. For Robin Gill, however, these pesky mites are none of the above. He sees them as a bonanza of haiku. And 600 of them appear here. The poems ... not the bugs.

The mother-of-them-all, he reports, was penned by the 19th Century Japanese master Kobayashi Issa:

Do not kill the fly!
See how it wrings its hands.
Its feet!

Haiku, as most of us know, somewhat, is Japanese poetry, limited to a certain number of syllables, reflecting a season of the year. But we find out, soon enough, that there is a whole sub-genre dedicated to what the English poet John Clare called "our fairy familiars." It is known as "Hae-uchi" --- fly-swatting. The season is assumed to be summer, since flies turn up most profusely at that time of year.
Gill shows himself to be elaborately and unstoppably in love with haiku, with fly-ku, with the Japanese language, with (possibly) flies, and, most of all, getting the message out.

You and I may think there isn't that much to be said about flies and poetry, much less verse on murdering or tolerating them --- but included here is a sizeable collection of ancient poems, including ones on the morality of swatting the little bastards, how to live with them, the use of fly-paper, sagas of weak (and dying) flies, and, incidentally, and most engagingly, the art of translating fly-ku in specific and haiku in general.

Thus this isn't just a book about those boorish creatures that alight on our meat-pie (just as we are biting down on it) but tries, and, I claim, tries successfully to prove to us that there is art in even the most base and banal of objects.

"It was old haiku that first captured my heart," Gill tells us in his Forward. Each of the poems appears in this 200+ page volume as follows:

Japanese Characters
A sounding out of the characters
A literal transliteration into English
A more poetic translation
An alternative translation, and

An example, chosen at random, from a chapter that deals with "Winter Flies:"
winter flies
sick, he embraces me
very gently

winter flies
sick, we still have
gentle sex

a winter fly
sick, I am gently

Then Gill's parse: "When it comes to sex, English is a real problem. It lacks a decent verb. Forgive the last reading, but it reads nicely, I think."

Or this, on "Living with Flies,"

good times:
one more fly, land!
on my rice.

This is followed by six alternative translations, including

times are good!
i welcome yet another
fly to my table

a good year, this!
come join us for dinner
one more fly

prosperity's here
our food can take another
fly with cheer!

Some might think this whole treatise might be gilding the lily, but for those with the patience, the unfolding of 600 variations on a theme, with elegant discourse, is a treat, and, at times, when the author delves into the lively back-and-forth on the internet, the past and present of haiku, or the root and uses of various Japanese words, it becomes quite jolly.

The poems give the author a chance to show his considerable knowledge: "spring wind/guarding our foyer/one fly" leads him to a discussion of Japanese housing. For instance, that all homes, no matter how poor, have a foyer, because it is there one carries out the tradition of taking off your shoes before entering another's house, and the shoes "must have a covered place to wait for their owner."

    Traditional farm houses need it to store tools and small amounts of produce, and it serves as a liminal space to discuss things with shoed members of the family, strangers and others not welcomed in. The spring wind brings living things, visitors.

"It is refreshing to see the fly as a guard rather than something to be guarded against for once."

Gill strikes us as no less than amazing. Why isn't he teaching at Yale, or the University of California, or Tokyo University? His references include no end of obscure Japanese lore, plus quotes and notes from such artists as Clare, Lovelace, Steinbeck, Dumont, Verdi, Satie, Blythe, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson.

And just to prove he isn't blind to the diverse world of creatures, Gill sent along another hefty volume on haiku. Subject? Sea Cucumbers. It's even fatter (and possibly more fun) than flies, weighing in at slightly less than 500 pages.

Text and footnotes include, but are not limited to, discussion of crab, reincarnation and karma, roasted lobsters, balls, motor oil, guns, gross movies, Freud, wet dreams, vaginas, living stones, whales, starfish, cannibalism, aesthetes, Mandarin Duck, moonshine, Spam (the canned meat), hillbillies, unpolished rice, "cherry shells," and whether "sea slug" is more accurate than "sea cucumbers."

The volume is titled, in typical Gillian fashion, Rise, Ye Sea Slugs --- 1,000 Holothurian Haiku Compiled and Translated by Robin D. Gill.

--- Carlos Amantea
Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH