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I first lived in Japan from 1991-92. During that time I picked up a Penguin edition of Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho’s book Narrow Road To The Deep North. I’ve loved him ever since. Not just his work, but the very idea of him.
Ah, Basho, who were you really?
My friend the Japanese literature scholar —
by which I mean to say he is a scholar
of Japanese literature and a literature scholar
who is Japanese — thinks you were a ninja.
Or a famous warrior of some sort.
I can’t quite remember. But his point
is that no mere poet could have passed through
all those military checkpoints.
And no old-man poet could have covered
all that ground as fast as you say you did.
Were you lying? Is all poetry fiction?
Perhaps you started out from Tokyo —
they called it Edo then —
with every intention of completing the journey
along that famous narrow road.
Perhaps you packed your paper and brushes
to write those glorious verses.
Perhaps you set out upon the path,
made it as far as the first resting place
before your old bones got the better
of your young heart.
Poets invent whole worlds —
all you needed to do was describe
the world that already existed. Even a mortal
could do that.
Me, I like the ninja idea.
Poets are thought of as many things —
deadly is rarely one of them.
We need more poet ninjas, creeping about
on moonless nights, stealing
into the rooms of young lovers, leaving
a verse or two on the pillow.
Gone as silently as the break
in this line.
Then again, maybe I’d rather
you were just a poet.
Not a liar. Not a ninja.
Not a warrior traveling in disguise.
Just a man who wished to see the mountains
of Japan’s interior with his own eyes.
A man who used his paper and his brushes
to let us see those same mountains,
thousands of miles away,
all these many years later.