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Volume IX, Number 3: September, 2007.
Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved by the respective authors.

Editors’ Choices • Commentary • Index of Poets • 
Haiku Pages:  1,  2,  3,  4,  5,  6,  7,  8,  9,  10,  11,  12,  13


Heron’s Nest Award


    buffalo bones
    a wind less than a whisper
    in the summer grass
                                       Chad Lee Robinson


Now this is a deceptively quiet haiku. Entering it, my breathing slows and then, with little more than a whisper, Chad Lee Robinson ferries me back in time to two far-flung locales, North America’s Great Plains and the small town of Hiraizumi in the province of Iwate in Japan. In these places, I overlook three diverse cultures: European, Native American, and Japanese, and I become witness to two horrific events: the massacre of buffalo in the United States during the 1870s and ’80s, and a tragic event that followed the historic battle of Koromogawa in Japan, which occurred on June 13, 1189. The key to envisioning these events is yet another alluded-to moment that took place in the year 1689, when Matsuo Basho penned a haiku that was destined to become one of his classics. All of these times, events, places, and cultures can be discovered in this one exquisite haiku of just twelve words.

The opening line, “buffalo bones,” places me on a midwestern prairie. I am struck by the tranquility of this expansive landscape, and I imagine the vast herds that once peacefully grazed there. But then, as I stand above the weathered bones of a buffalo, half-hidden among the tall summer grasses, my imagination conjures a railroad stretching east and west as far as the eye can see. A train enters my restful reverie. It is packed with U. S. soldiers and pioneers, mostly of European ancestry. All at once, I see rifles thrust from open windows and puffs of smoke issuing from the long barrels. I hear the screams of the terrified bison and the thunder of their hooves as they stampede away from the train. The scene brings tears to my eyes.

The wholesale slaughter of buffalo was a plan conceived by American colonists whose intent was to deprive First Nation Peoples of their primary source of food. The resultant butchery later came to be known as the Great Buffalo Massacre. It was so successful that by 1889 an estimated population of some 75 million was reduced to a mere 540. The prairies were veritably littered with their bones.

While “buffalo bones” is the primary means of alluding to the Great Buffalo Massacre, it is through the words of Robinson’s second allusive image, “summer grass,” that the power of the first allusion is increased exponentially. The same words (actually a compound Japanese word translated with grass in the plural) were used by Matsuo Basho in 1689. Basho had tears in his eyes when he wrote:

Summer grasses,
all that remains
of soldiers’ dreams. 1

One of the places Basho visited during his travels was Hiraizumi, the setting where the great General, Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159—1189) and his faithful retainer, Musashibo Benkei, were attacked in the castle Koromogawa no Tate. They were eventually surrounded, and to protect Yoshitsune while he retired to the inner temple of the castle to commit ritualistic suicide (seppuku), Benkei fought valiantly to his death on the bridge in front of the main gate.

Basho is believed to have chosen the word natsukusa, translated as “summer grasses,” in reference to that season’s oppressive heat and humidity which transform the grasses of spring into rank weeds — an appropriate image for the chaos and treachery of war. By the time Basho visited Hiraizumi (precisely five hundred years later) weeds were all that remained where once stood the castle in which Yoshitsune and Benkei perished. In his epic travel diary Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior), Basho comments:

It was at Palace-on-the-Heights that Yoshitsune and his picked retainers fortified themselves, but his glory turned in a moment into this wilderness of grass. “Countries may fall, but their rivers and mountains remain; when spring comes to the ruined castle, the grass is green again.” 2  These lines went through my head as I sat on the ground, my bamboo hat spread under me. There I sat weeping, unaware of the passage of time. 3

I’d wager that Chad Lee Robinson felt a great sadness as well, when he wrote the poem we chose for this issue’s Heron’s Nest Award.

I don’t recall having read a haiku that alludes to more than one historic event, as Robinson’s does. Not only does it do this, and to great effect, but the Basho haiku referred to by one of Robinson’s allusions is itself famous for the depth and poignancy of its allusiveness. Quite a feat! I greatly admire what Chad Lee Robinson has achieved with this haiku.



Christopher Herold
September 2007
1 Translation by Lucien Stryk

2 Poem by the Chinese poet Tu Fu (712—770) which became a proverbial expression in Japan.

3 Quoted passage from The Narrow Road to Oku translated by Donald Keene, Kodansha International, 1996


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