Symbols of Australia in Haiku Poetry

Haiku …

… are observed details from nature or everyday life. They strive to be specific, individual, unique.

Also haiku …

… include a kigo. Kigo are ‘season words’. They are a form of symbolic communication.

Kigo in Japanese haiku

Many kigo in Japanese haiku are words for plants and animals, or natural phenomena like kinds of weather. Kigo contain shared cultural associations that Japanese haiku readers understand.

A translator’s notes can help English speaking readers understand the meaning of the kigo intellectually, but it is unlikely that casual readers of haiku in translation feel the full cultural significance of Japanese kigo.

Australian kigo?

It is probably not technically correct to use the words kigo in relation to English language haiku.

In Japanese haiku kigo are codified in quite a formal way with each kigo being related to a specific season of the year. Australian haiku writers do not have an equivalent system.

Australian haiku writers do often include a symbolic keyword, frequently an allusion to nature or the time of year, in the place of a kigo.

In the context of Australian haiku we may refer to these keywords as kigo.

‘Haiku Dreaming Australia’

As far as I am aware there has only been one serious attempt to make a list of Australian kigo, Haiku Dreaming Australia. The editor of the website John Bird writes with the Cloudcatchers haiku group in Northern New South Wales.

Symbolic meaning in modern Australia

The Japanese system of kigo evolved in a preindustrial country. At the time Japan had a strong “monoculture” due to more than 200 years of enforced isolationism.

Symbolic meanings in modern day Australia are much more complex and difficult to catalogue:

  • Australia is incredibly diverse and multicultural
  • Digital technology and streaming gives us access to a deluge of overseas cultural influences
  • Australia is a highly urbanised society and most people are less familiar with nature and the seasons now than they were in past centuries
  • Many words and phrases that are distinctly Australian now seem old fashioned and are falling out of use
  • Mainstream Australia barely acknowledges, much less understands or respects, the culture of the traditional owners of Australia
  • Climate change threatens to radically alter the weather and seasons in Australia and many animals and plants that we might use as kigo in Australian haiku face potential extinction.

My aim

I will explore the use of symbolic keywords in Australia and make brief notes on this blog where I find examples of symbolic keywords being used, not just in haiku, but in poetry and other kinds of Australian writing, film, song, and other art-forms. 

I will also post occasional brief reviews of haiku books that I read.

My writing

I have written posts on:

. . . and many other topics.

Twitter: @CactusHaiku


Haiku Dreaming Australia, http://users.mullum.com.au/jbird/dreaming/ozku.html


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which I live, and where I write, the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

New Season Royal Gala Apples

There are just a few weeks every year when the royal gala season starts when it is worth buying apples.

Unfortunately it only takes three or four weeks before they start to turn floury and aren’t worth eating any more.

But . . . for those few weeks each year, when royal galas become available they are so much better than all the other apples you can buy in Naarm (Melbourne) that . . . well . . . they taste like apples are supposed to taste. They taste like apples (might have) tasted when I was very young.

I guess that all the other apples you can buy these days are bred to have a year-long shelf-life, taste and texture be damned.

New season royal gala apples or go to hell! (the only exception is if you know someone who has some kind of pippin tree in their back yard, and even then you’ll probably have to deal with codling moth).

     new season royal gala –
just for a moment
I’m young again 🌵

Autumn Walk

autumn walk, just 
following our cavoodle
everywhere ~ 🌵

Instead of going for a walk with any set purpose in mind, I let our cavoodle, Barney, take the lead.

When Barney wanted to run, we ran (ridiculously).

When Barney wanted to stop, we stopped.

We went in the direction that Barney led us.

We chased some rainbow lorikeets.

We kept on going, and going, til at twilight Barney led us back to our gate.

Return to Posting (and a Father’s Day Haiku)

Aaand . . . we’re back . . .

Spring is here, the slough of winter all-but-forgotten and my writing hiatus is done.

Father’s Day here in Australia is on the first Sunday in September, so right at the start of spring.

Honestly, Father’s Day isn’t usually celebrated all that much in Australia, but this year I did manage a haiku:

      dew on dry grass –
a man holds
a new-born baby

Hot Air

Hot summer days in Naarm (Melbourne, Australia) are often accompanied by an oppressive hot north wind.

Often, the wind changes direction in the mid or later afternoon, and the heat is broken by a lovely cool sea breeze.

If the change doesn’t come you’re in for a hot, uncomfortable, sleepless night and, almost certainly, a stinking hot tomorrow.

     Thin cypresses
faded Australian flag –
no cool breeze today. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Melbourne weather: How winds from the north and west create ‘change days’, Belinda Smith, ABC News, 13-Nov-2018.

Cabbage Moths

This post was originally drafted a month or so ago.

At that time Melbourne was coming out of a very long COVID lockdown (our sixth). The formal restrictions set by the government were being eased, but many of us continued to live mostly-isolated for fear of catching the virus and passing it on to older or unwell relatives. Kids were going back to school, but because of the risk of catching COVID on public transport, we were dropping our kids at school each morning in the car, and picking them up each afternoon.

My daughter’s school is a castle of concrete and brick on top of a steep hillside in Footscray. It overlooks the flood plain of the Maribynong river. The “hill” is actually the old Footscray tip; who knows what archeology, and what toxic slime, is buried under its clean modern buildings and the neatly mowed turf of its playing fields?

Beside the school, Farnsworth Avenue winds down the slope of the hill to the brown curve of the Maribynong, and lining the side of the avenue are the inevitable purple and green agapanthus.

On this particular morning I’d just dropped my daughter at school, and the car was starting to gather speed down Farnsworth Avenue toward the river and the bridge, when I noticed a couple of cabbage moths fluttering across the road, only a metre or two above my windscreen. Cabbage moths, usually in pairs, are a common sight at this time of year in backyards and vegetable gardens all over Melbourne. They remind me of my childhood, and long hot afternoons, and having nothing much to do. A lepidopterist would probably inform you that cabbage moths are not actually moths at all, but plain white butterflies with black spots on their wings, but I’m not inclined to be too be so scientifically minded. Fixate on the fact that cabbage moths aren’t really moths and the next thing you know someone will be trying to convince you that Pluto is not a planet.

     Two cabbage moths
twirl above
the double white lines. 🌵

Fast forward, and here we are in the first days of 2022: test cricket is on TV; the number of case of the Omicron variant are growing exponentially; social events are being cancelled; and the government is starting to reimpose restrictions.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Lockdown’s End

Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown is staggering towards the finish line. The case numbers are as high as they have at any time during the pandemic, but the vaccination rate is rising steadily, and I think there is just a general realisation that many people have given as-much-as-they-had-to-give and have started . . . not-to-comply.

So back to work, in dribs and drabs, we go. Back to our commutes, our shopping centres and our offices. Our parking inspectors. Our microwave-reheated lunches. Our bosses and our subordinates.

We’ll have to leave behind our new cavoodles, our business-shirts-with-PJ-bottoms, and the rainbow lorikeets squawking, squawking in the plum tree out the back.

     Walking with my brother 
after lunch - a young dog
behind a window.

Note: I wrote this haiku with my youngest brother Eveready.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Is there a more haiku-worthy Australian bird than the tawny frogmouth? They look like bits of broken branch on trees, or stone gargoyles on a church, or maybe a very grizzly looking great uncle who has fallen asleep while sitting on the couch.

One of these amazingly grumpy-looking birds has recently made a nest, and has a baby frogmouth, in a tree near the dog park in Travancore just near the Moonee Ponds Creek.

Any time of the day you walk along Mooltan Street in Travancore you’ll see a little group of people, hovering quietly around the base of one tree in particular, hoping to catch a glimpse of the baby frogmouth.

Traditional haiku poets in Japan went moon-viewing or to see the cherry trees in bloom. Here we gather to look at tawny frogmouths.

When I was down in Travancore the other day there was a photographer with a telephoto lens. We got into a (quiet) conversation and he told me that he’s set up a website called “Travancore Tawnies”. So, go, check them out.

If you’ve lived in Melbourne for a while you’ve probably noticed how many different sorts of native birds there are around these days.

Up until about 8 or 10 years ago the only birds I remember seeing in the inner suburbs were blackbirds, Indian mynahs (mynas), sparrows, pigeons, ravens, and the occasional lost seagull.

But back then, when I was growing up, most streets had no street trees; parks were mostly dead grass and dust, with one or two scraggly trees if you were lucky; and planting native trees in gardens was only just starting to be trendy. Lots of people had pet cats that they let live outdoors, no bells on collars.

The increased number of native birds in the city that we’re seeing now is not just because there are better habitat trees (and less stray cats). Other factors push birds towards the city like drought, and climate change, and loss of natural habitat in bushfires.

I can remember when I’d only heard a currawong a few times in my life, and then only on hikes or bush walks, far away from town. Then, ten or twelve years ago, when I was a grad nurse at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, there was a currawong that used to sit on the top of one of the shorter (4-5 stories high) sections of the hospital giving its haunting, abbreviated, early evening call. Now you can hear currawong all through the inner northern and western suburbs of Melbourne.

Australian Magpies used to be the sound of the morning when we went on holidays to the country. Now I hear them almost every day. These days magpies are the sound of work-days in the city too.

Wattlebirds are everywhere. Noisy miners. Rainbow lorikeets. Crested pigeons. The occasional sulphur-crested cockatoo. I even saw blue wrens when walking up beside the Maribynong the other day.

     Tawny Frogmouth –
I will be here
Long after you are gone. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Rare visitor excites Melbournians, yet it’s presence is a sad sign, Miki Perkins, The Age, 30 May 2020, https://www.theage.com.au/environment/climate-change/rare-visitor-excites-melburnians-yet-its-presence-is-a-sad-sign-20200530-p54xxp.html.

Travancore Tawnies, https://travancoretawnies.com.

Post-Apocalyptic Gastropods

     Oh Snail 
Climb Mt Fuji
But slowly, slowly!

Issa (trans. R.H. Blyth)

Reports that Melbourne is set to become the longest locked-down city in the world has me thinking strange and gloomy thoughts. Such as: is it just my perception, or are there many less snails around than there used to be?

Less little silver trails among the flower pots . . .

Less of those distinctive little holes eaten in the leaves of violets and geraniums . . .

When was the last time you, after rain, saw a garden path so covered in snails that you could hardly find a place to put your feet?

Or a big snail sliding over the top of another snail’s shell, almost tipping them both over?

Or a bowl of flat beer near the rhubarb with ten or 12 drowned snails floating in it?

An article in The Observer about the catastrophic collapse in insect populations (an estimated 75% decline in the worldwide number of insects over the past 50 years) set me wondering whether pesticides and climate change might be having a similar impact on snails, but a quick scan of the internet doesn’t reveal any equivalent articles about mass death events of gastropods.

I was also heartened to read these tweets from Alison Croggon during the week which give some hope that there are still a fair few snails lurking about:

Maybe snails are immune to pesticides and they, along with the cockroaches, will inherit the post-apocalyptic world?

At any rate here in Melbourne we finally have a “road map” out of lockdown. From about the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes!) we’ll once again be able to visit our friends, whether they live in double-fronted Edwardians with veggie gardens; or in body-corporate townhouses where backyard bonfires are banned; or all by themselves in little mobile homes. Maybe in the post-lockdown euphoria we might even be able to make a few new friends?

     After the rain
a cavoodle puppy
meets a snail. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The insect apocalypse: ‘Our world will grind to a halt without them’, Dave Goulson, The Observer, 25th July 2021.

Broad Bean Flowers

Today is the vernal equinox (in the Southern Hemisphere) but there’ll be no dancing around bonfires in Melbourne tonight. We continue in our, long-ongoing, COVID-19 lockdown.

Still, the weather is lovely, and each day I go out walking some new plant has burst into flower. Today I saw hop goodenias (Goodenia ovata) in flower for the first time this year. Last week I saw broad beans in flower.

     Broad bean flowers, and
a mirror bush – I think I’ll
delete Instagram.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Melbourne’s 6th COVID-19 Lockdown Extended

It’s a strange feeling:

Cooped-up, finding it hard to remember what you used to do for fun, unable to go anywhere or see anyone (except for the occasional trip to the shops for “essentials”).

But also:

Seeing so much of the people that you live with that you’re seriously starting to get on each other’s nerves, tension, simmering resentments, and hard words being said.

No end in sight.

     Cut the engine
sit in the car
enjoy the rain.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Dragonfly Blues

Here in Victoria, Australia, we are in our 5th COVID-19 lockdown. *sigh*

The 4th volume of R. H. Blyth’s Haiku, the Autumn – Winter volume, has a section devoted to dragonflies.

In Japanese haiku dragonflies are an autumn kigo (season word), so dragonfly haiku might not be entirely appropriate reading at the moment, given that here in Melbourne we are currently in the depths of winter.

He has dyed his body

with autumn, –

The dragon-fly.

Bakusui (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Whenever dragonflies are given a colour in Japanese haiku they are always red.

The beginning of autumn,


By the red dragon-fly.

Shirao (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Several of the dragonfly haiku in Blyth mention late afternoon or early evening. Do we notice dragonflies more often at that time of the day? Or is it that there is a parallel between the colour of the dragonflies and sunset colours?

Between the moon coming out

And the sun going in,-

The red dragon-flies.

Nikyu (trans. R. H. Blyth)

Some of the haiku focus on other characteristics of dragonflies, like the size of their eyes:

The face of the dragon-fly

Is practically nothing

But eyes.

Chisoku (trans. R. H. Blyth)

About this haiku Blyth notes:

This is what any child might say, but for that very reason, near to the kingdom of poetry.

Dragonflies fly with abrupt changes of direction as though they are constantly changing their minds.

The dragon-fly,

Swift to the distant mountain,

Swift to return.

Akinobo (trans. R. H. Blyth)

A number of the dragonfly haiku quoted in Blyth mention graves, stones, walls (and an “uneventful” village) presumably as a point of contrast to the busy flight of dragonflies.

Old graves;

Red dragon-flies flitting

Over the withered shikimi.

Anon. (R. H. Blyth)

In his notes on this haiku Blyth states:

The shikimi or Chinese anise has a small white flower in summer. The flower smells sweet, but is poisonous. Nevertheless, sprays are offered before the Buddha. The old grave, the withered offerings, the dragon-flies rustling to and fro, - what a scene of thoughtless significance?

“Thoughtless significance” . . .? Sometimes Blyth’s prose is quite poetic and you need intuition, rather than analysis, to approach his meaning.

These haiku seem to establish that in Japan dragonflies are red, but here in the south eastern part of Australia I think most of the dragonflies I’ve seen are blue. Maybe some are yellow and black? Or yellow/green? But mostly blue.

Note: I do not have a good source for identifying Australian dragonflies, but a quick scan of the internet shows some have evocative names like: Swamp Bluets; Blue Skimmers (the female of this species is greeny-yellow and black); and the Tau Emeralds. The name Tau Emerald conjures something of the jewel-like appearance of many dragonflies.

My skim of the internet also revealed a few red species of Australian dragonflies but I don’t think I have ever seen any. So, here is a blue, south-eastern Australian, dragonfly haiku:

     Home, where I grew up –
swans are black
dragon-flies are blue. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

Aussie Rules

Warning: post contains generalisations, misleading statements, false attributions. It is basically bull-twang.

Australia is divided by an invisible line.

North of the line, in Queensland and most of New South Wales, people play rugby, a game that is not understood by, and is of no interest to, the people living in the rest of Australia.

In the rest of Australia (the southern part of New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory) people play and watch Australian Rules Football, often called “AFL” or just “Footy”. Australian Rules is extremely chaotic game, brutal and graceful in equal measure.

I have previously posted a haiku I wrote about AFL football here, but writing haiku about the footy is a far from new idea. A haiku poet called Rob Scott, AKA “Haiku Bob”, has been doing it for years. He also helps organise a yearly AFL Grand Final Kukai which is basically a bunch of haiku writing footy fans, composing haiku and posting them to a shared thread, while they watch the AFL grand final. Things can get a bit ragged as the game goes on.

Here are a few of the haiku I contributed during the 2020 grand final (for context Victoria was then in the middle of a months long COVID lockdown, and no one was allowed to have guests to their houses to watch the game).

     The afternoon of
the first night grand final –
bugger all to do.
     The Tigers win again!
watching a replay
of last year’s game.
     The 2020 AFL grand final –
the 1st grand final he’s watched
all by himself.

And to finish up here is a footy haiku I wrote in cricket season:

     the off season -
nothing to do
but write haiku

Post Script: there was a rumour during the Second World War, when a Japanese invasion of Australia was thought to be immanent, that the government had a secret plan to abandon the rugby playing states in order to defend the rest of the country. This rumour has never been substantiated.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


The Footy Almanac, https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/author/haikubob/

The 2020 AFL Grand Final Kukai, https://australianhaikusociety.org/2020/10/12/the-2020-afl-grand-final-haiku-kukai/#more-13608

The Australian War Memorial, https://www.awm.gov.au/articles/encyclopedia/homefront/brisbane_line

Against Agapanthus

     Winter sun –
the dead heads on hundreds
of agapanthus plants.

This is the second agapanthus haiku that I’ve written and published to this blog this year (find my previous effort here).

To be honest I’m not-too-fond of agapanthus. They’re bloody everywhere. Agapanthus must be the all-time most popular flower for councils, and corporate landscapers, to plant. In parks and formal gardens; on median strips and traffic islands; beside wide concrete driveways leading to twin car garages; showing through the safety fences of in-ground pools; and surrounding the car parks of tilt-slab retail barns, growing out of the scoria, next to low treated-pine log fences: agapanthus.

Oh God, I’m a completely obnoxious snob.

Agapanthus are obviously cheap, widely available, pretty hardy and low maintenance, and hence . . . everywhere. They’re overexposed. A bed of agapanthus essentially means: just make it look OK, and have it done by tomorrow, and, oh yeah, our budget is half what we said it was going to be. But this isn’t what agapanthus have always meant.

Trove is a wonderful website where you can access digitised copies of old Australian newspapers and other media, and there I came across a black and white photo of five agapanthus stems in a glass vase from the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, dated 4-Nov-1938. The caption on the photo reads: “AGAPANTHUS – the flower of love, a winning entry by Mrs M. Burton in the cut bloom section at St Paul’s Caladium Show” (the name Agapanthus come from the Greek agapē, love, and anthos, flower).

Another find on Trove that mentions agapanthus in the context of love is the following article published in the Brisbane Courier-Mail on 29-Dec-1939:



BLUE hydrangea and white agapanthus decked the Albert Street Methodist Church on December 22nd when Miss Margaret Dempsey, only child of the late Mr J. J. Dempsey, and Mrs Dempsey formerly of Junction Park and later of Southport School, was married to Mr Cecil Sexton of Cairns. 

GIVEN away by her uncle, Mr H. Rennie, the bride wore a street-length frock of aqua blue broderie Anglaise made with a swing skirt and finished at the neckline with a spray of tuberoses. A large white picture hat and white accessories completed the ensemble. 

Mrs Frank Daly was matron of honour, frocked in lemon floral sheer, finished with a spray of mauve agapanthus and white gardenias, and she added white accessories. Mr Frank Daly accompanied the bridegroom.

The Rev. H. M. Wheller officiated. Mr Archie Day was organist, and Miss Firth Edmonds sang. 

At the Hotel Canberra, where the reception was held, Mrs Dempsey received her guests wearing a tailored bolero ensemble of navy and white, with a white hat, and she pinned a spray of crimson rosebuds on the corsage. 

Leaving for the honeymoon, before proceeding North to her future home in Cairns, Mrs Sexton wore a frock of floral germaine with a honey-toned hat.

Side Note: Agapanthus are apparently often called African Lily or Lily of the Nile in the old country (who knows why, because they aren’t lilies, and they come from South Africa which is nowhere near the Nile).

Here is another agapanthus haiku that wrote back in summer when their flower heads were green and purple, instead of dead and brown, and waiting to be cut back, as they are now:

A single agapanthus head 
growing through
the wrought-iron fence.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Agapanthus, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agapanthus

Brisbane Courier-Mail, (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/40891356#)

Rockhampton Morning Bulletin (accessed via Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/55999372?searchTerm=Agapanthus)

Seasonal Affective Disorder

     Pulling the doona
up over my head -
cold feet.

Another winter solstice comes, and goes, here in South Eastern Australia.

The solstice always makes me feel like we should be heading off to some deserted rural location, and building a massive bonfire, and drinking large qualities of home-made beer (flavoured with pine needles), and tearing off most of our clothes . . . and painting ourselves with woad . . . and . . . and . . . cavorting . . .

So, who’s with me?

Anyone . . . ? No one . . . ?

Oh, fine then. I’m going back to bed.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

Is That a Book of Haiku in Your Pocket?

The Pocket Haiku translated by Sam Hamill is the smallest book on my shelf of haiku books. It’s about the size of a standard pack of playing cards, but a bit thinner. Think: a deck of cards that’s missing the jokers, and a few other random cards, and you’ll have the proportions of this little volume, perfectly.

A small book of small poems.

To be honest The Pocket Haiku is not a favourite book of mine. For one thing it is too small to sit neatly among my other haiku books: something that really shouldn’t annoy me, but it does . . .

. . . and then, the translations in The Pocket Haiku, while fine, are hardly ever my favourite translations of the given haiku. Take this rather nice haiku by Buson:

By flowering pear

and by the lamp of the moon

she reads her letter

Buson (Hamill)

The same haiku is translated by R. H. Blyth as:

A pear-tree in bloom:

In the moonlight,

A woman reading a letter.

Buson (Blyth)

And in Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson by W. S. Merwin and Takako Lento, it is rendered as:

Pear trees in flower

a woman reads a letter

by moonlight

Buson (Merwin & Lento)

Both the Blyth translation, and the Merwin & Lento translation, are simpler than the Hamill translation, and I think more beautiful for that.

To finish, a haiku of my own:

     It’s rude to wonder
what’s in her bag –
a little book of haiku. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Haiku, R. H. Blyth, The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Pocket Haiku, trans. Sam Hamill, Shambala, 2014.

Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson, trans. W. S. Merwin & Takako Lento, Copper Canyon Press, 2013.

Goldfish’s Sigh by Naho Sugita

The Haiku Foundation is a wonderful resource for people interested in English language haiku. Their Digital Library has hundreds (thousands!) of haiku collections that can be access for nix, online, including some works by contemporary Japanese poets in translation.

While browsing the library the other day I came across Goldfish’s Sigh a collection of 150 haiku by the haiku poet Naho Sugita, translated by Yasuhiro Kamimura, and published by the wonderful Red Moon Press.

Here, just to give you a taste, are four of her haiku, one for each of the four seasons:

having pumped up

some spring air

into my bicycle tyres

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

a promise

valid until the next world –

cloud peaks

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

picking up nuts

in this age of


Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

someone in charge of

turning off

the Christmas tree lights

Naho Sugita (trans. Kamimura)

The very brief biography of Naho Sugita included in the book tells us that she was born in 1980, and that as well as being a haiku poet, she is also an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Economics at Osaka City University.

Is it rude to sign off with a haiku of my own?

     We could spend
the rest of the afternoon
just counting goldfish … ? 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Goldfish’s Sigh, Naho Sugita (trans. Yasuhiro Kamimura), Red Moon Press, 2021.

“To Be Weak Is Miserable”

Here in Australia headlines and social media news feeds have made for grim reading over the past few weeks: men’s sexual violence against women (and in particular the Brittany Higgins case); the Australian Government cutting welfare payments; rising tensions with China . . . the USA approaching and then surpassing 500,000 COVID-19 deaths . . . and conspiracy theorists protesting the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations . . .

. . . but, especially . . . and the role of . . . and our collective failure to . . . and . . . and . . . and . . .

. . . how long can you keep your mind fixed on massive amounts of trauma that you feel powerless to change? After some hours, or days, I felt the need turn my mind to things safer and more mundane.

I switched off my laptop, put down my phone and took Barney, our cavoodle, for a walk.

We walked down through some areas of Flemington where the footpaths and nature strips are not-too-well maintained; past odd-shaped little corners of land where people dump the rubbish they can’t be bothered taking to the tip; and along the railway line where the weeds grow waist and chest high.

     broken thistle
milk sap wells
to the surface

On Milk Thistles

What we call milk thistles here in Melbourne, Sonchus oleraceus, are commonly called sow thistles elsewhere in the world. When we were kids we used to put their milky sap on warts. Apparently their bitter leaves can be eaten in a salad (I’ve never tried).

Often you find milk thistles growing next to another very similar plant. This second plant has tougher, woodier stems; tougher, darker green leaves; and more (and smaller) flower heads.

One other distinctive feature of this second tougher plant, is that it has round white seed heads like a dandelion’s puffballs, but whereas a dandelion’s puffballs are dense with feathered seeds and almost opaque, this tough milk-thistle-like plant’s puffballs are compromised of just a few feathery seeds and so appear translucent and lattice-like.

For a long time I’d assumed examples of this second plant were just older milk thistles, perennials rather than annuals, left alive for a second season to grow old and tough.

But over the past couple of days, while I have been avoiding social media news feeds, I have been filling in my spare hours comparing photos of milk thistles online, and I’ve come to the conclusion that these tougher milk thistles are a whole seperate species, Lactuca serriola, sometimes called Prickly Lettuce or the Compass Plant.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.

A Snake in the Grass

A week or so ago I went to the 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 at the Koorie Heritage Trust at Federation Square. 

Lying on a low dias when you enter the first room was a fabulous, glistening sculpture of a Red-bellied black snake by Charlie Solomon, made from what looks to have been a single large twisting limb of a gum tree.

I’ve seen red-belly black snakes a number of times when bush-walking in Victoria. Their backs are usually shiny black like patent leather although they can get a bit dusty sometimes. Their undersides are sometime bright red, as depicted in Charlie Solomon’s sculpture, but other times more as a dull pink colour.

Black snakes get a few mentions in Australian literature, for instance it is a black snake that invades the house in Henry Lawson’s famous story “The Drover’s Wife”, but the only work I know of that refers specifically to a red-belly black snake is this poem by Judith Wright:

The Killer

The day was clear as fire,
the birds sang frail as glass,
when thirsty I came to the creek
and fell by its side in the grass.

My breast on the bright moss
and shower-embroidered weeds,
my lips to the live water
I saw him turn in the reeds.

Black horror sprang from the dark
in a violent birth
and through its cloth of grass
I felt the clutch of earth.

O beat him into the ground
O strike him till he dies,
or else your life itself
drains through those colourless eyes.

I struck and struck again.
Slender in black and red 
he lies, and his icy glance 
turns outward, clear and dead.

But nimble my enemy 
as water is, or wind. 
He has slipped from his death aside
and vanished into my mind.

He has vanished whence he came,
my nimble enemy;
and the ants come out to the snake
and drink at his shallow eye.

The snake, no longer a physical threat, moves inside the poet’s mind (becoming a memory and a symbol). Wright’s poem reminds me of this haiku by Kyoshi:

The snake slid away,

But the eyes that stared at me

Remained in the grass.

Kyoshi (R. H. Blyth)

… the article “Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalitarianism” on the Haiku Foundation website discusses Kyoshi’s collaboration with Japan’s totalitarian government during the Second World War, a government that persecuted, imprisioned and tortured free verse haiku poets that it considered insufficiently patriotic.

No shade on Charlie Solomon; or on Judith Wright, although the Australian Museum would not approve of her destruction of the snake; or on Henry Lawson, although I know there have been some recent negative critiques of him; but Kyoshi on the other hand . . .

     Didn't Basho say
go to the snake
     to learn about snakes?     🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Red-Bellied Black Snake, Australian Museum, https://australian.museum/learn/animals/reptiles/red-bellied-black-snake/

Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The 8th Koorie Art Show 2020 (exhibition), The Koorie Heritage Trust, 5 Dec 2020 – 21 Feb 2021.

Henry Lawson’s Mates, The complete stories of Henry Lawson, Henry Lawson, Currey O’Neill, 1979.

Red-Bellied Black Snake (sculpture), Charlie Solomon, 2020.

Forgive, but Do Not Forget: Modern Haiku and Totalistarianism, Udo Wenzel interviews Ito Yuki, Juxta 1.1, March 2015, The Haiku Foundation, https://thehaikufoundation.org/juxta/juxta-1-1/forgive-but-do-not-forget-modern-haiku-and-totalitarianism/

Collected Poems, Judith Wright, Fourth Estate, 1994.

Melbourne in Lockdown

     Traffic lights turn green, but 
there are no cars to go
on Racecourse Road

When I was growing up in Kensington locals had a habit, that my brothers and I picked up, of tacking the word “but” onto the end of sentences and statements. It used to infuriate my Mum and Dad. The rules of grammar weren’t strictly enforced in our household, they had their limits but. I think Mum and Dad thought when we used the “dangling but” it was just us mangling our sentences for no good reason whatsoever, but for me it was usually that I’d had second thoughts about what I was saying as I was in the process of saying it … and allowed the second half of my thought to trail off unsaid …

At any rate, Mum, Dad, the “dangling but” in my Melbourne lockdown haiku is for you.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


I spent the last week on holiday with my family in the Ovens Valley, in the little town of Porepunkah. It was hot all week so much time was spent swimming.

While my brother and sister-in-law, my niece and nephew, my son and daughter, and my wife, were all swimming in a deep hole in the Buckland river, I sat on the bank wondering to myself what the river might have been like prior to European settlement. The river looked like it had been dredged, and probably dynamited, in the search for gold. The bed of the river was large fragments of stone – no sand. The banks of the river were steep, made of uneven jagged bits of rock, and overgrown with European weeds: purple-flowered scotch thistle, the rusty stems of docks, and blackberries just coming into fruit.

There is a much larger dredge hole at Eldorado near Beechworth. There the dredge is still sitting derelict in the middle of the flooded dredge hole, like a strange castle that has subsided into its own moat. Eldorado was deserted when I visited.

The Tronah Dredge Hole at Harrietville, “Lake Tronah”, on the other hand is a popular place for swimming. It’s probably about as big as the playing surface of the MCG and there is no rusting machinery (at least, none visible above the surface of the water). On this side of the dredge hole there is a little jetty that a bunch of people, kids and adults, were jumping from into the cool dark water. On the far side a rope hanging off a tree that was preferred by a group teenagers, loud music playing from a speaker. Out in the middle, groups of people were floating on lilos, inflated rings and paddle boards. God only knows how deep the thing is.

  Drop slow gum leaves
to the surface
of the Harrietville dredge hole

Actually, an environmental history of bucket dredging in Victoria published in 2018 notes that the Tronoh dredge could go as deep as 130 feet. Despite disrupting 156 acres of the Ovens River, and creating extraordinary quantities of tailings (much of which has never been remediated), the Tronoh dredge barely broke even.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


The Environmental History of Bucket Dredging in Victoria, Davies P., Lawrence S., Turnbull J., Rutherfurd I., Grove J. & Sylvester E., The Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol. 16, October 2018.

Paulownia Trees & The Moonee Ponds Creek

The City of Melbourne has a wonderful website called Urban Forest Visual where you can look up the species of all the trees planted in the streets and parks of Melbourne. Browsing this website the other day I was surprised to find that there are paulownia (or pawlonia) trees planted in Chelmsford Street, Kensington, only ten or fifteen minutes walk from my house. A paulownia tree was referred to in a haiku by Ransetsu in my post on Japanese Death Poems.

Here is a slightly different translation of the same haiku from The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers:

A leaf falls;

Totsu! a leaf falls,

on the wind.

Ransetsu (trans. William J. Higginson)

Bowers offers the following explanations:

Just as “blossom,” when not modified, means cherry flower in haiku, “one leaf” is code for kiri. Kiri, a member of the figwort family, is the Pawlonia or Empress tree, named after the daughter of Tsar Paul I of Russia (1754 – 1801). A fast grower, it reaches a height of 20 feet in two seasons. The faintly perfumed wood is used in making clogs and clothes chests. The leaves drop throughout the year. They shrivel, turn yellow, and yield to gravity. Their falling symbolises loneliness and connotes the past. The large purple flowers in early autumn are deeply associated with haiku because the three prongs hold 5, 7, and 5 buds respectively. The blooms and their bracket of leaves form the crest of the Empress of Japan. Totsu is an exclamation supposedly uttered when a Zen student achieves enlightenment. The sound also imitates the dry crackle the pawlonia leaf makes as it scratches the ground on falling.

Paulownia is also mentioned more than once by R. H. Blyth, in his famous four volume work on haiku. Blyth seems to disagree with Bowers’ interpretation of the word “totsu”. When discussing the Rensetsu haiku in his first volume, Eastern Culture, Blyth writes: “Totsu is a Zen exclamation, expressive of grumbling, of anger”.

In volume three, Summer-Autumn, Blyth has this to say on the paulownia: “The flowers of the kiri or paulownia have something in them harmonious with what is old, low, spread out, peaceful, monotonous”. These haiku by Shiki are given as examples:

Flowers of the paulownia blooming;

Old mansions

Of the Capital.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

The low roof

Of the store-house;

Flowers of the paulownia.

Shiki (R. H. Blyth)

There are no old mansions in the area of Kensington around Chelmsford Street, but there are plenty old store-houses and factories (mostly being converted into residential apartments), and at the bottom of Chelmsford Street runs the Moonee Ponds Creek. The Moonee Ponds Creek … it sounds like an idyllic little waterway doesn’t it? And probably it was before the European settlement of Melbourne. Now, for most of its course it is a concrete drain; poisoned by the tannery that used to be at Debney’s Park and other heavy industry; and overshadowed not by ancient gum trees, but by the massive concrete towers of the the Citilink overpass.

Paulownia trees 
near the Moonee Ponds Creek –
no leaves left at all. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Haiku, Blyth R. H., The Hokuseido Press, 1949-52.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996.

Urban Forest Visual, http://melbourneurbanforestvisual.com.au


As the Melbourne COVID-19 lockdown drags goes on and on, I’ve been finding it less easy to follow my own advice about how to live a happy balanced life. Instead I’ve found myself: exercising little; drinking more than the Better Health Channel recommends; and staying awake long into the night “doomscrolling” (when you keep scrolling through all of your social media feeds looking for the most upsetting news about the latest catastrophe).

Days seem to blur into each one another.  Dietary choices becoming less interesting, less healthy, and at times … bizarre. 

A couple of nights ago, with only a handful of ingredients left in the house, we found ourselves sitting down to a cobbled together meal of takeaway BBQ chicken, steamed dim sims, and a lovely plate of the first new season’s asparagus blanched and dressed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. 

I drank two or three beers and fell asleep early while the rest of the family watched a movie. 

I woke, as the others were going to bed, and I took myself off to read on the couch in the lounge room. Soon enough I found myself browsing the Twitter feed of podcast host Cam Smith (@sexenheimer) who posts selected highlights from the most deranged Australian conspiracy theorists. Amusing highlights included:

  • A rough looking fellow, with a shaved head and a handlebar moustache, who claims to be an ex-professional wrestler and who was challenging Shane Patton, the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, to a bare knuckle fist fight in the middle of Federation Square, “one on one”. 
  • A rather dishevelled character, who is apparently the lead singer of a INXS tribute band, who when confronted by police at a protest against the Melbourne lockdown, leaped into Albert Park Lake to escape … only to find the lake was less than waist deep and so had to make his escape by wading. 
  • A man from Tasmania with scraggly facial hair, who had made himself a top-heavy Ned Kelly helmet out of corrugated iron. 
  • A woman in a headdress, who was claiming that she and the “other witches” she knows have work permits to allow them to pass through police checkpoints during the lockdown, and also that she has made a spell using her “womb blood” which will cause Daniel Andrews to resign (so far ineffective). 
  • And a very earnest young man, who was claiming that his father had attended the St Kilda Road police station and charged “the entire Victorian police force with criminal fraud and misprison of treason”.

Of course, not all of the conspiracy theorists were as benign or amusing as these examples, but still I read on, and on, late into the night …

I woke up suddenly, sometime in the early hours of the morning, befuddled, anxious, uncomfortable from sleeping on the couch, and needing to pee. This presented something of a dilemma to my fuddled brain: 

Should I try to sneak into the ensuite without waking my wife? No, I’d inevitably wake her and then she wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep. Then in the morning I’d take her a cup of coffee and say, “how are you”, and she would reply, “tired”. After a meaningful pause she might add, “I didn’t get much sleep”. Best avoid the ensuite.

The other option was to use the main bathroom, but the problem with the main bathroom is that this is where the puppy sleeps. If I woke the puppy he’d be full of energy and want to play, and honestly, that was the last thing that I felt like I could cope with.

One other possibility suggested itself … I remember when my brothers and I were kids that Mum would say that it was OK for us to go outside and pee on the lemon tree (is uric acid good for lemon trees?), but some things that were acceptable when you were seven are not so acceptable when you are in your forties, and trying to maintain a last few shreds of dignity.

     Peeing in the garden
I recall
Asparagus for dinner.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Better Health Channel, https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/alcohol

Urban Dictionary, https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=doomscrolling

Hold My Beer!

“Famous last words” is a favourite topic for internet posts, and a quick search reveals dozens . . . hundreds . . . maybe hundreds of thousands of pages devoted to things people say shortly before they die.

Some are noble-sounding utterances ascribed to famous persons, probably intended to inspire us with their wisdom and virtue. 

Others are more akin to the Urban Dictionary definition of famous last words: “things said by a person about to unwittingly cause his own death”. Phrases like: “don’t worry, it isn’t loaded”, “I’ve done this heaps of times before, it’s completely safe”, or maybe, “hey, hold my beer”.

Note: caution is advised if you’re thinking of checking my references on the Urban Dictionary website, and you’re easily offended, because about 99% of the phrases defined there are utterly improbable obscenities (most of them read like they’ve were invented by 14 year olds for the sole purpose of listing them on Urban Dictionary). 

Haiku poetry has its own version of famous last words called jisei or “death poems”, and many wonderful examples of these are compiled by Yoel Hoffmann in his book Japanese Death Poems

Some haiku poets are said to have composed these jisei in their last day or so of life, or even in their last few moments. Others apparently prepared their jisei ahead of time, just in case they died suddenly.

Nights grow short:

a dream of fifty years

breaks off before it ends.


One thing I like about Hoffmann’s book is that many of the poems are presented with a brief passage of prose that gives some biographical details of the poet who wrote the haiku. The result is that many of sections of the book read a little like haibun (haibun, are haiku that are presented with a short section of prose, intended to be read together as a unit). Here’s an example:

One leaf lets go, and

then another takes

the wind. 


Hito-ha chiru

totsu hito-ha chiru

kaze no ue

Ransetsu was a pupil of Basho’s. Basho praised Ransetsu’s poetry, but the poet Kyoriku said it was “anaemic”, and compared it to someone “who invites guests to a feast and serves no more than a menu”.

Old sources say that Ransetsu’s first wife was a bathing-house prostitute. She died after giving birth to a son, where-upon Ransetsu took a geisha as his wife. The couple became converts to Zen Buddhism. It is further stated that during a certain period, Ransetsu lived in the poet Kikaku’s house, and that “he had not even a mat to lie on”.

The word totsu is an exclamation that is made by Zen monks when they achieve enlightenment.

This haiku of falling leaves by Ransetsu is one I recognised from other haiku collections. Another haiku that I recognised was this one by Basho:

On a journey, ill:

my dream goes wandering

over withered fields. 


This is the last poem of one of the greatest haiku poets. Basho had fallen seriously ill on one of his travels. When his pupils hinted that he ought to leave a farewell poem, he replied that any of his poems could be his death poem. Nevertheless, on the eighth day of the tenth month, after gathering his pupils around his bead, he wrote this poem. He died four days later.

Some of the poems in Hoffmann’s collection seem mystical, but many of those I like the most are whimsical, or gently humorous, such as these:

Swear to me, pine,

for many years

to keep on young and green.


I cast the brush aside –

from here on I’ll speak to the moon

face to face.


Give my dream back,

raven! The moon you woke me to

is misted over.


What a lark!

Swinging my arms I set off:

a winter rainstorm.


I borrow moonlight

for this journey of a

million miles.


Whimsical, and gently humorous . . . such a different sensibility to our wise and virtuous quotes on one hand, and the coarse black humour of Urban Dictionary on the other.

Let me end with a shout out to the poet Senkei who died in 1775, who chose a plant close to my heart, the cactus or prickly-pear, as the topic for his jisei.

Somehow or other

even the cactus shows

the fall. 

Haōju no

nantomonashi ni

aki kurenu.

Haōju , “king of plants,” is the name for the prickly-pear cactus. This plant is not common in Japan, and it is not much mentioned in haiku poetry. The cactus is a robust plant which does not change with the seasons as much as other plants.

Post script: as I was completing this post my daughter, Ida, came into the room. I told her what I was writing, and here is what she replied in the form of a haiku:

A funny idea - 
staying alive to write
just three more lines. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Japanese Death Poems, Yoel Hoffmann, Tuttle Publishing, 1986.

Urban Dictionary, urbandictionary.com


The daffodil is recognised internationally as the symbol of hope for all people affected by cancer. Cancer Council chose it as our emblem as the bright yellow colouring heralds the return of spring, representing new life and growth.

To Cancer Council, and those affected by cancer, the daffodil represents hope for a cancer free future.


Cancer has been in my thoughts a lot since my cousin, Dave Sheehan, died of lung cancer earlier this year (it is always in my thoughts to some extent because I work as a cancer nurse), and it is probably because of Dave’s death that the titles of a number of poems by Philip Hodgins caught my eye when I was browsing the Australian Poetry Library recently:

Room 1 Ward 10 West 12/11/83

Room 3 Ward 10 West 17/11/83

Room 1 Ward 10 West 23/11/83

Cytotoxic Rigor

Here, if you can bear it, is the one of Hodgins poems that really got to me:

Leaving Hospital

There was no joy in leaving. Nothing was resolved.

Blood and bone were shot and death had shown

a way with words beyond the usual sophistry.

Wounded by prognosis I had brought people together

and encouraged conversation. It didn’t help.

The right debates were held alone each night

After the chatter of the last drug trolley down

the polished corridor. It was impossible to match

death’s vocabulary. I gave up and got ready to go.

No amount of speachmaking could reassemble

those disparate friends or justify all that fuss.

On the steps I felt the hospital’s immensity

behind me. I thought of how this blood, this

volition would bring me back here to die

in stages of bitterness and regret. I turned around.

The doors are open.

Philip Hodgins

Very grim. 

“ . . . the hospital’s immensity behind me.”

Blunt, three or four word sentences, as brief as lines from a haiku, but with no images from life in them: no birds; no sun or rain; no daffodils.

The abrupt change of tense at the end. 

The Australian Poetry Library says that Hodgins was born in Katandra West, near Shepparton, in January 1959, and died in Maryborough, in August 1995, of chronic myeloid leukaemia. Among his poems there are some about farming; and few about AFL football; and quite a lot, like those mentioned above, that are based on his experiences with cancer . . .

. . . but, those of us with kids can’t allow ourselves to wallow in such thoughts too long. It was the first day of spring. The sun was out. I tied a green hanky across my nose and mouth (COVID restrictions) and set off to supervise my 10 year old son Wes, and his best friend Beth, as they walked to Footscray Park and back for exercise.

Footpaths, and front gardens, bike-paths, the banks of the Maribynong, and Footscray Park were full of people enjoying the sunshine and fresh air.

Neatly mown lawn -
push through. 🌵

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


About Daffodil Day, daffodilday.com.au

Australian Poetry Library, https://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/hodgins-philip

Eynesbury: Grey Box Forest

What is a box tree? Good question. Until recently I had no idea.

About half-an-hour’s drive west of Melbourne there is a small area of remanent grey box (Eucalyptus microcarpa) forest at a place called Eynesbury. 

In mid-May, a couple of weeks before the start of winter here in Victoria, my brother Theo and I, and our kids, drove to Eynesbury to explore (the lockdown for the first wave of COVID-19 had just been relaxed, and the second wave had not yet started). We parked our cars, scoffed down the bacon sandwiches we had packed, and headed off along a path into the scrub. 

To my untrained eye the grey box trees looked just like normal gums: tall, with pale grey-brown leaning trunks, twisting branches, and scraggly clumps of dull green leaves.

About five or ten minutes into our walk we came across a surprise: a baby snake. This was the first time I’ve every seen a baby snake and the first time I can remember seeing a snake of any kind this close to winter. It was, I reckon, about a foot long, maybe a little bit more; its head was dark, almost black; its body was light brown, almost translucent. It moved quickly, whipping and curving itself across the gravel, twigs, and fallen leaves by the side of the path.   

A short way further on I found a twisted, pale grey piece of branch to use as a walking stick.

     Kids, look here
a baby snake! And here's
a good stick. 🌵

“I wonder why box trees are called box trees?”, I said as we walked along, not really expecting an answer. 

“Probably because the early settlers used them for making boxes,” Theo deadpanned. 

It turns out this was not the silliest suggestion: Australian box trees were probably named for their similarity to European box trees (such as Buxus sempervirens) and European box trees do have very dense wood that is used by cabinet makers, wood turners, and in the making of musical instruments. The words “box” for a wooden container, and “box” for a kind of tree, both trace back to the same Greek source word (via Latin). So, box trees being called box trees because they are “those trees that are really good to make boxes out of” is not that much of a stretch.

I’ve always wanted to know how to identify different kinds of gum trees and other eucalypts, and despite a bit of research over the years I’m still not much good at it. This much as I have worked out (with the help of EUCLID, a database of Australian Eucalypts): gum trees have (mostly) thin, smooth bark; box trees are usually covered in fibrous, mat-like bark; and iron barks have hard, brittle, deeply-furrowed bark that is impregnated with resin.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


EUCLID, Eucalypts of Australia, https://apps.lucidcentral.org/euclid/text/entities/eucalyptus_microcarpa.htm

Shorter Oxford Dictionary (5th Ed.), Oxford University Press, 2002. 

A Cage of Fireflies

It is early August 2020 in the Inner Western Suburbs of Narrm (Melbourne): days are getting warmer; in Coronet Street, Flemington, quite close to where I live, the plum trees have set pink blossoms a month before the (official) start of Spring; and the lockdown for the second wave of COVID-19 drags on, and on, with no end in sight. 

In between the working-from-home, and home-schooling the kids, and a few desultory efforts at “self-care”, I found time to pick up one of my favourite books of haiku: Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku by Lucien Stryk.

Frozen together

in one dream – 


Seisi (trans. Stryk)

There are lots of books available in English of the so called “big four” of Japanese haiku (Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki), but even books that give English readers access to a wider range of Japanese haiku writers usually end their selections with Shiki who died in 1902. Cage of Fireflies starts with Shiki, so it is one of the very few books available that give English readers an insight into Japanese haiku written in the twentieth century.

Some of the haiku in Cage of Fireflies bring what feels like a recognisable, traditional, haiku sensibility to modern objects like motorbikes, and train-tracks, and pianos:

Bird song – 

a thin dust

on the piano.

Hajime (trans. Stryk)

Others seem stranger, maybe more experimental, almost surreal:

My hair’s falling fast – 

this afternoon

I’m off to Asia Minor. 

Shinkichi (trans. Stryk)

Of course, we may be missing something in translation here, but I find Shinkichi’s haiku as translated by Stryk evocative, nonetheless. 

It could be that lockdown, and day after day of gloomy news, is starting to get to me, because the haiku that stood out to me, on this reading through of Cage of Fireflies, were the ones which seemed to touch on loneliness, futility, ill-health, and death:  

My voice

blown back to me

on autumn wind.

Meisetsu (trans. Stryk)

Cricket chirp – 


my life is clear.

Hakuu (trans. Stryk)

Death at last – 

little by little

fading of medicine odors.

Dakotsu (trans. Stryk)

Into the cage of

fireflies, mostly dead,

I send a breath.

Kasho (trans. Stryk)

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Swallow Press, 1993.

Going With the Flow (Not)

It’s interesting when you find examples of English language poetry, and haiku translated into English from the Japanese, that seem to share a theme. Here is an example I came across recently:

Bloom, O ye amaranths ! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not ! Glide, rich streams, away !

With lips unbrighten’d, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live. 

From Work without Hope, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

And the haiku:

I stopped –

The stream

Flowed off alone

Seishi (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Both poets are left behind as streams, and whatever the streams represent to them, flow away. While the themes of the verses are similar, the contrast between the Coleridge’s flowery couplets, and the extreme plainness of the haiku, could hardly be more pronounced. Seishi’s haiku leaves most of the story and almost all of the meaning to the reader’s imagination.

A personal aside: about 12 years ago, when suffering from anxiety, my GP referred me to see a psychologist. The psychologist had me do the following exercise:

Close your eyes and imagine a gentle stream flowing past in front of you. Leaves fall into the stream and float away downstream. Each time you think about one of your problems, imagine placing the problem on one of the leaves, and allow it to be carried away by the stream.

So, for Coleridge the stream seems to carry away hope and inspiration; for my psychologist it was intended to carry away my thoughts and stress; and for Seishi? Seishi leaves you, the reader, to decide what, if anything, is carried away by the stream and how that makes you feel.

Seishi seems to have been quite fond of the theme of water flowing away from stationary things. Here is another of his haiku from the same collection:

Dangling in

summer river

red iron chain.

Seishi (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Somehow, reading this handful of words I seem to feel languid, and indolent, and trapped and completely hopeless, all at the same time.

Recently I looked up my psychologist on the internet to see if he was still practicing and found that he had been banned from offering any health services while under investigation by the Health Complaints Commissioner. The newspaper article I found about his case said he had prior convictions for domestic violence and was accused of breaching an intervention order against his ex-wife. It also said that he had been drinking vodka out of a lemonade bottle during his court case and when breathalysed by the police was found to have a blood alcohol content of over 0.4 (the maximum reading that the device could measure).  

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


The Oxford Book of English Verse, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch ed., Oxford University Press.

Cage of Fireflies, Modern Japanese Haiku, trans. Lucien Stryk, Swallow Press.

Dave Sheehan (31-Dec-1970 – 19-Apr-2020)

My cousin Dave died while Australia was in lockdown due to COVID-19. Only ten people were allowed to go to the funeral. Here are a few words I put together about Dave. 

“Oh, wow … you’re Dave Sheehan’s cousin … !” Those are words I’ve heard a fair few times in my life. 

Dave was a couple of years older than me and he was a big part of my life growing up. Dave, and his younger brother Amos, and their mum Marnie, were a big part of the lives of my family, my brothers, Theo and Austin, and our mum and dad, Sheila and Russell. 

Dave was a partner and father, a blues guitar player, a cricketer, and an accomplished student of ancient history. I’ve been reading some of the things that have been posted about Dave on-line on social media over the past few days. The words humble, gentle, and talented come up again and again. Dave was all these things and a lot of other things too. 

He was also tough, enthusiastic and wholehearted (maybe more wholehearted than anyone else I think I’ve known), curious, fearless, challenging, and he had an incredibly mischievous sense of humour. I’d like to tell you a few stories that remind me of these qualities. 

We spent a lot of holiday time together though our childhoods and teenage years: sleepovers, camping holidays, trips to the boxing day test match, and cricket matches played between ourselves that would literally last for days on end.

When Dave was interested in something he would be “into it” to a degree that I don’t think I’ve known in anyone else, be it cricket, music, history. He could be absolutely unrelenting and though his persistence and enthusiasm would become an absolute master in the skills and topics he was interested in. Anyone who knows my dad Russell will tell you that Russ knows a phenomenal amount about cricket, and I’ve known quite a few people to be a bit intimidated when Russ is talking cricket, but not Dave. I remember Dave at age ten or 12 coming with us to the Boxing day test and going toe-to-toe with Russ all day on all sorts of obscure points of cricket history and tactics. I was in awe of Dave’s knowledge, and his confidence.

As a junior cricketer Dave was a truely terrifying fast bowler and an incredibly tough competitor. He would just never take it easy on you. You might bowl at him for a couple of hours, and then when you finally got him out it might only take him two or three balls to get you out. Then you’d have to bowl at him again for most of the rest of the afternoon. At the time I can remember thinking of him as a bit of a tyrant. But I grew in time to admire this quality of his, and it was from Dave that I learned to fight, with every ounce of myself, for the things I want, and not to expect things to be handed to me.

Dave also approached his cricket, and everything else we did together, with humour and imagination. It wouldn’t just be Dave versus Clem in a game of cricket. It might be be Australia versus Pakistan, and you would have to get the other person out ten times before you could have a bat. The games might go on all day, or more than a day. And somehow Dave would be able to imitate the distinctive batting and bowling styles of all the Australian, and Pakistan (and English, and West Indian) cricketers. 

I have lots of non-cricketing memories of Dave as well. 

I remember visiting Uncle Pete, and Marnie, and Dave in Toolangi (I think Amos and Theo might have been little babies then). Dave had a box of treasure in the bedroom, and in it was the most amazing and exciting thing I’d ever seen: the skin of a snake. Dave told me a terrifying story about the snake coming out of the woodpile and Pete killing it. In my mind I can still see the way Dave would smile as he started to tell you about something unbelievable or horrifying. 

Another memory is Dave and Amos coming on a holiday with us to a caravan park in Somers. There was a deep rock-pool at the beach and in it Dave and I found a smallish cream-coloured octopus swimming. Somehow Dave knew what it was: a blue ringed octopus. Dave said that the Commonwealth Serum Laboratory needed blue ringed octopus because they were working on developing a anti-venom, and they would pay some extraordinary amount of money to anyone who could catch a blue ring, and bring it to them alive. So, Dave got a plastic beach bucket, the kind kids have to build sand castles, and started working out how to catch it. I can remember being completely terrified, and trying to get him to drop the idea, but Dave was utterly fearless. Our first efforts to scoop up the octopus were unsuccessful, but they seemed to make the octopus angry, because it started to glow with its electric blue rings, and swim faster, and faster, around the rock pool. The octopus glowing, and swimming around and around in the rock pool is the last thing I can remember about that day, but Mum and Dad tell me that the octopus was eventually caught in the bucket, and taken to the serum laboratory, who declined to buy it saying that they preferred to catch their own.

Dave and Amos came with us on trips down to Wilson’s Prom. I remember Theo and Amos going to films at the open air cinema, and then driving Dave and I crazy by quoting lines from some film that Dave and I hadn’t seen (it might have been Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). It was on these trips to the Prom that I first remember Dave’s dedication to learning to play the guitar. There were always lots of good things to do at The Prom but whatever the rest of us were up to: going for a swim, having mud fights in Tidal River, playing beach cricket, Dave would take himself off by himself for two hours each day to practice the guitar. I can remember looking at his fingers with the skin on the tips worn through.

So many other stories: going on a trip to Werribee Mansion and hunting for mushrooms;  sneaking into the cattle-yards near our house in Kensington to explore them; playing cricket in the park near Marnie’s house in Bastings Street Northcote every Christmas afternoon. 

I remember when I was in year seven, and I think Dave was in year eight, we were catching a bus together home from school and there was a group of middle-aged women who would always sort of push all of the kids out of the way so they could get on the bus first. I can remember Dave standing on the steps of a bus and proceeding to give these women a lecture about feminism. The shear outrageousness and audacity of Dave. I was in awe of him.

As and adult I remember going to see Dave play guitar at the Evelyn Hotel. All of Dave’s music friends seemed impossibly cool to me at the time. I was probably dressed in tracksuit pants and a red Japara rain coat. But after the gig Dave introduced me to his friends and took me back to an after party at a house he was staying at and included me in all their conversations. 

When I saw Dave a few weeks ago at Peter Mac he did not look much like his normal self. We talked a bit about his treatment, and how he was feeling, but the conversation kept on slipping into cricketing matters: things he’d only recently got the hang of about how to play off spin bowlers; anecdotes about games he’d played recently with his team. And when he smiled as he talked about cricket he looked exactly like himself.

Dave, I’m going to try my best to live up to your example: tough but full of good humour; full of enthusiasm, and humble, and friendly. 

Dave, dear boy, I’m going to miss you. I love you Dave.

The Drunken Master

The Haiku of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940)

Rules, rules, rules.

Of all the forms of poetry in the world are there any with more rules than haiku?

  • exactly 17 syllables!
  • include a season word (a kigo)!
  • no metaphors!
  • remove all unnecessary words!
  • no rhymes!
  • describe a single moment, in the present tense!
  • etc. etc. etc. 

Maybe this is why I love haiku so much? Because it has so many rules to break? Of course different authorities on haiku have different ideas of what the essential rules of haiku are, and many of the rules which you read seem to contradict rules that you have read elsewhere: “exactly 17 syllables”, “remove all unnecessary words”.

So what would happen if a haiku poet threw out, pretty much, all the rules? We know one possible result from the life and work of Taneda Santōka (1882 – 1940).

The short biographies I have read of Santōka tell of: an unhappy childhood with his mother committing suicide when he was ten years old; failed careers and a failed marriage; alcoholism; a suicide attempt of his own in his forties; and spending most of the the rest of his life homeless as a wandering beggar.

Like his life, his haiku were unconventional:

Wet with morning dew,

I go in the direction I want.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

He had little regard for the normal 17 sound symbol pattern of traditional Japanese haiku. One of the translations of Santōka that I own, For All My Walking translated by Burton Watson, refers to his haiku as “free-verse haiku”:


and fell down

mountains are silent.

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Both the translations of Santōka that I own (the other is Mountain Tasting translated by John Stevens) often render his haiku in two lines, as opposed to three, or in three lines of very uneven length, giving a feel for Santōka’s unconventionality: 

The few flies that remain

Seem to remember me.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

There are differences between the way the two books render Santōka’s haiku. It feels like Stevens tends to give the words “as written” leaving the reader a little more work to do in finding the meaning:

From the back,

Walking away soaking wet?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Where as Watson maybe adds a little more interpretation into his translation to help the reader. Watson renders the same haiku from Santōka as:

how must I look

from behind

going off in the drizzling rain

Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

Many of Santōka’s haiku are child-like, almost comical, in their simplicity:

The rain from that cloud

Made me wet.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

The mundane details of everyday existence, including the scatalogical, have long been considered acceptable topics for haiku, but it is hard to imagine any of the other famous haiku writers being quite as blunt as this:

Making my way through the fallen leaves,

I have a good shit in the fields.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

And this, decades before Piero Manzoni or Gilbert and George. Well played Santōka, well played.

Some of Santōka’s haiku could be seen as quite political, taking up anti-war themes:

The moon’s brightness –

     Does it know

Where the bombing will be?

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Other are almost cynical:

nice road

going to a nice building


Santōka (trans. Burton Watson)

The short biographies I have read of Santōka do not gloss over his heavy drinking and many of his haiku deal with drinking in one way or another. This one I particularly like: 

Slightly tipsy;

     The leaves fall

One by one.

Santōka (trans. John Stevens)

Well, I like a teacup full of saki myself, from time to time. 

Now, everybody knows that there are four famous haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki … but every time I try to count them up  …  every time I try to count them up (maybe I am tipsy?) it always comes to five.  

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


For All My Walking, Free-Verse Haiku of Taneda Santōka, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 2003.

Mountain Tasting, Zen Haiku by Santōka Taneda, John Stevens (Trans.), John Weatherhill Inc., 1980.

Cassie, Sandy, Sandra

I’ve heard it said that Naarm (Melbourne) is the third largest Greek city in the world, and the largest outside Greece.

Maybe that’s true – I don’t think that there is a standard, accepted, measure of Greek-ness when it comes to cities – but many Australian’s do seem to have inherited a Greco-Trojan contempt for prophets and truth-tellers (Cassandra was the Trojan prophetess, doomed to always tell the truth but never be believed).

The past few months of drought, followed by catastrophic bushfires, followed by floods, have brought to my mind a poem my father used to quote from time to time. Here it is in full:

“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan
In accents most forlorn
Outside the church ere Mass began
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock and crops and drought
As it had done for years.

“It’s lookin’ crook,” said Daniel Croke;
“Bedad, it’s cruke, me lad
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad.”

“It’s dry, all right,” said young O’Neil
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

And so around the chorus ran
“It’s keepin’ dry, no doubt.”
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.

“The crops are done; ye’ll have your work
To save one bag of grain;
From here way out to Back-o’-Bourke
They’re singin’ out for rain.

“They’re singin’ out for rain,” he said,
“And all the tanks are dry.”
The congregation scratched its head,
And gazed around the sky.

“There won’t be grass, in any case,
Enough to feed an ass;
There’s not a blade on Casey’s place
As I came down to Mass.”

“If rain don’t come this month,” said Dan,
And cleared his throat to speak –
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If rain don’t come this week.”

A heavy silence seemed to steal
On all at this remark;
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“We want an inch of rain, we do,”
O’Neil observed at last;
But Croke “maintained” we wanted two
To put the danger past.

“If we don’t get three inches, man,
Or four to break this drought,
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

In God’s good time down came the rain;
And all the afternoon
On iron roof and window-pane
It drummed a homely tune.

And through the night it pattered still,
And lightsome, gladsome elves
On dripping spout and window-sill
Kept talking to themselves.

It pelted, pelted all day long,
A-singing at its work,
Till every heart took up the song
Way out to Back-o’-Bourke.

And every creek a banker ran,
And dams filled overtop;
“We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“If this rain doesn’t stop.”

And stop it did, in God’s good time:
And spring came in the fold
A mantle o’re the hills sublime
Of green and pink and gold.

And days went by on dancing feet,
With harvest-hopes immense,
And laughing eyes behold the wheat
Nod-Nodding o’er the fence.

And, oh, the smiles on every face,
As happy lad and lass
Throught grass knee-deep on Casey’s place
Went riding down to Mass.

While round the church in clothes genteel
Discoursed the men of mark,
And each man squatted on his heel,
And chewed a piece of bark.

“There’ll be bush fires for sure, me man,
There will, without a doubt;
We’ll all be rooned,” said Hanrahan,
“Before the year is out.”

John O’Brien (P. J. Hartigan)

According to Australian Poetry Since 1788 P. J. Hartigan was a Catholic priest who, as well as writing the above poem, was said to have delivered the last rites to a man called Jack Riley, who was said to have been the inspiration for Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowey River.

The poem’s joke seems somewhat less funny in this age of “climate denialism”. Hanrahan’s predictions come true all around us – but prophets and truth-tellers still get short shrift.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Australian Poetry Since 1788, Geoffrey Lehmann & Robert Gray (Eds.), University of New South Wales Press, 2011.

Masaoka Shiki

Matsuō Bashō? What a hack.

… said, pretty much no-one, ever. In fact, Masaoka Shiki (1967 -1902) is the only person I can think of, who is known for having criticised Bashō’s haiku.

Maybe this is one of the reasons I’m keen on Shiki? It’s not that I’m anti-Bashō (I’m not!) but I do have a pretty strong anti-authoritarian streak in me and I’ve always been interested in writers and thinkers who go against the consensus.

Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems translated by Burton Watson is a beautiful book containing 144 of Shiki’s haiku translated into plain, economical English.

Slipping out

the back way,

cooling off by the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Cool summer darkness –

laughing voices

on the far side of the river

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

I don’t think there’s a single word in all of the translations that feels unnecessary, or a single phrase that draws undue attention to itself.

For me, who go,

for you who stay behind –

two autumns

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Another reason that Shiki is interesting is that he was writing at a time when there was a large amount of cross-pollination between Western culture and the art and poetry of Japan. In the introduction to Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems Watson writes:

Borrowing from the vocabulary of Western painting, he (Shiki) adopted the term shasei, or “sketch from life,” to describe the technique that underlies much of his own poetry and prose. The writer was to carry out minute observation of the scenes around him and to compose works based on what he saw there, conjuring up the mood or emotional tenor he desired through apt manipulation of the images found in real life.

Lonely sound –

simmering in the firepit,

wood chips with snow on them

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

From the rear window

in the falling snow

a woman’s face looks out

Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Shiki was diagnosed with tuberculosis at a very young age and spent the last few years of his short life bedridden. In life, Shiki was said to be irascible, at least once his illness really took hold, but his haiku are a model of restraint and objectivity.

Through the glass door

the winter sun shines in –


Shiki (Trans. Burton Watson)

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Masaoka Shiki – Selected Poems, Burton Watson (Trans.), Columbia University Press, 1997.

The Heap

The Settlement. Bearbrass. Bareport. Bareheap. Dutigalla. Glenelg. Narrm.

Recently I’ve been noticing that a lot of people on Twitter, who live in Melbourne, have been listing their location as “Naarm” or “Naarm / Melbourne”. Intrigued, I borrowed the Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria from the Flemington Library, and the words listed above are a few of the alternate names (indigenous and colonial) for Melbourne.

The dictionary spells the word as “Narrm” with a double “r” rather than “Naarm” with a double “a” but it is not unusual to find alternate spellings for Aboriginal words and names as Aboriginal languages in Victoria had sounds not used in English which made them difficult for English speakers to transcribe. In the future I’d love to see “Naarm” not just on Twitter but on our street signs, maps and government websites as well as, or in place of, “Melbourne”.

The Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria also includes entries for “Barebeerip”, “Bareberp” and “Bikjomangy” but these terms may have referred to the area of Batman’s Hill in specific rather than the area where the Melbourne city centre is. “Naloke” is recorded as referring to “parliament” and “Bourke and Spring Streets”. A Narloke Train Station on the city loop, anyone?

One other item on the list of alternate Melbourne names caught my eye – “Dutigalla”. The Flemington Library is just a few doors from the Doutta Galla Hotel in Racecourse Road, Newmarket. I think most residents of Kensington and Flemington assume that “Doutta Galla” is an Aboriginal term without ever knowing specifically what it means. I scouted the internet for a bit more information on the history of the term “Dutigalla” or “Doutta Galla” and found the following information on the website of the Doutta Galla Lion’s Club in Essendon:

The Parish of Doutta Galla … was reportedly named after the wife of Jika Jika, who was John Batman’s native servant. Jika Jika parish was on the east bank of the Moonee Ponds Creek and Doutta Galla on the west bank.  This is recorded in the March 1837 field book of surveyor Robert Hoddle.

Another source says that the name Doutta Galla (or Dutigalla) was the name of the tribe of aborigines on the original Batman treaty deed, signed on the banks of the Merri Creek, at Northcote. (“The Stop-Over That Stayed A History of Essendon” by Grant Aldous) 

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club

There was a link on the Lion’s Club website to a 1892 Map of the Parish of Doutta Galla which shows the Parish of Doutta Galla covering all of the land between the Moonee Ponds Creek and the Maribynong River, from Kensington and Flemington, though Essendon and out as far as Keilor and Broadmeadows.

And “Jika Jika”? I remember the name Jika Jika terrifying me when I was a child because it was the name given to the infamous maximum security unit at Pentridge Prison.

According to the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages (VACL) Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria is available to order, but the order form on their website is currently disabled.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Dictionary of Aboriginal Placenames of Victoria, Ian D. Clark & Tony Heydon, Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages, 2002.

The forgotten Aboriginal names for 10 of Melbourne’s suburbs, Jason Gibson, Helen Gardner and Stephen Morey, The Conversation, 10-Jul-2018.

History of Doutta Galla, Doutta Galla Lion’s Club, https://douttagalla.vic.lions.org.au/History-of-Doutta-Galla

Parish of Doutta Galla, Victoria Shire Map Company, 1892, National Library of Australia call number MAP RM 2741/90, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-232022724/view

Such is Life

Another day, another exhibition.

This week we drove up the Calder Highway to land of the Dja Dja Wurrung. The town of Castlemaine, an hour and a half’s drive north west of Melbourne, always brings the folk song The Wild Colonial Boy into my mind:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Doolan was his name

Of poor but honest parents he was born in Castlemaine


He comes to a very sticky end. When I was young my parents used to sing folk songs like this on long car drives. I must have been a very tender-hearted child – I used to forbid my parents from singing The Wild Colonial Boy because it upset me so much (history repeats, my children forbid me from playing Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens, because I once made the mistake of explaining to them what the song Fourth of July was about).

I guess the Castlemaine referred to in the song was probably intended to be Castlemaine in County Kerry in Ireland, but in my mind and in the mind of most Australians he was born in Castlemaine, Victoria. The Wild Colonial Boy may have been originally based on a historical figure but it has undergone so many revisions over the years that it is now more mythic than historic.

Castlemaine in Victoria is a very beautiful gold-rush era town, with large beautiful churches, town hall and post office. The art gallery is art deco and also very impressive for a town of this size. We had gone to the Castlemaine Art Museum to see the exhibition Janina Green in conversation with the collection. Her hand-coloured photographs hold significant interest for those interested in haiku and related art forms.

First, there are her photographs of domestic interiors named after the Melbourne suburbs where the photos were taken. These recall haiku in their interest in specific localities and their focus on the seemingly mundane details of everyday life. Also in common with haiku each of these pictures seems to give a fragment of a larger story and leaves the viewer (or reader in the case of haiku) to fill in the rest of the story. We are drawn into the artwork and become active participants rather than passive viewers.

Another picture by Janina Green that caught my eye was the photo titled Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988 which is shown on the exhibition page of the gallery website. An ornate teal lamp-base with a beige lamp-shade is contrasted against a spray of yellow wattle in a vase. This contrast, of an artefact made by human hands, with the beauty of nature, recalls many famous haiku. The light catches just a few of the florets of the wattle making them shine.

One other work on display at the Castlemaine Gallery Art Gallery, not part of the Janina Green exhibition, stood out to me. Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) by Robert Hague. Whereas in haiku symbols often work best when they are subtle, when they feel like they evoke a half-remembered associations, the symbols in Cook’s Landing (after Macleod) are “writ large”. The work is a blue-printed china plate. The central image shows Ned Kelly anachronistically shooting at Captain Cook’s long boat, approaching the shore to make first landfall in Australia. The plate has been broken into pieces and then repaired in the Japanese Kintsugi style with golden fault lines. The plate with its clashing symbols and styles is a fair analogy for modern-day Australia, formed of disparate influences, and in the grip of the so called “history wars”.

And as for people who will try to tell you that Ned Kelly’s last words weren’t “such is life“, what can we say? Maybe just that they place too much emphasis on historic detail, and have not enough appreciation of the mythic.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


Janina Green in conversation with the collection, Castlemaine Art Gallery, 2019-20.

Paper says Ned Kelly’s final words were not Such is Life, Alison Jess, ABC Goulburn Murray, 17 November, 2014.

Still Life series (Klytie Pate), 1988, Janina Green, hand-coloured photograph.

Cook’s Landing (after Maccleod), Robert Hague, 2019, porcelain, gold, brass staples, copper hanger.

On Love and Barley – Haiku of Bashō

Just a few weeks after I’d bought my first book of haiku translated by Lucien Stryk, his obituary appeared in The Age.

No … wait … that can’t be right … the internet tells me that Stryk died in January 2013 and I didn’t pay any attention to haiku until the last few weeks of 2014 …

… well, anyway, let’s not let facts stand in the way of my story. I bought a book of Stryk’s translations, and loved them, and then almost immediately read that he had died, and I was thwarted in my intention to write him a fan letter.

It is certainly true I felt an instant affinity with the way Stryk translates haiku. In On Love and Barley Stryk translates the haiku of Matsuo Bashō, the best known of all Japanese haiku poets. No one else that I am aware of makes haiku translations as terse as Stryk does – sometimes he only uses five or six words to render a whole haiku:

Where cuckoo

vanishes –

an island.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

This brevity is in keeping with my own feelings of what works best when writing a haiku in English – using simple language and omitting any words that seem unnecessary.

In his introduction Stryk explains some key terms related to haiku such as wabi and sabi. These terms are difficult to translate and different translators give somewhat different explanations of them. Stryk was a noted scholar of Zen Buddhism and he gives quite ‘zen’ interpretations of these terms. With sabi Stryk puts the emphasis on solitariness and detachment.

Not one traveller

braves this road –

autumn night.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Wabi Stryk explains as an appreciation of the commonplace.

Search carefully –

In the hedge,

A shepherd’s purse.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Note: Shepherd’s purse is small weed.

As the introduction goes on Stryk starts to dive very deep into zen theory and I must confess I lost the thread of what he was talking about. Still, this does nothing to detract from the key strength of On Love and Barley – Stryk’s tough, economical translations:

Darkening waves –

cry of wild ducks,

faintly white.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There is one other curious aspect to On Love and Barley. The shepherd’s purse haiku quoted above is listed in the book as haiku 48. When I got to haiku 72, I read:

When I bend low

enough, purseweed

beneath my fence.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

It is so similar that they could both be translations of the same haiku. Then I came across haiku 55:

Yellow rose petals

thunder –

a waterfall.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

And haiku 186:

Sound of rapids –

silent yellow petals

of the mountain rose.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

Now compare haiku 61:

Faceless – bones

scattered in the field,

wind cuts my flesh.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

With haiku 202:

A weathered

skeleton –

how cold the wind.

Bashō (trans. Lucien Stryk)

There are other examples. Was Stryk inserting a little test into his book to see how carefully it was being read? Or could he not make up his mind which of his own translations he preferred?

Now its too late to write and ask.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


On Love and Barley, Lucien Stryk (Trans.), Penguin Books, 1985.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku


The Classic Tradition of Haiku edited by Faubion Bowers is the cheapest and most widely available haiku book that is currently in print. It was the first book of haiku I ever owned and when I first read it I had no idea what to make of it.  

The Classic Tradition of Haiku is unique among the books of Japanese haiku translated into English that I own because the haiku are not translated by a single translator in a consistent style. Instead The Classic Tradition of Haiku gives us the work of 42 different translators, in a range of different styles. Anyone buying this book and expecting to read haiku in the standard three lines of 5-7-5 syllables is in for a shock …

Some haiku are rendered in three lines without concern for the number of syllables in each line:

A fallen blossom

returning to the bough, I though – 

But no, a butterfly. 

Moritake (trans. Steven D. Carter)

Others as a couplet:

“Oh my thinness is caused by the summer heat”

I answered and burst into tears. 

Kigin (trans. Asatarō Miyamori)

Some with staggered indentation (note WordPress does not currently render the indentation of this haiku – in the book it has the first line justified to the left margin, the second line indented by one “tab” and the third line indented by two “tabs” – I will amend this post when WordPress update their software):

On the plum tree

one blossom, one blossomworth

of warmth.

Ransetsu (trans. Harold Gould Henderson) 

Others with no indentation:

Saying nothing:

Guest and host

and white chrysanthemum

Ryōta (trans. Faubion Bowers)

Still other haiku are rendered in a single line:

Bush warbler: I rest my hands in the kitchen sink.          

Chigetsu (trans. Hiroaki Sato)

There are even a few older examples of haiku being turned into English rhyming verse, which … does not work well, to put it kindly.

The Classic Tradition of Haiku has extensive footnotes that explain much of the context and nuance of the haiku. It also gives the Japanese versions of the haiku so English readers can get some sense of what the haiku may sound like in the original. Someone new to haiku may find all of this overwhelming. But for a reader who is already familiar with haiku there is depth of detail here that make The Classic Tradition of Haiku worth returning to again and again. 

Few other books, and none that are as short as this one, present as many possible models for English language haiku.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


The Classic Tradition of Haiku, Bowers, F. (Ed.), Dover Publications, 1996. 

A Town That Doesn’t Exist

This week I visited the exhibition ‘Velvet, Iron, Ashes’ at the State Library of Victoria.

The ‘velvet’ part of the title refers to an extraordinary gown worn by Jesse Clarke at the Pageant of Nations to celebrate Victoria’s centenary in 1934. The silver head-dress is modelled on seven electricity pylons; the cloak is green with the waterways of the Murray-Darling Irrigation Scheme depicted in silver glitter; and the dress is hand painted showing several prominent Victorian buildings.

The ‘iron’ part of the title refers to Ned Kelly’s armour and the ‘ashes’ to the Ashes urn that is the trophy when England and Australia play test cricket. Both are among the most well-known and iconic objects from Australian history. Would it be possible to successfully use symbols as well-known and impersonal as the Kelly’s armour or the Ashes in a poem as delicate as a haiku? I’m not sure …

Other elements of the exhibition include:

  • White City, the MacRobertson’s Chocolate Factory and home of the ‘Freddo’ Chocolate Frog
  • The 1934 London to Melbourne Air Race
  • The Coranderrk Aboriginal reserve
  • Portraits of Ukrainian immigrants to Gippsland

The part of the exhibition which resonated the most with me was the photos and objects from Yallourn. Yallourn was a “company town” for the State Electricity Commission (S.E.C.) in Gippsland. It was demolished in the early 1980s to make way for an open cut coal mine. My Grandfather worked for the S.E.C. and my mother’s high school years were spent in Yallourn, a town that no longer exists.

Read my other posts and haiku, here.


The Australian Women’s Register, https://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs /AWE0623b.htm

‘I was the State of Victoria’ Jessie Clarke’s 1934 Pageant of Nations costume, Annette Soumilas, The La Trobe Journal 102, 2018.

Lords, https://www.lords.org/lords/our-history/the-ashes

Public Record Office Victoria, https://prov.vic.gov.au/about-us/our-blog/town-was-yallourn

State Library Victoria, https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/explore-collections-theme/australian-history/ned-kelly

Velvet, Iron, Ashes at the State Library Victoria, 24 Oct 2019 – 12 Jul 2020.