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6 March 2018

The University of California at Santa Barbara English professor Harvey Mudrick used to extoll the virtues of long books like Boswell's Life of Johnson because, like jaw breakers, they last.

A Tribute to Basho. The poet's last hokku described his 'dreaming mind' continuing to roam about.

We like to make books last, too. For years, to take one example, we've been reading Basho and His Interpreters, edited by Makoto Ueda. Ueda presents each hokku by the 17th-century Japanese poet in translation and then phonetically with a literal translation followed by commentary from a variety of scholars, all quoted briefly.

We make it last by reading just one hokku at a time.

But we've been doing this so long that it occurred to us the other day that we may never finish the book. So we skipped to the end.

That hokku was titled During Illness because Basho was dying. Among the commentators, Shiko describes how Basho had called for ink to be prepared to transcribe that last poem. But then he called Shiko in and recited yet another, asking him which was better.

Shiko, though, had not heard the first line of the new three-line hokku. And fearing Basho was too sick to repeat it, he merely flattered him that his first one could not possibly be inferior to anything. So only the last two lines remain:

continuing to roam about
my dreaming mind

Shiko quotes Basho as saying, "I know this is no occasion for writing a hokku, as I am faced with death. Yet poetry has been on my mind all through my life, which is now more than fifty years long."

We thought it would make a nice cross-training exercise to restore the hokku. So we gave it a shot:

Bedridden bones
continuing to roam about
my dreaming mind

Then we thought we should take a photo to illustrate it. You know, escape back into our field of expertise before anyone catches us.

You see what we came up with. We converted the Raw file to monochrome and adjusted some unfortunate tones to blend in. Then we drew an oval selection, inverted it and set a generous feather before applying a blur. We wanted only the hollowed pillow and crumpled sheets at the center to be sharp.

But where are the bedridden bones? Well, that's the joke. The poet is "continuing to roam about" in his mind, so the bed is appropriately empty.

A tribute to Basho. And the things that last made by those who do not.

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