Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June 9: Cuckoo

My co-worker Joe, who spends most of his time these days working at the Land Trust's Beech Hill Preserve, reported that he heard two cuckoos calling while he was on the hill today. The cuckoo is traditionally found on season-lists of words (kigo in Japanese) used in haiku that are associated with summer. Hototogisu, the Lesser Cuckoo, was used so often throughout many centuries of Japanese poetry that it became a cliche, standard poetic shorthand to indicate summer.

Here's an 8th century cuckoo poem by Otomo no Yakamochi, from "A Haiku Menagerie" by Stephen Addiss, in which the use of the cuckoo resonates beyond that of poetic device:

In the summer mountains
on the leafy treetops
the cuckoo sings--
and echoing back from afar
comes his distant voice.

And a lovely haiku by Ryota, written a thousand years later (causing me to pause in awe as I consider the tremendous history and tradition of poetry in Japan):

The cuckoo
with a single call
has established summer.

On Beech Hill cuckoos aren't heard often enough to become a cliche. Perhaps the ones Joe heard today were trying to tell him something: time's passing and summer's almost here. The passing of time and the ephemerality of life are often the Zen-like essence of haiku. And one thing we understand here in Maine is the brevity of summer.

Draw one more poem
about cuckoos and summer
from that deep old well.  

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