All Along This Road
The year I turned twenty-one, I began to obsessively imagine the days that would follow my death. I called up the same fragmented images again and again: bereaved friends and family; an empty bedroom, my scrap-paper jottings still tacked to the walls. It wasn’t dying itself that troubled me, but what came afterwards—the sudden silence, the vacant space where I had been.
I was living that summer on an island off the coast of Maine, alone in a cottage with puckered floorboards and an ancient wood stove. I had come there to work, to write, but I spent my days going for walks, singing to myself, and otherwise avoiding my desk. In the evenings, I lay in bed watching the shadows of strange insects dance across the walls.
One hot insomniac night, I opened a book I had brought along on a whim—Matsuo Bashō’s Oku-no-hosomichi, translated by Sam Hamill as Narrow Road to the Interior. I knew little more than its title. “The sun and moon are eternal travelers,” it began; “Even the years wander on.”
Bashō wrote Oku-no-hosomichi in 1689, during a 1,500-mile pilgrimage to the northern tip of Honshu. Slim but resonant, the work eludes classification; over the years, commentators have settled on a handful of strained, mish-mashy coinages—prose poem, travel memoir, haiku essay. Bashō, for his part, called his creation haibun, “haiku writings”—a quicksilver alloy of haiku and prose.
The work’s animating spirit, its kokoro, is similarly difficult to pin down. Bashō’s writing is whispery and allusive, at once translucent and thick with fog. Peer deeply enough, though, and Oku-no-hosomichi resembles nothing so much as a meditation on death. When Bashō set out for the deep north, he was already suffering from the aches and “infirmities” that would kill him; he succumbed to fever five years later. “With every pilgrimage one encounters the temporality of life,” he muses early in the journey; “To die along the road is destiny.”
The haiku, especially, have a spectral quality. Visiting an abandoned mountain temple, Bashō lingers in the silence of boulders and moss:
a single cicada’s cry
sinking into stone
The moment is so faint, so paper-thin, that it seems already to be fading; we do not hear the cicada’s cry, but the memory of its echo. And whose memory? For Bashō himself is elsewhere, vanished into stillness and silence and stone. When we are gone, he seems to be asking, what remains? Only our words, this world—dripping pines, katsumi blossoms, a full moon over Matsushima Bay.
I read Oku-no-hosomichi without pausing, as though in a single breath. When I had finished, I looked up and saw that the bedroom walls were pale with dawn. I went walking then in the morning fog. The road was empty, save a steaming truck or two and a man standing at the end of his driveway, a cigarette between his lips. I made my way to the water’s edge, cattails brushing my legs. At the mouth of the ocean I sat against a rock and watched the waves unspool. The sky above me was like clouded milk; it seemed a good day to brew a cup of tea, switch on the desk lamp, and write.
On his deathbed, Bashō was asked if he had composed his jisei—his death poem. Every ku is jisei, he said; each verse is a death poem. Here, then, is one:
All along this road
not a single soul—only
- Aryeh Lieber
Oku-no-hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior)
By Matsuo Bashō
Aryeh Lieber '18 studies English and French at Wesleyan University.