Zen and the Art of Sea Cucumber Haiku

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Posted by tleemay on January 14, 2005 at 11:16:12:

In Reply to: Sea Cucumber posted by Elaine on January 14, 2005 at 08:54:20:

Slug Obsession? Well, yes and no.

I thought the question and exclamation would be:

How can a 500 page book with 1000 haiku on sea
cucumbers be interesting?

As it turned out, the most common question is:

How did you come to be so obsessed with sea
cucumber? (And, from people who have not read the
book, “Why do Japanese have such a thing for

Orlando Rodriguez, reporter for the Islander News
asked me such questions, albeit in a more polite
manner, prior to writing a very good article on me
for the paper. He wanted a few sentences but I
wrote at considerable length.

“Surviving by eating the san one lives upon is
like realizing the dream of living in a
gingerbread house. The sea slug, by staying still
and learning to live on so little, has turned this
world into its paradise. – Motokawa Tatsuo (Tokyo
Institute of Technology Professor – quoted on pg
3 of “Rise, Ye Sea Slugs!”)

Orlando, i would box the above and use it. Now, re
your question:

To Japanese, the sea cucumber is not a cucumber of
the sea, but something with its own name, namako.
This shows a greater consciousness of its
existence. This namako is found in dozens of
words. “Namako” iron for what we call “pig”
iron. “Namako” pattern for what we might call
stippled tie-dye and whatnot. This sea cucumber
consciousness was originally born of culinary
culture. In Japan, people eat sea cucumber.

But, this sea cucumber consciousness has also
grown into a type of affection, probably born from
identification with this sluggish and silent

The sluggish part is self-evident. All Japanese
and probably most Americans can understand a haiku
like, say, “a large sea slug / making us people /
feel sleepy.” This sluggishness also includes
being ecological, for slow living uses less energy
than fast living. This means the sea slug does
not need to be aggressive. Many Japanese identify
with its passivity. You might say the sea slug is
the opposite of the aggressive globe-eating,
SUV-driving, fly-everywhere, high-consumption
culture of the United States. The sea slug does
not live an irresponsible life of glamorous waste.
It swallows sand and leaves it clean. Imagine
poop that is cleaner than food! I am not saying
we can do the last, though Francis Bacon in his
Utopia did consider it.

The “silent” part comes from mythology. Most
Japanese know that the sea cucumber alone did not
reply to the Gods when asked if it would obey
them. It remained mum and for this lese majesty
had its mouth lacerated (a just-so story to
explain the “ugly” feeding tentacles in its mouth)
by an angry goddess. Then the haiku poets
noticed that the formlessness of the sea cucumber
made it a good symbol for the original sack of
Taoism and so it also came to embody ancient
things. As Shiki, the father of modern haiku put
it, “ chaos: / if it had a name / “sea slug.””
You will note that Taoism also believes in doing
the least possible, so that to ties in with the
sluggishness of the sea slug.

In reality, the sea cucumber works hard all night
in the winter. Sucking out nutrients from
sediment is not that easy of a job. But what we –
and that includes the japanese -- see is the sea
cucumber by day when it is sleeping, so we have
every right to think of it as sluggish.

You ask, Orlando, what made me interested in the
sea cucumber. The truth is I never had any
particular interest in it. Like most children who
grew up on Key Biscayne in the 1950’s, I enjoyed
using them as water pistols. But such memories
were the extent of my interest until I became
aware of the metaphorical sea cucumber, or “sea
slug” of haiku and the Japanese culture. The
variety of the metaphor was the main draw for me.
The formlessness of the namako allows it to stand
for so many things. I began making out sub-themes
of sea cucumber as the embodiment of “cold,”
“meekness,” “slipperiness,” “ugliness” and so
forth. Sure, the real sea cucumber has its
interesting points: for one, it is amazing that
it gets along as well as it does without a brain.
But, even now, I am not as personally interested
in sea cucumbers as i am in, say, mosquitos and
cherry blossoms, to name but a couple more of
dozens of subjects I will be turning into books

So why do I start my publishing in English with
the sea cucumber? Mostly because I know that
people will wonder what in the world could be in a
500 page book on sea cucumber haiku and if the
book turns out to be interesting, it would prove I
can make anything into a good read. I had
published 7 books in Japan and learned that the
content of a book is not as important as the
manner of its publication. My most difficult book
outsold the book that, with the proper name and
marketing might have been a best-seller. I
suppose I am also taking advantage of the sea
cucumber, using it as a battering ram* upon the
English world of letters, which, in my opinion
needs something different. – rdg

In other words, strategy rather than obsession dictated that sea slug went first. But I will admit that is not all of it. Here is a paragraph of a letter to William Higginson, whose Haiku World, an International Poetry Almanac opened my eyes to the international spread of the haiku spirit.

i am embarrassed to say that i do not think i have managed to become much of an expert on the sea cuke and i am pretty sure i will do much better with another bk-to-be on mosquito haiku, for i can claim to be one of the most 'squito-bitten people in the world, for i hate screens on windows and have always lived with them (i tell myself the females are looking out for my health: relieving me of iron). True, as a kid on key Biscayne, we used sea cukes as squirt-guns, which you will find in the bk, but i cannot say i have a special affection for them, though i do appreciate what they do for us and find they are a perfect vessel for my ecoradicalism(?) and, being hard to grasp, a good cover for my shortcomings as an editor.

To this I would add that the collecting of haiku on a given theme, like the collecting of anything, easily develops into an obsession. Haiku about sea cucumber are particularly dangerous in comparison to haiku on more popular themes because they are few enough in number that one can realistically hope to get most of the good ones. Moreover they are a particularly rewarding game because Japanese are delighted to help with a subject they recognize expresses a lot about their culture. While I have had help with other haiku themes, this this one generated exceptional enthusiasm and this – to return to the language of mental imbalance -- egged me on. Moreover, the formation of metaphorical sub-themes, whether about sea slugs or cherry blossoms, beckons one to fill in the corners with appropriate poems in a manner that purely thematic compilation does not. One begins to search for missing links as one might for holes in a taxonomy. And there is, of course, no end to this.

Perhaps, I deny too much. There is something (its thingness? silence? singularity?) about the namako that does seem to induce monomania. For all my coolness, there were times in the writing of the book when, i will admit to being possessed. If Sterne/Tristam intercepted the messages of geese on high with his quill, my fingertips occasionally intercepted holothurian chat flowing upward through the silicon in my computer.

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