Saturday, January 14, 2012

Small victors in unintentional contests: Issa’s lense

Little snail,
slowly, slowly,
climbs Mount Fuji.
~ Issa (1762-1826)


This afternoon I make bread. Just a basic white bread. After mixing the few ingredients (yeast, water, milk, butter, sugar, salt, flour) together sufficiently to make a solid lump, I’m to dump it out on a floured surface, and start “slapping it around a bit to activate the gluten.” (Thank you, Judith and Evan Jones, for this delightful cookbook, The Book of Bread, which I have enjoyed on many Saturday afternoons for the past two decades.)

Slap it around a bit, indeed. Dough is slow and comfortable, and at times it needs a good slap to get it moving. Ah, but dough is also deliberate – intentional – and doubles its presence when its purpose is fulfilled. Before long, at least in comparison to how long it takes us humans to double our bulk, the house will be filled with the yeasty aroma of fully activated gluten. 

The ancient haiku poets wrote of such homely things. Basho had his frogs (“kerplunk!”). Shiki wrote of crickets and snakes and even wearing his socks to bed. And there was Issa and his snail.

I love this haiku (a “little story about a little snail” if you will), mostly because it gives me a reason to not only forgive myself for, but take certain joy in, one of my own most persistent characteristics: deliberativeness. Those who know me well might even say I am slow. But I say, slow and steady wins the race… or climbs Mount Fuji.

In this haiku, Issa is part painter, part suspense novelist, part action film director. First our eyes are drawn to this little snail. Just a snail, so small, where could he be going, and why should we care? But before we realize we do in fact care, our thoughts are moved to action in the next line, though ever so “slowly, slowly.” We know something is coming, but at a snail’s pace. And then the reveal: “climbs Mount Fuji.” The purpose and the panorama open up to us. Small is made large. Unremarkable is made remarkable.

Issa was artful. And funny. This poem makes me laugh because of the ludicrous juxtaposition of snail and Fuji, as if the little snail had intentionally conquered the great mount. I believe Issa meant us to laugh. It is funny the way life is funny sometimes. So much of the time we are unsuspecting and small victors in unintentional contests, if we only had eyes to see it that way. Mountain yields to a slow and steady snail. Gluten gives way to kneading.  

Empty spaces fill with our stubborn insistence on making art, no matter how homely. We just keep writing, singing, painting, baking, talking, meeting, thinking-doing the next idea that will change the world. Or our lives. Or just this day.

I am grateful for the glasses Issa provides to see such victories. Time to punch down my dough and claim another win for the team. 

Classic Haiku: The Greatest Japanese Poetry From Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Their Followers, Edited and Introduced by Tom Lowenstein (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2007)


  1. Beautifully crafted, Kelly. As always!

  2. Thank you, Lancia. I feel encouraged by you to keep going (slowly, though, slowly...). :-)

  3. I really like this post and poem. I can so see the snail and Mount Fuji. Thans Kelly