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Fly-ku! introduces hundreds of Japanese haiku about flies, fly-swatters and fly-paper, scores of which are by Issa  (1763-1827), whose famous ku about a fly begging not to be swatted has long been controversial because of its alleged maudlinity and anthropomorphism.  Robin D. Gill defends Issa and his famous fly-ku, while showing that Issa-lovers, on their part, are wrong to assume he was the first to notice flies rubbing their limbs together.  Such flies in haiku go back a century before Issa and an even older tradition of expressive “hands” in bracken (fern) is given a whole chapter in this book otherwise dedicated exclusively to musca maledicta (and, occasionally, benedicta).   Similarly to Gill’s classic Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! most of the old (Edo era) poems thematically chaptered, but the approach is phenomenological rather than metamorphic: flies that rub hands, flies that are swatted, flies that escape, flies that stay, etc..  To balance the picture, there is a chapter with 100 modern and contemporary fly-ku assembled with the assistance of Japanese haiku friends, and part of the longest chapter (Sundry Flies) introduces a dozen or two foreign (English language) fly-ku.  Some natural history is included.  Translations over a page-long include a post-war (Occupation) campaign to convince the government to wipe out flies with DDT rather than write haiku about them on the part of Japan’s leading editorial (Tenseijingo) and a lament for the current dearth of flies to hunt (mostly by rubber-band+folded wad of paper) by a Japanese man who uses foul language to put down fly-lovers while supporting environmentalism on the internet.  Gill professes more interest in the poetry of mosquitoes, fleas, silverfish, cicada and lightning bugs, than flies, but after making a big (and totally accidental) discovery about Issa’s famous fly-ku – apparently borrowing from an obscure senryű about the warrior Benkei – he decided to do this book first.  

Fly-ku’s most important accomplishment is demonstrating how translation into English must either ruin poems by stripping words of their meaning or anthropomorphize them.  In addition to the original Japanese to all poems, there is a 12-pg essay in Japanese about this discovery and its significance appended.  It adds a bit to the price, but like all Paraverse Press books, Fly-ku! is extremely cheap ($15) for an English language book including Japanese.   The multiple translations are all arranged in attractive clusters – a practice pioneered in Rise, Ye Sea Slugs! –  not serially, as shown in on-line reviews.

Please feel free to reprint this description anywhere without asking me.

robin d. gill
author and publisher


fairy familiars

– john clare’s  “house or window flies” –

These little indoor dwellers, in cottages and halls, were always
entertaining to me; after dancing in the window all day from sunrise to
sunset they would sip of the tea,  drink of the beer,  and eat of the sugar,
and be welcome all summer long.   They look like things of the mind or
fairies, and seem pleased or dull as the weather permits.   In many clean
cottages and genteel houses, they are allowed every liberty to creep, fly,
or do as they like; and seldom or ever do wrong. In fact they are the
small or dwarfish portion of our own family, and so many fairy
familiars that we know and treat as one of ourselves.



preface       WHAT  HAIKU  IS (try 7-beat!) &  IS  NOT  =  7      ACKNOWLEDGMENTS = 8

foreword     THE  PARADOX  OF  FLY-SWATTING  IN  JAPAN  (“to kill or not to kill” a bug) = 9

ch.1 ____ISSA’S FAMOUS FLY-KU  ENGLISHED (why language, not the translator, betrays us) = 13

ch.2 ____THE  WARRIOR-PRIEST BEHIND THE  FLY (a senryű about benkei, also called musashi) = 21

ch.3 ____THE  FRIGHTENED YOUNG  BRACKEN (anthropomorphic haiku, or, “hands in nature”) = 29

ch.4 ____A SUPPLICATION OF FLIES (what rubbing hands means in japanese and olde haiku) = 39

ch.5 ____SWAT THEM  AND PRAY (namuamidabutsu, or, what does a buddhist who takes life do?) = 45

ch.6 ­­­____THE CRIME & THE PUNISHMENT (morality and how it is expressed in fly-ku) = 55

ch.7 ____THE  ZEN  OF  SWATTING  (perhaps there is nothing to it) = 65

ch.8 ____THE  FLY  THAT  WAS  NOT THERE  (missing them is half the fun)  = 77

ch.9 ____SHOO  FLY   (have you ever tried to get rid of one without killing it?) = 85

ch.10____DON’T  BOTHER  ME!  (why are flies synonymous with annoyance in Japan?) = 91

ch.11____a Transport of flies (how they hitch-hike, get under your hat and ride piggyback) = 109

ch.12____LIVING WITH  FLIES  (or, musca benedicta, mostly by issa,) = 115

ch.13____WEAK  & DYING  FLIES  (pity grows in the fall but winter flies are unpopular seniors?) =  127

ch.14____SUNDRY  FLIES (including some original  english language fly-ku. Check:  maybe yours was caught!) =  137

ch.15____100 MODERN  FLIES (there are  500 or so old haiku in the book; here is some balance) = 173

afterword   FLIES & I,  A  CONFESSION =  209          REVIEWS  =  225            OTHER BOOKS  =  226