It is twilight. A meager meal of potatoes and cheese provides a father and his children sustenance. As they eat he tells them about a son who lived a long time ago in a far, distant land. He was the son of a samurai and is famously know for his poetry — specifically, haikus. One child asks when he lived. The father tells the child the poet lived in the 1600s. The children recite a history timeline memorized from their studies as a way to place the poet in the context of history. One child asks if the poet lived during the time of Lao-tzu. The father answers, “Nearly a thousand years separate these men.”
He goes on to explain that Lao-tzu was Chinese whereas the poet Matsuo Bashō was Japanese. The word “bashō” roughly translates as “banana tree,” the father tells the children. They laugh at this and wonder who would want to be named for a banana tree. “The banana tree leaves often reminded him of the mythical phoenix,” the father says and recites one of Bashō’s famous verse:
On a leafless bough
In the gathering autumn dusk:
A solitary crow!
“That’s it?” asks one of the children.
The father recites the poem again. He pauses and points out the kitchen window at the red oak tree. It is dusk. It is autumn. But there is no crow.
“So, it’s a poem about this time of day?” ask another child.
“Maybe it is,” says the father. “There is a long tradition regarding this form of poetry. You see, in that time and place it was considered rude to speak plainly or directly about a subject matter. Often, the more artful and ambiguous the poem the more skillful you were considered.”
“So, it’s not about this time of day?” asks the child.
“Maybe the poem is about the poet who sees himself as a crow entering the twilight of his life. Autumn is a metaphor representing old age,” says the father. “And maybe the poem is to celebrate a time like now — eating potatoes for supper as an autumn evening approaches.”
The father and children finish eating their supper quickly.
“How long do you think it took Bashō to write that poem?” asks one of the children.
The father leans back from the table to consider the question. “I’d say,” he says. “Almost forty years.”