Haibun: Bashō’s Last Journey by Stephen Cloud

I have always been drawn by wind-blown clouds
into dreams of a lifetime of wandering. –Bashō

Late autumn, a day of mist and rain keeping me indoors. I think of Bashō at the outset of his final journey: taking up the walking stick, crossing the threshold. All day long I have sat by the window watching rain, reading The Narrow Road, strumming the guitar. Outside, dead leaves have piled up, vines have lost their bloom. In a nearby field, cranes pick through harvest remains without concern for the downpour.

Filled with sadness, Bashō’s friends watch him go, a sere leaf skittering in bone-chilling wind toward the vanishing point. He must undertake this pilgrimage on his own. Wilderness, mountain pass, desolate shore: the walking stick guides him past all hazards. The haiku brush enlightens his path; he leaves poems pinned to mileposts as he goes.

It has been a long time since I ventured beyond the horizon. Sometimes like Bashō I study maps, plotting routes to the remote interior. Daydreaming, ignoring chores, I conjure the bright moon rising over a mountain lake, the taste of strange spices, the music of an unknown tongue.

“Thousands of miles rush through my thoughts,” the poet says. The narrow road has taught him about hardship, the inevitable travails in travel. Some have died mid-journey—Saigyō, Du Fu. This, he knows, is the wayfarer’s fate. Steeling himself for the unknown, he crosses another barrier, enters a new province. A crow watches him from a bare branch.

He himself has been a bird flying toward clouds, a horse ever seeking the true path, a boat chasing the horizon. Now, after months on the road, it has come to this: he is stranded in a woebegone inn. Hard rain. A restless night. Far from home, taken ill, he ponders his jisei, the death poem: On a journey ailing—my dreams wander over a desolate moor.

Night has fallen. I close the book on another aimless day.

Dusk: rain becomes snow.
On the winter road ahead
there will be no guide.

After kicking around the West for a while (with stops in Spokane, Flagstaff, and Sedona), Stephen Cloud has settled in Albuquerque, where he’s fixing up an old adobe, working on poems, and pondering the official New Mexico state question: “Red or green?” Recent publications include work in Valparaiso Poetry Review, High Desert Journal, New Madrid, Shenandoah, and Tar River Poetry.

Flash nonfiction from Portland Review‘s Winter 2016 issue.