Haibun Today

A Quarterly Journal
Jeffrey Woodward, Editor
Volume 4, Number 4, December 2010

Jeffrey Harpeng
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


Weight, Balance & Escapement

A device found while clearing the attic of my father’s house is the author of the following verses.

the bees are asterisks
where the text is a forest
they forage for nectar

at the hive
asterisks dance, fuming
scent of footnotes

bottle brush flowers
talk the architecture of dance,
tell sweet nectar

My father died early in the spring of 09. He had lived in the same house for over fifty years. My son John and I were sorting what was of value, what might go to charity, what to keep. In the attic, John found a box made of maple, about thirty centimetres square. On top, there was a narrow strip of metal with text in Braille.

John opened it. Inside was what looked like a bare version of an old tape player—no volume meters, a strip of paper wound reel-to-reel. When opened, it made a noise like a cross between the ticking of a mantle clock, and a wind chime made of bicycle spokes. That sound went on for a thoughtful amount of time. The affect was of somebody tinkering about. Then, a little nail started coming up under the paper, and writing in Braille.

“Braille ticker-tape,” my son said. “It’s probably connected to Wall Street. We’re getting the stock price on white cane commodities.”

We had to know what it had written. I made a pencil copy of the output and poked a nail from the other side of the paper. We took that along to the Blind Institute. Our initial contact was of the opinion that it was Braille, though not in English. As an outside chance, he suggested a maths teacher there who spent much of her childhood in Japan. Oddly enough, that was right on the money.

Isabel Myer informed us that the writing was in tenji, the Japanese form of Braille. The following are the first things she translated for us. We later formatted them like haiku. Their brief phrasing suggested that form, though their wording and style doesn’t always meet our expectations of how haiku work. A machine writing them may be a big part of the problem.

wearing a tombstone
hat a Dervish turns and turns
so white his shroud

an exclamation
made of oil
awaits a match

oily water
in a wine glass

hospice window
his bed-light-halo fades
with the sunrise

After a few of these, Isabel said, “They remind me of something the blind geometer Bernard Morin said. A colleague of his who was proofreading his thesis had to do a long calculation to check a sign. The colleague asked Morin how he had computed the sign. ‘By feeling the weight of the thing, by pondering it,’ Morin replied. It is like that with these little things. There’s not just a problem of plain meaning; I have to get their weight. I’m not entirely sure that I’ve got equivalents.”

John suggested, “Perhaps it is a weighing machine, a seismometer or something like that. Instead of pounds, kilos or tremor readings, its readouts are in Braille.”

The text being in tenji I put down to my father having served in the Occupation Forces in Japan after the War. After some time we noticed in the box, low down in the left side panel, another metal strip. In tenji, it bore the name Shiro Natsume.

We've since learned, through a number of coincidences, that Shiro was a student of engineering with a deep interest in mathematics. He was killed in a bombing raid shortly before the war ended. Somehow, after that, the box came into my father’s hands.

In tracking down Shiro, Isabel found that his brother, now in his nineties, was still alive. He was blinded in combat early in the war. Isabel contacted him by phone. I ended up taking a good deal of the conversation. He spoke very good English. “Shiro had a deep love of haiku. Ah, the haiku machine, I don’t think that is what he called it. I never got to see it. I always thought that it was Shiro’s way of making a joke.”

childhood memory—
on the butcher shop floor
blood in sawdust

small quake . . .
in a walnut sized box
a tin lady bird

at the wake
jazz improv on the piano
out of tune

I’ve had some engineering friends at the university look at Natsume’s gadget. None of them are quite sure what powers it. One joked that it is powered by the muse. Another suggested it is akin to a player piano. There are too many random variables to make that likely. The gadget expresses things that Shiro could not have engineered into it. It presents an awareness of events since the war.

It may be that Shiro has realized the first perpetual motion machine. I call it a perpetual notion machine. Then again, perpetual might not be that long; it’s been a couple of weeks since it tapped out:

crows at the wedding
outside the church
crows at the funeral

Hold on, the wind has got into the wind-chime again. Now it is beginning to tap. I’ll just run down and get Isabel. Yes, Isabel and I have become an item. Honey! Honey! There’s another haiku thingemabob coming.

And the label on the box, the name its creator gave it? Isabel says that the machine’s name has to do with the beauty of imperfection. It’s about art and craft in which the viewer becomes an artist. They have to find the beauty for themselves. To mix Japanese and English, the label on the box reads ‘shibui machine.’

John likes to call it a box of matches. “It sure matched you two up.” Otherwise, he calls it a weighing machine. Then he does his Swami voice, and earnestly wags a finger at “The scales of just is.”

“A weighing machine,” Isabel replied, “Just like the heart.”

And the machine’s latest comment:

mantle clock
on a journey through
the universe


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