frogments from the frag pool (Gary Barwin & derek beaulieu)

frogments from the frag pool is a collection of poetry responding to Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku “furu ike ya / kawazu tobikomu / mizu no oto” (8). This particular haiku is considered all but impossible to adequately translate, and consequently a small tradition of attempting to translate the poem has arisen.

A relatively literal translation by R.H. Blyth appears near the beginning of fragments: “The old pond; / A frog jumps in — / The sound of water” (8). My favourite translation is by bpNichol, who famously translated the poem as the letter “Q” — nothing more. A haiku has 17 syllables, and Q is the seventeenth letter in English, visually the letter resembles a diagram of a pond with a frog arcing in, and if you say the letter “Q” out loud the sound resembles the frog’s plop.

In this bpNicholian vein, Barwin and beaulieu offer an entire book translating, responding to, and puzzling out Bashō’s haiku: a witty, fun, intelligent, and accessible book.

This book is simply a joy to read, chock-full of puns and clever rewritings of Basho’s poem. It’s great to see the authors pick up on the tradition of humor in Japanese haiku — like Kafka’s work, the writings of the Japanese are often translated without an ear attuned to their occasional and sometimes pervasive comedy, in an attempt to make them super-serious, like we know Kafka always was (he wasn’t) and the Japanese supposedly are.

(There’s an oddly racist tinge in a lot of translation, like those atrociously poor-grammared Chinese proverbs I keep seeing online, like “Man who chases two rabbits catches neither” … why is this translated persistently into broken English?)

At the same time, Barwin and beaulieu manage to engage with numerous poetic traditions, particularly the avant-garde traditions of visual poetry and non-literal translation.

The best poems in the collection are those that manage to be humorous while still engaging with the poem’s subject in some depth. A fine example is the poem “(evening),” which reads: “pond holding / its breath // the frog” (21). The action of the poem (the frog jumping into the water to produce a splash) is implied in this instance, rather than being explicit, and the sudden appearance of “the frog” at the end of the poem, coupled with the image of a “pond holding / its breath,” produces a sense of expectancy — the splash is produced not on the page but in the imagination of the engaged reader.

At the same time, the anthropomorphic absurdity of a pond holding its breath in pained anticipation when faced with a diving frog is amusing. There is a real immediacy to such a poem, and a deft simplicity that belies its stellar craftsmanship.

Another excellent poem is the untitled “from nowhere / a frog dives down onto / a watery planet // now the rippling stars” (46). This poem might be read comically as the intergalactic adventures of some alien amphibian, but it could also be read as a metaphysical meditation on the frog’s appearance in the world and the effect of its presence.

On its simplest level, the poem might be read as a metaphorical portrait of a frog diving into a pond — and the line “now the rippling stars” conjures up an image of the surface of a pond rippling to disturb the reflection of the night sky — a simple, beautiful image.

There is great joy to be had in the sillier poems, which tend to also be formally innovative. The untitled poem “frogment of bashogination / pondment of frognition / ploperty of water” (38) is a ridiculous series of neologisms, but there is a certain humor and cleverness in the combinations: I’m particularly impressed by “frognition” — the frog serving as the poem’s “ignition,” jump-starting Basho’s imagination (or “bashogination”) — and the pun of “ploperty” is a clever way to introduce the splash.

Other imaginative translations include a faux-literary essay on “Re-evaluating Silence on the Frogpond” (complete with “Bashography”) and “glyph,” wherein the authors translate “old pond / water sound / a frog” into nonsense by replacing each letter with the next letter of the alphabet, to produce “pme qpoe / xbufs tpvoe / b gsph” (69).

By itself, this idea is pointless and boring, but the authors go on to justify/explain the resulting gibberish, line by line: “pme, the sound of poem—pome—the o a tiny pond, a moon risen from the lips and then lost by cloud” (69). There is a delightful sense of play at work in these poems — Barwin and beaulieu illustrating deftly that poetry does not need to be humorless to be “serious,” formally innovative, or otherwise valuable.

The visual poetry is similarly fun and clever, and owes much to the style of bpNichol. My favourite visual poems occur on pages 89 and 99. The first, “ponderous,” is a period imagining its way through the words frog, pond, and plop, to arrive at self-reflection — a nod to the Japanese notion that through composing poems describing nature, we are able to better understand our own self and our relationships to natural phenomena.

The second, an ō rising above waves like a sun, seems almost like a loving elegy for Bashō.

I have nothing bad to say about this book, except that it’s hard to find! It’s smart, clever, funny, and even manages to be innovative while maintaining a level of accessibility. It’s the kind of book that could be taught in grade school, high school, or university — and that would serve as a useful centerpiece for lively discussion at each level.