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Death, dentists, and haiku

Today the postman brought me a copy of Japanese Death Poems Written by Zen Monks and Haiku Poets on the Verge of Death, which has to rank amongst the all time greatest book titles. My favourite haiku so far, if “favourite” is even the appropriate word given the sobering subject matter, is by Gozan, who we are told died on the seventeenth day of the twelfth month 1789 aged seventy one. He writes:

The snow of yesterday

That fell like cherry petals

Is water once again

I contemplated this while trying to remember the email address and password I used back in 2001 when applying for a student loan. I needed to update some personal details and check my balance, with the UK Gov website initially promising that I could easily achieve these modest goals by accessing my online account, but after multiple failed attempts to recall my original login details I gave up and went looking for further advice.

Unsurprisingly, what guidance I could find was pitched at those born this century, directing me to a helpline that, regardless of which options were selected, rerouted me back the exact same automated message instructing me that to proceed any further I would need to - and here's the rub - log into my online account! Further inquiries were equally hopeless until a noticed a link at the bottom of the page suggesting I could message an advisor via the accompanying Facebook link. Twenty minutes later I was chatting with Claudia, who after taking down my details and listening as I described my struggle with governmental bureaucracy, explained that before I could go any further I would need to - you guessed it - log into my online account. Colloding with a paradox in this way left me wondering if I had imagined our previous conversation, and whether I was in danger of becoming one of those people who shout at call centre staff? I had been born in the last century after all, so perhaps it was my time. My new haiku book was open on the desk, so I flipped it over and re-read Gozu’s poignant words in the hope that they might quiet my growing impulse to commit bloody murder.

The snow of yesterday

That fell like cherry petals

Is water once again

After some more back and forth, Claudia and I parted ways with the promise that the list of commands and key codes she had given me would help me to navigate the automated customer service helpline and connect with a human assistant who would be able to reactivate my lapsed account. She explained this to me like someone introducing a toddler to zebra crossing, and despite feeling wounded by her pratronising tone, this nevertheless felt like a success, so rather than chance another visit with call centre hell I decided to make an emergency dental appointment instead.

This would be my first time opting using what I had learned was called a private practice, which not only had the virtue of taking appointments during lockdown but is located just two streets away, when my last practice required advance planning if you were to stand any chance of finding a parking space in the same postcode. The receptionist answering my call was very friendly, and I immediately decided that this was a good sign of things to come. I should probably get used to, even expect, a certain amount of pampering, and it was a refreshing change from trying to navigate UK Government webpages. This is what the extra expense is going to buy me, I thought, a little TLC and some welcome ass kissing, when at my previous place, let’s call them Bodger and Heinous Dentistry, would practically insult you to your face merely for presenting yourself for a cleaning. They were a large practice with a worryingly high turnover of dentists and hygienists, plus I tripped over some loose carpet on my first visit and never quite forgave them for the humiliation. That alone should have been ample warning, but they were reasonably priced, and more importantly I couldn’t be bothered to travel any farther afield than was absolutely necessary. The best of the dentists was a no nonsense Eastern European woman who wore her hair in tight ponytail wound into a fierce looking knot that she pinned to the top of her head like an angry looking Danish pastry. Once she had you on your back, she would launch into a thorough and often bloody inspection of your dental palette with the kind of giddy enthusiasm you don’t necessarily want to see in a dentist. No matter how wide I strained my jaws she always demanded more, clearly not satisfied unless she could get her entire hand plus whatever shrieking instrument it held fully inside my mouth. “Wider, Mr Whitehouse, WIDER!” she would command, her elbow jostling my uvula.

The other more notorious dentist at Bodger and Heinous was a young man, Dr Bloodshot, probably in his early thirties and aficionado of those attention seeking gaudily oversized expensive looking watches and whose mission in life it was to set a new land speed record for the number of patients seen in an eight hour working day. Sacrificing dutiful care for maximum profit meant that he was disinterested in anything short of total reconstructive surgery, to the extent that anyone who found themselves peering up his gently flaring nostrils with a set of reasonably good set of teeth was treated as an irritant. Outwardly I might look like a physical write-off, but much like my family who also have precious little to boast about in terms of robust good health, we have done rather well in the teeth department. This was never more apparent than when conversations turned to my late paternal grandmother, prompting my father to instinctively remind anyone within earshot that she had died while still in possession of all her teeth, “and scarcely a filling!” he would proclaim. A strange sort of boast to be sure, and I’m not sure an entirely accurate one, but I guess you don’t get to choose your legacy. Besides, even if gran had managed to hold onto her gnashers into her seventieth year it hadn’t helped my father given the extent of his endless dental complaints, many of them picked up after devoting much of his youth to trading punches on the rugby field without a gumshield or, apparently, a desire to be able to eat solid food at some point in his life. Ironically enough, he was precisely the kind of golden goose that I imagine Dr Bloodshot actively courting, his private mobile number offered as a gesture of good faith to those all but guaranteed to require multiple return visits. On our first meeting he took one look in my mouth and demanded to know why I was wasting his time.

“There’s nothing in here for me to do!”

“I know, it’s just my annual check-up. I do try to take good care of my teeth.”

“Well, that’s no good, is it! Do you want me to look at straightening a few of these crooked ones?”

“Not really, thank you.”

“How about some whitening then, we can certainly make some improvements on that front?”

“No, just the scale and polish if you don’t mind, you insensitive money grubbing shit!” is what I should have said, but naturally I just apologised for my dental hygiene and promised to do better (or worse) next time.

The entire visit only lasted about five minutes, including what I believe to be an intentional act of punishment when he dug a little too deep into the gumline with the “enlivener” or whatever hook bladed medieval torture device medical schools bestow upon high street dentists to incentivise their more miserly patients. I vowed not to see him again only to learn at my next visit that he had given up the noble profession of odontology to bleed people in the real estate industry instead.

The thought of Zen monks meticulously penning what would become their final haikus is a beautiful one, demonstrating a commitment to their art that I find wonderfully enticing. We all like to think that we can write haiku, but it’s harder than it looks. There are strict of rules, of course, when it comes to composing a haiku, but even these are rather fun. Like most people I knew that a haiku should be written in three lines following a five-seven-five syllable count, focusing primarily on a single poetic image, in other words a masterpiece of subtle concision. Reading Yoel Hoffmann’s introduction to my new haiku book I learned that the core image should be linked to one of the seasons and set in the present tense, giving it a sense of urgency that continues to resonate with readers the world over. Quoting the great haiku master, Basho, who writes, “About the pine, learn from the pine; about the reed, learn from the reed” Yoel suggests that we think of the moment of compositional conception as a kind of Zen like inspirational flash. Casting a pensive eye across a setting sun or storm tossed ocean, perhaps after a few beers when the sun and good company has put you in a philosophical mood, you might sense that strain of contemplate awe worthy of haiku, if only you could find a pen. It is that instinctual feeling, a kind of disembodied state of mind that the haiku masters encourage us to try and bottle, to “say something without saying it” as haiku scholar Ken Yasuda says, possibly with the circular symmetry of a UK Gov consumer support helpline. It’s a tantalising prospect, although chain reading multiple haikus in a single sitting it’s hard not to slip into an impromptu William Shatner impression.

I had a poetry professor at university who was forever telling me to try and see with fresh eyes that which we see every day, steering us towards bewildering theories devoted to this kind of imaginative contortionism. It’s a fine idea, although I would say that if you spend a lot of time reading, and not just the pulpy paperbacks but the kind of stuff people like to refer to as “literature”, then you probably know it when you see it. A well crafted surprise in an otherwise familiar landscape. Even, and perhaps especially because of their structural constraints, some of the haikus in the book feel like the end of a very long conversation with oneself, where context is unnecessary because the poet already knew the long backstory behind every word, the weight of which nudges the reader, like the soothing lapping of a wave against the side of boat, towards comprehension. The poet Choro, who died on the second day of winter in 1776 at the young age of fifty four, writes:


I murmur, sleeping

in my netted tent

Why the quotation marks around “paradise” I wonder? Is this a man probing the many layered meanings of the term, or perhaps making peace with what will follow, the unconscious contents of a dream muttered into the waking world? After his death, Motojo, his wife penned a response:

The drone of the mosquitoes

round the netting, too

is sad

My goodness did that stir something deep within me. That sense of mourning, wires exposed, the emotions raw and highly attuned to the immediate sensory world, when everything appears touched by an inescapable sadness that all of us must endure at one time or another. The thought of Motojo continuing Choro’s final image in the absence of her husband is a moving one, reaching for a continuity that cannot be saved. Re-reading the haiku I thought of a line of my own: when all conversations end, all we have is imagery. I try to remember my father’s voice but what I experience now isn’t a carousel of wavering snapshots drawn from the well of memory so much as a generalised good feeling about being around my dad. Sure, there are highlight reels that I replay from time to time, but behind it all there is this comforting feeling of having been loved by someone, which is enough to get by with even if it will never be enough. I like to think that in time Motojo would have found herself in a similarly reflective state of mind when, hearing the high pitched tell-tale whine of a bedroom mosquito thought fondly of Choro before swatting it away.



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