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Basho’s Child

August 24, 2009

The first poem I read in W.S. Merwin’s latest book of poetry is called “Basho’s Child.” It caught my eye in the table of contents, and I went right to it.

Basho and I go way back. He lived in 17th-century Japan and is perhaps the quintessential haiku poet. We’ve been buddies for at least 25 years, since I first read one of his travel sketches, the one called “The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton.”

He sets off on a journey with his aide, and they soon come upon a child no more than three years old who has been abandoned by its parents on the bank of a rushing river. There is some philosophical reflection, Basho leaves what little food he has beside the child, and they move on.

I was stunned the first time I read it and fascinated to understand more. I get the same feeling in my chest every time I read it. I still try to imagine what circumstances could leave me making the same decision.

In time, after reading more of Basho’s poems and writings, I came to think that this scene was less a recording of events and more a work of literary imagination. Maybe not, since such events did and do happen in the world, but for the reader it doesn’t matter. Now, it must be considered.

I felt a similar ache suffuse my body recently reading a short story by David Foster Wallace, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” which records a child’s parent’s experience when the child is burned by boiling water and then, briefly, the child’s experience.

Both awakened my fears of the suffering of children, of the helpless, of people I should have kept safe. In letting go, for the moment, the suffering of Basho’s child, I thought of children in Sudan.

It didn’t come out of the blue. There have been books and movies about life in Sudan. But later this week, we’ll be setting up an exhibit of photographs of Sudan at the library, and the weekend after Labor Day, “The Lost Boys of Sudan” will be in Salida for presentations at the library and the [Salida Community Center]. More information to come.

The widening of the circle of compassion to a place such as Sudan is, I think, a common perception and an interesting exercise to pay attention to. How quickly does one’s capacity for empathy and compassion dissipate with distance?

I know that “All’s fair in love and war” has never rang true for me, ever since childhood. It seems like one of those platitudes that pop out when people cover their ears and squeeze too hard. But I wonder how best to extend to the world, effectively, the empathy and compassion felt closer to home.

This experience made me reflect, too, on the power of literature, which does not take you out of your life but instead puts you deeper into it. Reading literature is one practice of paying attention.

(My work compels me to give you more complete information about the books mentioned. W.S. Merwin is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His latest book is “The Shadow of Sirius,” was published in 2008.)

I read David Foster Wallace’s short story in “The ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction,” published in 2008. The book was borrowed via Interlibrary Loan from another library, but you might guess that it is now on order for our library.)

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